Interview with Thomas Farrell

Dr. Thomas Farrell is truly someone who needs no introduction especially for those of us in TESOL and interested in reflection. His website, Reflective Inquiry, shares his (many!) contributions to the field.

Hello Tom! Thank you so much for stopping by. Can I get you a drink? What are you having? Now, before I get accused of playing into Irish (or Canadian) stereotypes I should say that I ask that question to everyone who does an interview on my blog.


Ok, then. Let’s get into it and start with an important question. What is up with the hat that you wear for presentations?

Many years when I was at a conference in Singapore, I was forced to check out of the hotel I was staying in but I still had a panel discussion to conclude at the conference I was invited to speak at. I had to bring my bags to that last event and had no place to put my baseball hat so I just wore it during the panel discussion. The leader of the discussion said this was to be my signature…it has remained ever since but now it signifies that it is who I am and that I do not hide behind the fact that I am officially a professor. In fact, when people realize that I am a professor, many say that I do not look like a professor. I say “thank you” and then “What should a professor look like?” To me this is the essence of reflective practice. When these set of realizations happen at a conference, I can see the light coming on in many teachers’ faces as they soon realize it is who you are and not what you look like! So now my hat is a symbol of the need for deeper reflection and the onset of the covid pandemic has made such a need even more important for humanity.

Thank you. I’ve been curious about that one for a while. Something else I’ve wondered about…You are obviously an extremely prolific writer. Do you have any advice for those that might like to emulate this?

I write a lot mostly because the process helps me to organize my many thoughts swirling around in my head. “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” from EM Forester has always guided this need to write as reflection. I remember I started out to write spontaneously while in Korea all those years ago when I decided I wanted to know more about my own teaching. I just wrote what I was thinking about and did not worry about grammar or spelling or anything. In fact, one time I wrote on the back of a chocolate bar wrapper after class because I did not want to forget what I was thinking. I have not stopped since. If I can write, anyone can write so go ahead and just write your thoughts and soon you will see patterns in your thinking appear right in front of you on the page.

I know that reflection is very important to you and that you try to encourage teachers to reflect. I guess I have two related questions here.

First, why do you want to encourage teachers to reflect? That is, why do you care about this?

I only encourage teachers to do what I did all those years ago because the reflection process not only freed me from my rigid beliefs about teaching and learning ESL/EFL but more importantly about what I thought I was doing in my lessons. I later discovered to my astonishment what we think we do while teaching can be a lot different from what we actually do. You may ask, “Why is this important?” Well, I have noticed many teachers beat themselves up unnecessarily after teaching when they think the class has not gone well but they have no real evidence of this. Thus, engaging in evidence-based reflective practice can free teachers from these self-defeating and negative thoughts and really celebrate what they are doing correctly. After working with language teachers on their reflections for over 40 years I know most are doing a really great job but they don’t realize this. Engaging in systematic reflective practice can free teachers from any self-doubt (e.g., the imposter syndrome) and empower them to be able to provide more learning opportunities for their students.

Thank you.  I really like this point about teachers not beating themselves up. My second question is about challenges. What challenges do you see in the (for lack of a better word) promotion of reflection?

If by “promote” you mean encouraging, I think some teachers may be afraid to look at what they are doing for fear that they may be wrong. In fact, John Dewey many years ago maintained that any reflection must be accompanied by a particular disposition or attitude whereby the person reflecting must remain openminded (heed the evidence/facts we get from systematic reflections and admit we could be wrong); responsible (consider the consequences of our actions that impact our students); and remain wholehearted (continually reflect throughout our careers). All of these attitudes are not easy to maintain and so some teachers may be reluctant to delve deeper into their practice and that is fine as many are still doing a great job.

Thank you. Anything to add here?
I believe you cannot teach anything to anybody, so I say that I dance my dance and I invite you to dance with me as I do my dance and see what happens (I do not mean to physically dance as I would not subject anybody to see me dance!).

Thank you for the response and for making it clear that you were speaking metaphorically. Do you see any issues with how teachers tend to engage in reflection?

Apart from what I mentioned in my answer to the question above, one problem with engaging in reflection is that teachers look for the bad or think about the bad or things they did incorrectly and forget all the good that they do. Here is my most recent paper with the Korea TESOL journal that celebrates the good an experienced teacher is doing here in Canada that I think ALL teachers should read and then engage in reflection. I really do hope my framework helps.

Can you tell us a bit about your framework?
Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to direct readers to my recent paper on what it is and how it works rather than me repeating all this: Farrell, T.S.C. (2022). Operationalizing reflective practice in second language teacher education. Second Language Teacher Education Journal, 1, 1, 71-88. RP SLTE Farrell

Thank you! I had a feeling a link might be coming. I appreciate your nudge for a more holistic approach to reflection. Do you see signs of people using the framework?

I do know that many more are beginning to use my framework as I see them in studies and the like and a few messages. I am so happy that your blogger /teacher/trainer friends like Rachel Tsateri have looked at the framework so in-depth and they raise great questions that are important. I realize it looks like a simple framework, but these are not simple questions to ask ourselves as teachers and humans because we really do get into exactly what we are doing.

As you might recall, I first heard you speak in 2008 at a KOTESOL event. What do you see as the big differences in your thinking about reflection between then and now?
The framework I mentioned above is one of the major developments in my thinking on how to engage in more holistic reflective practice because up until this I noticed that reflection had become a bit mechanical for many teachers and teacher educators. It has become somewhat ritualized in many teacher education programs where the teacher educators tell their preservice teachers to “reflect” without discussing what this all means. Worse, they provide them with checklists to follow while reflecting emphasizing what they think is important but not what the preservice teachers think is important. Whose needs are they taking care of? Another major change in my thinking is that reflection does not have to be retrospective after teaching as it can happen before and during as well but all this time the teacher-as-person is part of the reflection, or as my mantra goes: Who I am is how I teach! Most approaches to reflection have overlooked this and the inner lives of teachers that they bring into each lesson they teach because we are all human. In some instances, teacher educators/supervisors or the like are with a teacher looking at a lesson as if the teacher-as-person is separated from the teaching. More recently I have seen where the emotions embedded in our everyday practice should also be a part of the reflective process and this extends throughout all five stages of my framework although I only talk about it in stage 5. Perhaps this can be an answer to the great question raised by your blogger friend, Rachel, mentioned above! Teaching is a relational act because it is difficult, if not impossible, to separate the people (teachers and learners) from the act (teaching and learning). If teaching did not involve relationships and teachers acted like well-oiled machines, then classrooms would be very boring places. This is why teachers can be viewed by their students as being entertaining or boring, or approachable or distant, and/ or students can also feel supported, ignored, or mistrusted by their teachers. For teachers, the relational and indeed emotional investment involved in teaching includes constant monitoring of and listening to (and sometimes eliciting) how their students are feeling, and evaluating if they need assistance with their learning. We are emotional beings and this has to be a factor when we teach.

Thank you for highlighting the importance of emotion. Speaking of emotion, what are you excited about these days?

Sounds great! Thank you for sharing your excitement. I can see that you are keeping busy and, as above, are very productive. It’s wonderful to see what is coming and I think that is a great place to stop the interview even though feel like we could go on and on. I still have some random questions I’ve been curious about for a while but I will save them for another time!

Thank you so much for doing this interview and indeed all that you do for teachers around the world.
I want to thank you for interviewing me! I am flattered you wanted to. As a “pracademic” all my work is for the better lived experiences of my heroes: teachers! 

How is that working out for you?

Around 10 years ago there was this group of guys (and, yes, it was all men) who always often presented about the same topic at events in the biggest TESOL organization in the country I resided in at the time. Frankly speaking, I can’t say that I went to many of these presentations. Part of the reason is that the topic didn’t really appeal to me back then. The other part is more personal. I thought these guys were sort of full of shit. In the esteemed words of my former college roommate DJW, “They weren’t dicks.” Yet their seemingly arrogant attitude caused me to think they were my not type of people and thus forced me to tune out their perfectly reasonable ideas. I think this latter point, my perception of their personalities and attitudes, contributed as much as their ideas to my lack of interest in their presentations and pedagogical insights. 

Sometimes I think it’s a bit sad I missed out on the presentations and ideas and all because they might have helped my teaching and thus my students. I write this not as a confession or a chance to beat myself up but rather as an example of how our perceptions of others can contribute to how willing we are to listen to their ideas. I think it was very human of me to be cautious in accepting the ideas of slightly dickish dudes. Even if I have the slightest tinge of regret I think it was a natural response. 

I wonder what you think, dear reader. Do you think that we must separate the message from the messengers? Do you wish you could do so but find it challenging? 

For whatever reason when I think about general dickishness and the spreading of messages in ELT (including and perhaps especially positive and good ones) I think about Dr. Phil. I don’t claim to know much about this gentleman but I know he was frequently on Oprah in the 90s. I am not sure I ever saw him there but somewhere in the back of my mind his catchphrase “How’s that working for you?” remains.

There he is. Dr. Phil.

In ELT we have lots of people with good, interesting, and important ideas to share. I suspect that sometimes these ideas might not reach the intended audience for reasons that go beyond the ideas themselves. 

I wonder if those who (with, I assume, the purest of intentions) are interested in spreading the gospel of Gamification, Task-based Learning, Reflective Practice, The Lexical Approach, and Extensive Reading (to just name a few) are continually stepping back and asking how their messaging strategies and general public personae are working out for them in spreading the messages.

Maybe it’s not important and my one personal example above is insignificant because it’s from just one flawed human being. In my story above, the guys trying to spread awareness of certain practices were not even jerks and I was still turned off. Imagine how much more turned off I would be if they were in fact jerks. 

Maybe some would say that the idea is the most important thing and that if the messenger causes issues for the audience it’s the audience’s fault for missing out on the inherent brilliance in the ideas. Maybe that’s true.

I guess Tyler Durden said it too.

In regards to his famous question, Dr. Phil himself writes, “When I ask that, I genuinely mean it. How is what you’re doing working for you? Are you getting what you really want and need?” I ask the same question to those whose agenda* includes spreading their ideas to others. 

*I am using definition C2 here before anyone starts crying in their tea about my word choice. Also, if you read this post and thought “It’s not about me” you are probably right. This post is also, of course, not any sort of endorsement of Dr. Phil who is not without controversy. I truly just remember the phrase and think about it quite often. I should also state that I started writing this post about a year ago so it’s not a response to any specific recent events, comments or general dickishness.

Interview with Pete Clements

I had the idea earlier this year to do some more interviews on this here blog so I tweeted about it and encouraged people to get in touch. Pete Clements responded and wrote, “Don’t really know if I have much to say but happy to chat about ELT etc in a Google doc.” I assure you he had lots to say! I truly enjoyed the chat and wish we could do it in person! It was an honor to have him here and I hope that readers get as much out of it as I did.  

Mike: Thank you for doing this. Can I get you a drink? What are you having?

Cheers. Fancy some somaek? Go easy though, it’s been a while.

Strong order. Good choice…I guess. I think you are the first interviewee to go for the soju and beer combo. I will go easy as well! Thank you for doing this interview! It’s really a pleasure to have you here as I enjoy your blog and find it super helpful and informative. 

Your blog is such a good read. Wish I’d met you when I was in Korea. Perhaps I’d have committed to ELT sooner if I’d had people like yourself to help me reflect, rant, develop, etc. I’ve revisited some of your posts recently and I love how honest they are.

Wow, thank you for the kind words. I just now learned that you were in Korea (or maybe I somehow forgot). Perhaps we can meet in SE Asia then. Can you tell me why you got started with your blog and what your aims are now?

Sure. I started blogging around 2015. I’d just finished my DipTESOL and started working with Martin Sketchley. He was my boss at the time – great guy, good teacher, likes a pun. He recommended that I start blogging and get on Twitter too as a form of CPD.

Blogging for me at that time was great. It gave me so much confidence and helped me meet/interact with so many cool teachers and just like-minded people. I have Sketch to thank for that.

Sketch! (I have never called him that but I like it). A friend of the blog. Small world! Regarding your aims for your blog, have these shifted over time?

Changing aims… hmmm. Well, it started with ‘get ideas out there and also reflect on my poor practice’. Then there was a bit of ‘chase the views with some clickbait as it’s nice to feel liked and valued, however superficial’. Then there was a ‘try to be more critical’ phase, then an ‘appear more knowledgeable – that might impress a few people and help my standing’ phase (that lasted about a month I think). Then an ‘I’m enjoying getting into materials writing and that also happens to be a niche blogging area’ burst of posts, then a move back to ‘just share ideas and be honest about my practice’.

These days it’s just a ‘Write what I feel like, try to be helpful and useful, promote myself now and then, enjoy it, learn from it’. It’s just a blog, and there are deffo more interesting ones to read than mine!

Which blogs are you reading these days, Mike? I like that Education Rickshaw one at the moment. I don’t agree with the guy often, but it’s a good read. And Philip Kerr’s recent posts – very insightful.

I am continually impressed with Philip Kerr’s blog! I guess I don’t read tooo many blogs at the moment. I will always read posts from Zhenya Polosatova (who is very much on my mind these days) when they come out. What advice would you give to those interested in starting a blog?

I guess it depends on the purpose. If it’s for your own CPD then I guess I’d say be honest, be bold, put your thoughts/ideas out there, welcome all comments, see your posts as a snapshot of your thinking at that time (which may/will evolve), reread them now and again with that in mind.

If you’re blogging for self-promo in ELT (whatever your goal) then I guess it’s up to you how genuine/polished/formulaic/etc you are. Just rock your style, up to you what that is. It’d be good if it were really *you* though. I’d enjoy reading it more tbh.

This is great advice. Thank you. I think you’ve written about it before but what advice would you give to those interested in dipping their toes into publishing?

Yeah I’ve written a bit about it and I tend to say things like ‘it’s easier than you think’, ‘just put yourself out there’, ‘all you need is LinkedIn’ etc.

But look, I mean, I’m both lucky and privileged in certain ways. I’m financially able at this point to take risks when it comes to my career choices. English is my first language and I can’t deny that’s been to my advantage as a writer before. I’ve also been in the right place at the right time. And so on. I’m not saying my advice is useless. It’s honest, but it’s perhaps a bit blinkered at times.

That said, getting on LinkedIn, sending connection requests to some commissioning editors, making yourself sound good, and doing some free samples probably won’t hurt.

Thank you for the honesty and the advice. It seems like CPD is quite important to you. I just noticed that the tagline on your blog says, “TEFL tips and ideas from a developing teacher” and it’s clear to me that you are highly focused on development. How do you prioritize where to spend your time and money?

Good question. Hmmm. Early on in my career my development needs were more immediate. For example, I was inexperienced as a YL teacher and my teaching centre offered a CELTA YL training course, so that was the decision made. As time’s gone on I’ve followed my career goals more.

My priorities have tended to be a mix between ‘chance for promotion/good job if I do this course’ and ‘chance of personal and professional enhancement which should ultimately benefit my learners (I hope!)’. The former has taken over in recent years as I’ve moved into EAL. Working in an international school meant getting a PGCEi, which wasn’t cheap and is seen by some as a cash cow. To be fair though, the PGCEi kinda brought the promotion/personal development motivations together. It was a thought-provoking course at times and certainly helped me engage in my practice, recognise certain constraints in international schooling, and better understand my role as an EAL practitioner.   

Funding wise… Well, I’ve been lucky with funding for some training courses. For example, my CELTA YL and my MA were both paid for by the British Council (almost in full) for which I’m very grateful.

Beyond that, CPD for me is non-negotiable (both dedicating time and money) so I budget for it. I said to myself back in 2016 that if I ever wrote one of those ‘global coursebooks’ then I’d put at least half the fees into CPD. It happened (surprisingly, and due to LinkedIn), so I’ve had a CPD pot ticking down for a while. These days though half of any fees go into savings for my kids’ education. Priorities change!

Thank you for sharing all of this. I believe there are some useful nuggets for readers here. Regarding coursebooks, is there a topic you’d like to see in a textbook someday that you don’t think would be possible at the moment?

Certain target markets dictate that topics related to gender and sexuality are avoided/ignored. I’d like to see this challenged, and I think an area of priority (if any) ahead of World Cup 2022 would be LGBTQ representation in sport, with reference beyond athletes to include officials and fans.

An aside, but I don’t think the issue with textbooks is always about omitting topics. Sometimes it’s about how they deal with certain topics too, such as whether they perpetuate colonial discourses. 

Mike: Well said. I won’t ask you about other issues with coursebooks! 🙂  Unless you’d like to get into it. 

Well, we can dabble if you want?!

There are enough coursebook critiques already. Lots are justified, many are purposeful and apposite (if that’s the right word?). Some are lazy. In some ways I think that coursebooks alone are an easy target. It seems far easier to critique an ‘artefact’ like a coursebook as a static resource than it is to delve deeper into how that resource is being used/adopted/adapted by teachers, and the impact that has on the learners.

My bugbear with coursebook critique is the hypocrisy that pops up from time to time. Critiques that focus on the absent curriculum, misrepresentation, and other issues focusing on overall choice of content are for me the most valid. They are highly relevant and the suggested changes are often actionable. Look at the way Tyson Seburn has handled the issue, the way that the likes of Lottie Galpin mediate in this area, the recent resources from Bristol Museum, etc.

On the other hand, critiques relating to how well coursebooks align with SLA theory can (at times) be a red flag for me. That’s where I find the most subjectivity (from both sides!), and the most opportunism. Don’t get me wrong, ‘coursebooks and SLA’ is a big issue in ELT, but it is not always approached with a fair amount of transparency. We need good mediators in this area, and there are few who seem both informative and genuine – we’ve mentioned Philip Kerr already so I don’t want to flatter but… you know what I’m saying.

My advice would be to always do your research on the critic – you may find that they are involved in selling or promoting some alternative approach to the ‘coursebook methodology’ they are critiquing. That’s when the cherry picking of research and the agendas start to become a bit more apparent.

Thank you for sharing your perspective on this. I am glad you chose to. And I think it’s time to move on to the lightning round…What kind of music are you into? 

Used to be metal. Classic, like Maiden, Judas Priest (saw them in Seoul!!!). Indie and lo-fi. When I’m writing resources I have the band Work Drugs on loop. Recently got into David Dean Burkhart indie playlists on YouTube, amazing. My other favs are Devo, Sparks, B-52s. How about you?

I am mostly into 90s hip-hop and 70s rock but enjoy almost anything. So, when you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?

Sports Journalist. 

That is interesting! Somehow it’s quite different from your current work but I can see some parallels. OK. Korean food or Thai food? Any particular dishes you like in either cuisine? 

Korean food, 110%. Gamjatang, Chuatang, Dwaejigukbap, Kimchijjigae. Some good Thai food though, Sai Ua is a highlight.

I love Thai food but I have to say it’s Korean for me as well. Puns or riddles? 


What attracts you puns? 

I’m socially awkward. Puns (like, 10 puns in a row) break the ice. I’m also a dad and an uncle. We need puns.

We do. I couldn’t interview you and not ask about puns! I think that is a good note to end on. Thank you again for doing this. I truly enjoyed it and I am sure readers will as well.