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.

Hmm…

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! 

5 comments

  1. Rachel Tsateri

    Fascinating read, thank you so much for sharing this, Mike!
    Loved these:
    • what should a professor look like?
    • evidence-based reflective practice can free us from our rigid beliefs AND negative thoughts
    • what we think we do while teaching can be a lot different from what we actually do. So true!
    • Who I am is how I teach. We are human, so we bring ourselves into the classroom.
    • 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. Abslolutely.
    • A pracademic! Cool word.
    • Teachers are heroes! Thank you❣

    Thanks so much for talking to Dr Farrell about my blog and questions, Mike! Huge thanks! 💥

  2. Christopher W. Collins

    Thanks for this interview. I’m wondering what’s a good entry point for engaging with Professor Farrell’s work—so many papers and books, but where to begin? A recommendation would be welcome!

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