Volume V- 2000

Precision, Elegance and Simplicity: Perspectives on TESOL and Art
by G. Richard Tucker

         Dr. G. Richard Tucker, whose Ph.D. is from McGill University in Canada, is Professor of Applied Linguistics and Head of the Department of Modern Languages at Carnegie Mellon University. Prior to joining CMU, he served as President of the Center for Applied Linguistics, and before that as Professor of Psychology and Linguistics at McGill University. He has published more that 180 books and articles on many different aspects of second language teaching and learning. In addition to his work here in North America, he has worked in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.


        My task was to listen carefully to presentations by my colleagues, following which I have been asked: (1) to offer a spontaneous personal perspective on their comments, as well as (2) to provide an indication of where TESOL should go from here in pursuing its agenda--either as science or as art. In listening to the introductory remarks by David Nunan, and then the presentations by Elana Shohamy, Henry Widdowson, and Diane Larsen-Freeman, I was struck by the similarity to a point made in an article that I had recently read by Jackie Schachter (1993). Schachter described the field of second language acquisition (SLA) as being analogous to a "Necker Cube" (i.e., to a drawing that can be viewed sequentially, but not simultaneously, as two separate cubes). Thus, she noted that some individuals see SLA as pedagogical while others see it as theoretical. I would argue, by extension, that some typically view TESOL as art and others as science. Schachter noted that both views hold enormous and cumulative potential for their effects on public policy decisions, a point to which I shall return.

Positions of the Other Speakers

        In his opening remarks, Nunan called our attention to the dramatically contrasting views expressed by Alan Purves, Evelyn Hatch, and Ted Bell with respect to the relative contributions of art or science to the advancement of learning and teaching. Shohamy began by identifying a series of overly simplistic dichotomies that are often interjected into discussions in the language education field (e.g., BICS vs. CALP; hard data vs. personal imagination and expression; cognitive factors vs. affective factors; art vs. science; etc.). She asserted that science is an integral part of art, and that artists are noted for making principled uses of their varied techniques. She further observed that the field of TESOL draws from both; but she worried that the scientific component in our field is decreasing relatively dramatically, a claim that she substantiated by reporting the results of an informal content analysis of presentations at the present conference.

        Widdowson began his remarks by noting that science is seductive, as evidenced by a conjurer's often-impressive performance. He asserted that science undermines our trust in our own experiences, and expressed the opinion that what science reveals is not truth, but only a version of reality. He described some of the key tenets of the scientific method by which one relies on the control of circumstances or variables (with an emphasis on the word "controls"). He declared that TESOL cannot itself be a science, but that it must be informed by science. He asked rhetorically at one point what is the TESOL equivalent of the Teflon frying pan; a question to which one was sure that he did not intend the answer "i+1"! Widdowson pursued an alternative portrayal of TESOL based upon art where the findings per se of investigations are not relevant; but rather where one is asked to relate ideas to one's own circumstances. He concluded by portraying teachers as artists of their craft rather than as mere (emphasis his) scientists or technologists.

        Larsen-Freeman developed a type of interactionist position. She alluded to the voices of prominent scientists, and noted that science deals with mystery, that it deals not just with prediction but with comprehension and explanation, that what drives scientists is curiosity. She argued that these general properties are also true of teachers and teaching with the addition of what she referred to as a social dimension. She concluded with a brief discussion of how knowledge accumulates, and stressed how encouraged she has been by recent educational policy discussions and decisions focusing on systemic educational reform in the United States and Australia.

John Harrison and Longitude

        I wish now to return to the analogy of TESOL as a "Necker Cube." Here I would argue that in order to affect public policy, in order to improve the quality of education for the children and the adults who are entrusted to our care--that we must be both scientists and artists. In my general preparation for today's session, I happened fortuitously to read two quite different accounts, one a recent monograph by Dava Sobel; the other a newspaper article in the "New York Times The latter described the power and the beauty embodied in Einstein's manuscript on general relativity; the other, the development in the 18th century of the chronometer by John Harrison. Let me first say a word or two about John Harrison's accomplishments as chronicled in Sobel's monograph (1995).

        John Harrison was a remarkable man, a self-educated man of humble origin, who solved the thorniest dilemma of the 18th century, the longitude problem. Until he found the solution to the problem of accurate measurement of longitude, explorers who ventured out of sight of land were literally "lost at sea." In her compelling monograph, which I found in the airport book shop, Sobel describes the ways in which Harrison was influenced by the natural philosopher and mathematician Nicholas Sanderson from Cambridge University. She described Harrison's laborious, but ultimately successful, pursuit of the goal of developing an instrument to measure longitude with an absolute precision that was simultaneously beautiful. Here is her description of his invention, the chronometer:

        Though large for a pocket watch, at five inches in diameter, it is minuscule for a seaclock, and weighs only three pounds. Within its paired silver cases, a genteel white face shows off four fanciful repeats of a fruit-and-foliage motif drawn in black. These patterns ring the dial of Roman numeral hours and Arabic seconds, where three blued-steel hands point unerringly to the correct time. The Watch, as it soon came to be known, embodied the essence of elegance and exactitude.

        Inside this marvel, the parts look even lovelier than the face. The designs serve no functional purpose other than to dazzle the beholder. And under the plate, among the spinning wheels, diamonds, and rubies do battle against friction. These tiny jewels, exquisitely cut, take over the work that was relegated to antifriction wheels and mechanical grasshoppers in all of Harrison's big clocks. With his marine clocks, John Harrison tested the waters of space-time. He succeeded, against all odds, in using the fourth-temporal-dimension to link points on the three -dimensional globe. He wrested the world's whereabouts from the stars, and locked the secret in a pocket watch. (Sobel, pp. 106-107)

Einstein's Manuscript

        Let me turn now to an account of Einstein's manuscript. I was intrigued when I recently read an article in the New York Times by Robin Pogrebin (1996) describing a recently-held auction by Sotheby's at which one of the main attractions was Einstein's original manuscript developing the theory of general relativity.

        What turns a piece of paper into history is that it marks a seminal moment, a particular point in time, when conventional thinking was challenged and forever changed. What makes it art is not only the peculiar beauty of its yellowed pages, faded ink or elegant script, but that it lives, infused with the spirit of the author's own hand. The manuscript in which Albert Einstein elaborated on his special theory of relativity is both momentous as one of the central scientific tenets of the modern age and captivating as a window into how the gears turned in one of the greatest minds in history.

        The manuscript, in German, laid the groundwork of Einstein's general theory of relativity in 1916, and it represents a broadening of Einstein's thinking beyond the physical to the mathematical. But it is its unfinished roughness that makes the manuscript exceptional, offering rare insight into the meticulous machinations of Einstein's creative process: how he puzzled out equations, continually rephrased his thoughts and labored to perfect his sentences; how tough he was on himself in trying to clearly convey concepts of a mind-bending complexity. He was a famously literate writer, one of the relatively few 20th century scientists who is famous as a stylist.

Accuracy, Systematically and Accessibility

        Let me return once again to the analogy of the "Necker Cube." It is my strong belief that we as TESOL professionals must be both scientists and artists. We must continue, for example, to document effective practice; to document the contributions of competing social, political, economic, and pedagogical factors on the processes and the products of teaching and learning. We must aim, I believe, for accuracy, systematicity, and accessibility in our findings. We must encourage work that is contextualized and that is collaborative--work that draws upon a broad range of models and analytical techniques; our questions and our agenda should determine the methods that we choose, and not vice versa.

        I was struck recently by a characterization of the learning process in the new monograph by Gail Burnaford and colleagues (1996): "...learning is a messy, mumbled, non-linear, recursive and sometimes unpredictable process." We must bring order and sense to that learning. But, more importantly, we must tell the story of the complexities of these constructs that we call teaching and learning with the same elegant simplicity and power with which Carl Sagan has unlocked for so many the mysteries of the universe (see, for example, Sagan, 1994).

        We must describe the needs of the children and of the adults who desperately seek access to educational, social, and economic opportunities, not in the arcane and jumbled jargon so characteristic of academia, but with the precision, the elegance, and the simplicity of an artist. Only then can we hope to reach and to affect those responsible for the formulation of public policy. In the past, we have not been very effective in telling our stories, and while it is easy to blame the close- minded, bigoted listener, surely we--the tellers--must bear much of the blame.

        Can we tell our stories with the same artistic beauty that characterized Einstein's manuscript on general relativity? Can we build a pedagogical chronometer as beautiful and as powerful as that built by John Harrison? The simple answer is that we must, for if we do not, untold thousands of our students will remain forever "lost at sea."


Burnaford, G., Fischer, J. & Hobson, D. 1996. Teachers Doing Research: Practical Possibilities. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pogrebin, R. 1996. Einstein manuscript on sale shows science can be art. New York Times, March 16, 1996.

Sagan, C. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space . New York: Random House.

Schachter, J. 1993. SLA: Perceptions and Possibilities. Second Language Research (2).

Sobel, D. 1995. Longitude. New York: Walker & Co.

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