Volume V- 2000

The Great Debate Proposed: TESOL is a Science, Not an Art
Moderated by David Nunan

Arguments and Comments by
Elana Shohamy, Henry Widdowson, Diane Larsen-Freemanm, and G. Richard Tucker

        David Nunan is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Director of the English Centre at the University of Hong Kong. He has written over fifty books and articles on second language curriculum development, classroom oriented research and task-based learning. His recent publications by Cambridge University Press include (with Kathleen M. Bailey) Voices from the Language Classroom Qualitative Research in Second Language Education and (with Clarice Lamb) The Self-Directed Teacher. Nunan's four-level ATLAS-Learning-Centered Communication was published by Heinle & Heinle/International Thomson Publishing, and his three-level series Listen In, by International Thomson Publishing.

        Editor's Note: The path of the word from the writer's hand to the printed page is sometimes circuitous and unexpected in its twists and turns. Such was the case with this Great Debate held at the l996 TESOL Convention. The ideas presented are rich, reflective, and still most timely. It is important that they be made available to as wide an audience as possible, and we are delighted that they should appear here for the first time in print. In the debate, all of the five participants were members of a panel and spoke in turn, mainly from prepared papers. The words of each speaker are presented as 4 independent parts of the record of a single event.

        During the 1995 TESOL Convention in Long Beach, when it was announced that the theme of the 1996 TESOL Convention was to be "The Art of TESOL," several of my fellow Board members objected that "TESOL is a science, not an art." An animated discussion ensued. It seemed to me at the time that the internal debate should become a public one. I put it to Nick Collins,Convention Chair, and he and his committee readily agreed. This is not the first time that educators have debated the relative contributions to pedagogy of science versus art. Rorty (1982) argues that the art versus science debate is one between those who think of themselves as caught in time, as an evanescent moment in a continuing conversation,and those who hope to add a pebble from Newton's beach to an enduring structure. There are others who have staked out very firm positions. Jordan and Purves (1994), for example, argues that "I can think of only a handful of studies that have added substantively to our knowledge of learning and teaching, yet the researchers grind on, adding filigrees to what knowledge we have. We have innumerable studies pointing to the characteristics, successes, and failures of individual schools, classrooms, teachers, and students....We have countless experimental studies that contrast undescribed, and therefore irreplaceable treatments of students." On the other hand, "We need only turn to documents like A Nation at Risk(1993) with its barrage of military metaphors, its scant documentation, and its many unwarranted conclusions to see the potential abuse inherent in a totally art-based form of inquiry with no clear commitment to a set of scientific or ethical standards." And one final quote, this time from Hatch (1994) "In art the emphasis is on how and what is expressed. In teaching, it has to be placed on what is learned, not just what is expressed. What's art got to do with it? What does it matter? What matters is advancing the debate about what students are learning, and rich and articulate representations of educational activities--whether we call them research, criticism, or art--can do that." In this paper, four of the most distinguished names in our field present their own perspective on the relative contributions of science and art to the field of TESOL


"A Nation at Risk: The Imperatives for Educational Reform." The Chronicle of Higher Education. May, 1993.

Hatch, T. 1994. What's art got to do with it? Research in the Teaching of English. December 1994.

Jordan, S. and A.C. Purves. 1994. The Metaphors of Portfolios and the Portfolio as a Metaphor. Albany NY: National Center for Research on the Learning and Literature

Rorty. R. 1982. Consequences of Pragmatism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

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