For a number of years, many teachers sat on what they assume is a safe ground , that of aligning with “eclecticism”. For some, it means choosing what seems adequate from the existing methods. For others, it means not only the principled use of these methods but also the need to adjust their teaching to their immediate environments as they are aware of the fact that certain methods fall short of realizing that social, cultural and other factors are determining aspects in deciding what works best for them and their students.
Eclecticism is a response to the inherent limitations of the notion of “method” because “the conception and construction of methods have been largely guided by a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter approach that assumes a common clientele with common goals.” Kumaravadivelu, Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language teaching (2003).
While it seemed for many a wise and cogent position, eclecticism has been criticized for being guided more by “common-sense” rather than by a principled view: "It does not offer any guidance on what basis and by what principles aspects of different methods can be selected and combined." Stern (1983). He explains that “The choice is left to the individual’s intuitive judgment and is, therefore, too broad and too vague to be satisfactory as a theory in its own right.” Stern (1992).
Henry Widdowson (1990) warns that “if by eclecticism is meant the random and expedient use of whatever technique comes most readily to hand, then it has no merit whatever”.
The first claim that eclecticism is rather based on “common-sense”, hence lending itself to vagueness and inconsistency draws on the belief that to be convincing, pedagogy needs to be governed by facts and certitudes rather than by inconsistencies and differences. Teaching and learning, however, are far from being accurate sciences: As Kumaravadivelu observes, "the success or failure of classroom instruction depends to a large extent on the unstated and unstable interaction of multiple factors such as teacher cognition, learner perception,
societal needs, cultural contexts, political exigencies, economic imperatives, and institutional constraints, all of which are inextricably interwoven."
Besides, even in his account of the three parameters of a postmethod pedagogy, namely particularity, practicality, and possibility, Kumaravadivelu notes that "inevitably, the boundaries of the particular, the practical, and the
possible are blurred."
The second criticism doesn't challenge the relevance of 'eclecticism' per se. However, it points teachers to the right direction by making it clear that to be successful, eclecticism should not be random and irresponsible. This is what Diane Larsen-Freeman (Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching) refers to as "principled eclecticism".
The point is that "eclecticism" is a fair choice if it is done properly. That is to say, it shouldn't be " an excuse not to go deeply into methodology [and] cognitive research" As Patricia Arias, a teacher from Argentina states in her reply to Scott Thornbury's article "Methods, post-method, and métodos" on teachingenglish.org.uk ( link to article )
Attentiveness to the existing theories and to their limitations, the ability to "learn to cope with competing pulls and pressures representing the content and character of professional preparation, personal beliefs, institutional constraints, learner expectations, assessment instruments, and other factors" (Kumaravadivelu, 2003) are determining aspects in shaping a good eclectic stance that is both self-conscious (aware of theories and methods) and effective (takes account of the context and “local” specificities to make sure a proper teaching and learning experience would take place).
So, eclecticism is here to stay although it may seem as a challenge to the certitude of theories. It is, in fact, a sign of teachers’ maturity and their readiness to take responsibility for what they know best, i.e., teaching.
Article by tarak brahmi [my blog]
Diane Larsen-Freeman 2000. Techniques and principles in language teaching
Kumaravadivelu, B. 2003. Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for Language teaching
Scott Thornbury 2009, Methods, post-method, and métodos link
Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching