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Principled Decisions & Practices
by Costas Gabrielatos
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8. I use an eclectic methodology

There are two interrelated problems with this attitude to ELT methodology: the concept of eclecticism has been poorly defined and is self-defying. In this section I examine problematic elements in two definitions of an 'eclectic' attitude to methodology (indicated in bold), and argue that as it is defined eclecticism is not a viable solution to the methodological question in ELT.

Eclecticism: Definitions & Appeal

According to Girard (1986: 11-12), the eclectic teacher aims to achieve
"the maximum benefit from all the methods and techniques at his or her disposal, according to the special needs and resources of his/her pupils at any given time. … [An eclectic attitude towards methodology provides the] flexibility and adaptability that will allow the teacher to select among a variety of approaches, methods and techniques those elements best fitted to the needs of a given class at a given time. Such a decision will not be taken on the spur of the moment in a haphazard way, but as the conclusion of a serious analysis of the situation and of the available techniques and devices. … The eclectic teacher will make his personal choices on the basis of the questions he will have to ask himself, as he goes along, about the main issues of language teaching, and on the basis of the answers he will be able to give in connection with inescapable criteria".

A similar attitude, termed a "complete method", was proposed by Palmer (1922, in Girard, 1986).
"The 'complete method' is not a compromise between two antagonistic schools; it boldly incorporates what is valuable in any system or method of teaching and refuses to recognize any conflict, except the conflict between the inherently good and the inherently bad. The complete method will embody every type of teaching except bad teaching, and every process of learning except defective learning."

It is true that the attitudes described above have intuitive appeal. It does seem reasonable to combine the most suitable elements of different available methods, instead of applying a specific one. The intuitive reasons for implementing an eclectic methodology are summarised in the following table (Gabrielatos, 1996).

Safety The use of a variety of ideas and procedures from different existing approaches and methods will increase the chances of learning taking place.
Interest Teachers need to use different techniques to hold the learners' attention.
Diversity Different learning/teaching contexts require different methodologies.
Flexibility Awareness of a range of available techniques will help teachers exploit materials better and manage unexpected situations.
Inevitability Informed teaching is bound to be eclectic.

Eclecticism: Limitations & Pitfalls

Despite the intuitive appeal of eclecticism, a closer examination of its definitions reveals that the selection and combination of elements from different methodologies is much more complex than it initially seems, and that its implementation involves a number of pitfalls. In this part I examine and clarify the terms indicated in bold in the definitions above, and discuss the limitations and pitfalls of an eclectic methodology.

First, we need to define the terms 'approach', 'method' and 'technique', and clarify their relation. According to Richards & Rogers (1986: 16), "a method is theoretically related to an approach, is organisationally determined by a design, and is practically realized in procedure". The following table (adapted from Richards & Rogers, 1986: 28) outlines the three elements which comprise a method.

Theory of Language
Theory of Language Learning
Syllabus type
Activity types
Learner roles
Teacher roles
Role of materials

According to this definition, eclecticism cannot be a method, since it is neither informed by specific theories, nor consistent in its design and procedures. It has also been argued that the use of the term 'an eclectic method' defeats the very purpose for the proposal of an eclectic methodology, as it suggests "the need for a single, best, method to follow" (Haskel, 1978).

A further problem with an eclectic attitude is that it "refuses to recognize any conflict" between different methodologies (Palmer, 1922, in Girard, 1986). The problem lies in the inherent conflicts that exist between different approaches, as they may well render incompatible the teaching procedures informed by contradictory approaches. I believe that teachers who adopt an eclectic attitude need to be knowledgeable enough to recognise methodological conflicts at any level (approach, design, procedure) and be skilled enough to be able to manage such conflicts. A case in point is the problematic notion of "defective learning" (Palmer, 1922, in Girard, 1986). What is regarded as a satisfactory learning outcome is closely linked to the approach and/or method one has adopted (see also Woods, 1991: 5). For example, is fluency/communication or accuracy the target of instruction? What is the attitude towards errors? What is considered acceptable pronunciation?

An examination of different methods and attitudes in ELT shows that there is not a one-to-one correspondence between approaches on one hand, and design and/or procedure on the other (see Richards & Rodgers, 1986). In the following 'matching task', mock theories, procedures and materials are used to demonstrate the complex relation between approach and procedure (Gabrielatos, 1996).

Match the mock theories of language and language learning to the teaching procedures.
'Theories' of Language
a. Languages are like algebra: logical systems with a clear & fixed structure. Nevertheless the structure of each one is unique.
b. All languages share the same basic structure. Their differences lie in vocabulary and pronunciation.
c. Languages are different in most respects. Nevertheless they share one central characteristic: communication of meaning always requires appropriate combination of verbal and non-verbal elements.
'Theories' of Language Learning
d. Learning comes about through negative experiences.
e. Learning takes place through individual mental reflection.
f. Learning is achieved when both body and mind are involved.
Teaching Procedures & Materials
1. As the teacher is explaining a rule he/she slaps learners on the face. The teacher takes care that all learners are equally slapped.
2. As learners are writing the answers to an exercise they occasionally move about on their chairs, stand up and hop for a while, do physical exercises etc. The teacher goes around and urges the less energetic ones to join the others.
3. There is complete silence in the classroom. Learners are involved in writing an exercise, occasionally looking at the rules on the blackboard.
4. All learners have bilingual dictionaries which they use to understand reading/listening texts and translate what they write/say.
5. Instruction consists mainly of memorisation of rules and their accurate application in exercises.
6. The teacher not only corrects the learners' speech, but also their posture, facial expression and gestures.

It is clear that similar procedures may result from different approaches, or similar approaches may be realised in different sets of procedures.

In terms of available techniques and resources, the specific teaching/learning context imposes limitations on what is at a teacher's disposal. Therefore, teachers may not always be in a position to be truly eclectic and will need to utilise available resources to the maximum (Gabrielatos, 1999, 2000).

There are also questions regarding the "analysis of the situation", which the eclectic teacher is expected to perform in order to make methodological decisions. What are the principles on which such an analysis will be based? How do teachers identify needs? What sort of "questions" are formulated? How do teachers act upon such questions? How do teachers form "criteria"? How valid are they? Are such criteria unalterable?

In order for teachers to be able to ask helpful questions, identify learner needs accurately and make informed decisions they need to be aware not only of different teaching procedures and materials, but more importantly of the approaches (i.e. theories) which inform and shape such practices (see Rivers, 1972: 5). They need to have an informed, conscious, clear and flexible methodological framework, otherwise "there is the danger in eclecticism of creating a Frankenstein monster" (Haskel, 1978).

To conclude, the idea of having flexibility, of being free to select between alternatives, rather than being constrained by the materials and procedures prescribed by a specific pre-packaged method, and consequently by its limitations, is indeed an appealing one. Unfortunately, in their effort to break away from the domination of methods, the proponents of an eclectic attitude failed to make it clear that there are a number of prerequisites for such a selection to be effective. Because of its loose and incomplete definition, eclecticism is fraught with problems.(3)

(3)Brown (2000: 14, 2001: 40-41) uses the terms 'eclectic' and 'principled' interchangeably. I believe that it is more sensible to distinguish between the two terms for the reasons I have discussed.

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