Volume V - 2000

Argument and Entertainment: TESOL as Science
by Elana Shohamy

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

        Dr. Elana Shohamy is Professor of Second Language Education and Chair of Graduate Programs at Tel Aviv University. Her areas of interest include language testing and assessment, and language policy and planning. She is currently co-director, with Bernard Spolsky, of the Language Policy Research Centre. She has written numerous articles, and her book on research methods in second language research, which she co-authored with Herbert Seliger, is a standard work in the field.

       Minimal Pairs



        A long time ago I realized that those dichotomies, or minimal pairs of the communicative era, are just exercises in entertainment. How naive can one be to believe that there is one correct answer, one solution, to whether a given factor is due to heritage or environment? To sense or sensibility? And why would anyone think that such loaded and complex concepts represent a dichotomy, where one is identified as existing at the expense of the other. Additionally, one is forced to ask why only "two"? Perhaps there are "three," or even "four" related or contrasting concepts. As language teachers, we know that whenever we pull out a minimal pair-such as "Some say that...others say that..."- we are guaranteed to have our students speak passionately, excitingly, and enthusiastically.

Traditional Views of Art and Science

        "Can you argue that TESOL is science?" So asked David Nunan in a fax from Hong Kong, or from wherever he happened to be on May 9 of 1995. David certainly knew that this minimal pair is complex and unsolvable, but he also knew that it would get us to talk passionately, excitingly and enthusiastically. And so we have.

        Traditionally, science and art represented a dichotomy: society introduced strict boundaries between the two as it considered them to be different cultures, different ways of relating to the world. Eisner (1991) separated science and art into discrete entities:

Science was perceived as the systematic pursuit of :knowledge, while art was a pleasurable form of experience.
Science deals with data; art with imagination and personal expression.
Science provides insight and understanding; art provides satisfaction.
Science seeks the truth; art creates fictions in the form of literature, poetry, songs, and plays.
Science is cognitive; art is affective.
Science is replicative; art is personal and unique.

        Society further enforced these differences as universities were organized into faculties of science and faculties of art. One deals with hard data; the other with imagination, personal expression, taste and sensibility. Scientists guarded themselves from art as they viewed it as undermining scientific objectivity by introducing subjectivity.

Scientific Motivations and Art

        Yet, science and art share similar features. From Renaissance art to 20th century painting, music, theatre and poetry, science was always an integral part of art. Leonardo de Vinci utilized scientific methodologies of measurements, experimentation, engineering, and analysis for creating his art. In an exhibition currently showing at the Guggenheim Museum in New York entitled: "Abstract Art: Risk, Freedom and Discipline," it is demonstrated how abstract artists employ highly calculated methods as they make use of principles and materials to communicate with the viewer. The point is that for them, freedom and discipline are ultimately inseparable.

        My colleague Yosi Yisraeli, a well known playwright in Israel, shared with me a careful observation. "In writing my plays," Yosi said, "I am constantly incorporating devices that will make my audience sit on the edge of their chairs." It is a process, he was pointing out, by which a number of independent variables are expected to affect a dependent variable.

        "Spontaneity? It takes years and years of perfecting technical skills before spontaneity can ever be reached," Yosi added.

        Science, as well, is motivated by artistic modes which are integrated in all phases of the research-in the enthusiasm of selecting a research topic, in the creativity of constructing data collection instruments, in the imagination of preparing research materials, in the sensibility of collecting data, in the taste of making decisions about materials to be included, in the expressiveness of drawing patterns and themes in data, in the exhilaration experienced when obtaining research results, in the excitement of interpreting results, and in the aesthetics and beauty that scientists experience in observing the final products of their research.

As my friend A. Kurgalansky, a leading social psychologist puts it: "Whenever I complete a successful research study, I view it as if I created a beautiful piece of art. It is like antique furniture where attention is paid to each detail, to every line. And the product is a work of art."

TESOL is both Science and Art

        What is TESOL? TESOL consists of both science and art. The science part of TESOL refers to the rich body of knowledge that underlies its practice and that provides answers to many questions about students' language learning, teaching methods, measurement of language, etc. This knowledge draws upon related disciplines such as applied linguistics, literacy, sociology, psychology and pedagogy. It was arrived at through a scientific process of disciplined inquiry whereby questions are asked, theories are developed, refuted and reconstructed, phenomenon are observed, data are collected, and conclusions are reached. TESOL, thus, is a dynamic science that continuously seeks new knowledge, publishes respected journals and organizes conferences where this knowledge is being disseminated. The members of TESOL--teachers, materials and curriculum developers, testers, policy makers, and researchers--are very fortunate to have this scientific knowledge to rely on, to refer to, to be navigated by.

        The art component of TESOL refers to the creativity, enthusiasm, imagination, aesthetics, and intuitions incorporated in the teaching of English. The integration of art into TESOL can be demonstrated in the many sessions of this convention, and in the new publication The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning where attention is paid to language experiences, music, storytelling, reading for pleasure, creativity, and imagination, aesthetics, and the feeling for rightness--all creative avenues for generating new possibilities. Thus, both art and science are needed for TESOL: each has a unique contribution to make to the quality of TESOL. It is not a dichotomy, not an "either- or" choice. The omission of either one can have a negative effect on the quality of TESOL.

Science Begins to Lag Behind

        Yet, while both science and art are essential for the quality of TESOL the scientific component in TESOL has been drastically decreasing in the past decade. In this year's convention program, only 50 out of 1,000 slots are devoted to research, i.e., 5%. Abandoning the scientific component of TESOL may have serious consequences to the quality of TESOL because it means that the practice of TESOL may be based on authorities, beliefs, prejudices, hunches, intuitions, taste, and a priori knowledge with no ways of proving, disproving, substantiating or validating such claims. TESOL, being an organization that serves society, has the obligation and commitment to perform its mission --the teaching of English --in the most effective way. It is a high stake which means that it needs to continuously examine itself, ask questions and validate procedures regarding the quality and effectiveness of its outcomes. Science is the only method through which this task can be accomplished. Through science the validity of authorities, beliefs, prior knowledge, and intuitions [can be validated by observations, experimentation and interactions with the real world, by systematically examining questions, collecting actual evidence, externalizing and opening data to a system of checks and balance. This substantiated information about effective ways of acquiring, teaching, and learning languages is needed as a basis for change, modifications, adaptation and challenge.

        "Action without understanding is blind and can be destructive" (McNamara, 1996). While many elements of art can be incorporated in this process, there is no way that art, per se, can fulfill this mission. Any claim that it does so, needs to be substantiated. Turning to art as the only way to improve TESOL and dropping science is a dangerous illusion.

New Definition of "Science"

        Yet, science, in its traditional form, has gone through criticism and resentment by practitioners for being irrelevant and complex. Its results, many say, are not applicable to contexts different than those of the research. This criticism, though, relates to a now outdated view of science and not to the approach currently held, which is more appropriate for the TESOL reality. While the positivist view of science included standardization, replication, and objectivity, it is now perceived as a limited way of understanding the world. The new paradigm, an interpretative one, originates in the realization that the contexts of social science vary from one situation to another, and are dynamic and fluid. It is socially and culturally constructed and represented by various means and forms--numerical, verbal, qualitative, and quantitative.

        Science no longer needs to be guarded from "foreign elements" as these are viewed as enriching it. It continues to seek truth, but it is realized that there is no single truth but multiple truths, multiple sources of knowledge, determined by interpretative communities. The goals are not to find consistency, to prove, to disprove, and to predict. Rather, the goals are to interpret, understand and gain insights into specific contexts as exemplified between the researcher and that which is researched, often in a form of a dialogue. This type of research is conducted not only by the so called "scientists," but by all involved in the practice of TESOL --as they all have the commitment for gaining knowledge for the sake of improving its quality. This form of research does not imply anarchy, but rather principles that are constrained, and that constitute a disciplined basis for observations, investigation and action.

Defining the Problem

        Although science cannot guarantee reaching all truths, the continuous pursuit of truth is preferable to the alternative (Shohamy, D. 1996). If we choose this direction of science, we will be in line with what a prominent scholar said not too long ago: "The value of research is that it can help teachers to define more clearly the problems that they themselves must solve. What it can do is to stimulate interest and encourage teachers to think about the implications of their practices. It can also provide them with a conceptual context within which to work, in the form of hypotheses to test out in the conditions of their particular classrooms. In short, theory can help practitioners to adopt a theoretical orientation to their task, whereby they seek to refer the particular techniques they use to more general principles, and, reciprocally, test out the validity of such principles against the observed actualities of classroom practice" (Widdowson 1990, 25-26).


Eisner, E. 1991. The Enlightened Eye. New York: Macmillan.

Kurgalansky, A. Personal communication, March 1996.

McNamara, T. From plenary paper presentation at the American Association of Applied Linguistics Conference, Chicago, March 1996.

Shohamy, D. Personal communication, March 1996.

Widdowson, H.G. 1990. Aspects of English Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Yisraeli, Y. Personal communication, March 1996.

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