Innovation and Eclecticism

If we are disappointed by having expected too much, but are still unwilling to accept the relativist orientation of the more radical versions of postmodernism, we may well be inclined towards the milder version of postmodernism that we find, first, in the search for a deeper understanding of language teaching (Kumaravadivelu 2006) and, second, in the quest for defensible ways of teaching that go “beyond method” (Kumaravadivelu 2003). This soon appears to steer us towards taking up an eclectic position, especially that kind of eclectic orientation in which we find a plea for local experimentation with a variety of techniques and instructional styles, to arrive at a contextually appropriate design for language teaching (Littlewood 2014: 353, 359). The motivation for eclectically inspired designs for language teaching is, however, often more implied than overt, viz. that in an eclectic combination we may yet find the desirable new solution to our teaching problem. Eclecticism becomes the strategy to ensure innovation that is contextually appropriate. Interestingly, in cases where eclecticism is not motivated in this way, it may be employed to achieve exactly the opposite: to resist changes in language teaching designs.

However arrived at, eclecticism can be either of a more sophisticated or of a less sophisticated variety. In fact, there is even greater variety in what qualifies as ‘eclectic’ than this, which I have sought to capture below in Fig. 9.1. In the cases where eclectic orientations seek mainly to resist changes to innovation (Weideman 2001, 2002; Weideman et al. 2003), we find a less sophisticated and less dedicated or consistent rationale for combining designs. That kind of motivation is the opposite of a deliberate and consistent attempt to bring together a variety of instructional

Different possible motivations in adopting an eclectic approach styles and language teaching techniques

Fig. 9.1 Different possible motivations in adopting an eclectic approach styles and language teaching techniques. At the same time, there may be variation in the degree of commitment that the designer of the language teaching context has to eclecticism: it may be a firmer commitment, or it may be one that is less convinced of the desirability to adopt a combination of styles of teaching. In short, the commitment may be to retain the familiar rather than to adopt the new. In the matrix (Fig. 9.1) below (Weideman 2001), it is suggested that each of the variety of possible choices may stem from a different motivation, or from variations in and combinations of motivation and intent. One may simply wish to go about one’s business of planning language teaching lessons undisturbed, without the need to refer to or embrace even a small measure of innovation. One may also for example wish to avoid ideology, which, after the excesses of the audio-lingual approach, may well appear to be a sane choice. Or you may be willing to experiment with only a moderate amount of innovation. If one were a teacher trainer, one would of course wish one’s trainee language teachers to embrace deliberate change, and to be able to sustain the innovations embraced by making principled choices over a long term:

As those who train language teachers will be able to testify, however, the temptation for teachers who are not highly trained to attempt to avoid change is real and frequent. Innovation cannot happen as a result of an eclectic orientation where resistance to change remains high, and where teachers are unable either to see or to adopt alternatives. In such cases their current approach remains the most coherent, and they merely wish to maintain it.

Figure 9.2 below (Weideman 2001) attempts to clarify the parameters influencing the potential for innovation among language teachers. In that case the sense that their conventional approach makes combines with a resistance to change that thwarts innovation. Teachers who are less satisfied with their current approach, but who are also resistant to change, may yield to a small measure of innovation, since they would be prepared to compromise in order to introduce some new task, exercise or technique. The less coherent a teacher’s approach is, and the less resistant to change, the better the probability that such a teacher might be willing to accommodate novelty in technique or instructional style, while maintaining some measure of the conventional. Ideally, however, one is looking for a highly trained teacher, who is open to innovation and who is willing to adopt changes in their teaching that can be coherently integrated and justified, for example with reference to information about how languages are best learned in the classroom. Figure 9.2 summarizes these choices:

Potential for innovation

Fig. 9.2 Potential for innovation

It is clear from both of these (Figs. 9.1 and 9.2) that the more sophisticated the motivation for adopting an eclectic approach is, the more likely it will serve innovation. The reverse is also true: eclecticism need not be the mechanism to achieve innovation, but could have the exact opposite result. An eclectic approach might well be used, in less sophisticated contexts, to resist innovation. For innovation to be adopted by teachers, we therefore need a deliberate choice to seek a new solution, and a rational defense of such a deliberate choice for a new design of our ways of teaching language. Whether this deliberation is always present in those who, having abandoned communicative language teaching (CLT), now subscribe to the post-method condition in language teaching, still needs to be empirically determined. The conclusions that Karavas-Doukas (1998) makes with reference to the global situation indicate that it is highly unlikely that such deliberation has been or will be adopted.

While postmodernist critiques of conventional language teaching methodologies might claim that language teaching methods are merely the outcome of economic, political, social, scientific and other global forces, it is ironic to note, however, that the so-called fringe methods, such as Suggestopedia and the Silent Way, discussed above in Chap. 6, provide some of the best examples of innovation in language teaching. But as their name implies, these methods are not mainstream, but peripheral. With the possible exception of Community Language Learning (CLL) or Counseling-learning (CL) , which relies on Rogerian psychology for the justification of their teaching techniques, the other truly innovative methods can hardly be said to have been the outcome of mainstream ‘scientific’ influences. The likelihood of a conspiracy by big business and global industrial interests to promote them looks highly unlikely as well. Rather, the innovative and sometimes exotic techniques associated with them give the language course designs that stem from them a revolutionary flavor. This masks that they are, in terms of the parameters ofFig. 9.2 above, highly coherent approaches that are competently justified in their interpretation by dedicated language teachers. Stevick (1980, 1971) could interpret each of these ‘humanistic’ ways of teaching in an integrated way that serves to justify the techniques he devised to teach language.

Another good example of how such innovation can be harnessed is to be found in the design of a number of beginners’ courses in English (e.g. Weideman and Rousseau 1996), embarked upon in the last decade of the previous century for the sake of training teachers in schools placed at a disadvantage by apartheid. Utilizing the insight into adult language learning available through CLL and CL, the designers strove to include tasks for young beginners that echoed these, for example in the creation of dialogues. Though the techniques had originally been devised for adults, their adaptation showed that they could work equally well for children. What is more, since the rationale for the course design was coherent, a combination of these and other techniques, for example from the Natural Approach and even from mainstream communicative language teaching, was made possible. In a word: the course design was eclectic, but it was at the same time also innovative, because it was deliberate and coherent, and could be theoretically justified.

In that sense innovation involves not only discontinuity, taking the existing at least one step further, and stretching a method or technique to new limits, but it also builds on what is already available: a demonstration of the continuity in design that so often characterizes our plans for language teaching. In a word: innovation in language teaching is less likely to be disruptive, since there are powerful forces that ensure links with the past. In language teaching practice the milder, more incremental kind of innovation and eclecticism that was referred to above (Kumaravadivelu 2003, 2006) looks like the more realistic expectation. This pervasive continuity in language teaching design deserves some further attention and analysis, since it also extends to other applied linguistic artefacts, such as tests of language ability.

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