Meet Thomas S. C. Farrell

by Chitra Varaprasad

National University of Singapore (Singapore)

In addition to being an academic who lectures and researches as Professor in the Department of Applied Linguistics, Brock University, Ontario, Canada, Tom also holds a fifth degree Black Belt in a Korean martial art. He could probably side kick you to the floor in a flash, if he needed to.

Fortunately, Tom has not needed his self defence skills because he has been busy observing and reflecting on his teaching practices and those of others. In fact, the concept of reflective teaching and Tom are inseparable. When I met him, he had a baseball cap on with the phrase ‘Reflective Practice’ staring at me. He has been teaching across the globe and has straddled different cultures at different times. He has taught in Ireland, Korea, Singapore and now Canada.

Tom has had a long study and career history. He obtained his undergraduate degree and Higher Diploma in Education from University College, Dublin, Ireland. A holiday stint in Korea turned into an extended stay of eighteen years. Tom began his career there by teaching English as a foreign language and gradually rose to the ranks of assistant professor at Duksung University and he served as Associate Director of Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. In the interim, he also obtained his Masters from the University of Southern California.

While in Korea, he chanced upon an interesting PhD program offered by Indiana University, Pennsylvania, USA, which allowed for a summer residency program to do course work for three months a year. This time saw Tom commuting with his Korean wife and two daughters to the US every year for five years. “That proved to be a good experience. What’s more, I got to keep my job in Korea and be a full-time PhD student in the US at the same time,” says Tom. Soon after defending his dissertation in 1997, a job advertisement in the Chronicle of Higher Educationfrom the National Institute of Education (NIE), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore, encouraged him to engineer a move from Korea to Singapore.

“The job description seemed to be written just for me,” Tom mused. He stayed on in Singapore till 2004 and then moved to Brock University, Ontario, Canada, where he is presently Professor and Chair of the Department of Applied Linguistics.

On his choice of career, Tom claimed, “I have always been a teacher at heart. I have been inspired by what other teachers do or do not do in the classroom. I am myself as a teacher, but I am also a composite of others in terms of what to do and what not to do in the classroom.”

Tom also believes that teachers should possess a strong professional identity. “Teachers need to know who they are first and who is this self that teaches.” He cites the ‘Tree of Life’ with its ‘Limbs,’ ‘Trunk’ and ‘Roots (further elaborated in his book*) to show how our values, beliefs, experiences and knowledge shape this professional identity.

Tom credits his own close observations for shaping his own beliefs about teaching. For example, he recalled his own early teaching years, when the examiner would walk into the classroom without prior announcement to observe his teaching. He still remembers the lady’s intense gaze throughout the observation period, which he calls “the look of the expert,” as leaving him a nervous wreck.

Many years down the road, he heard his own colleagues resorting to surprising their trainee teachers by just “showing up” for classroom observation, much to his own dismay and the agony of the trainee teachers. This led to his belief that “teacher observation in the classroom is a process of development and not an evaluation.” He insists that pre- and post- observation discussion should be an integral part of this developmental process.

Tom also believes in being a “constructivist” in education. Such a person would enable students to construct meaning in the classroom by drawing upon their existing knowledge. One needs to respect what students bring with them to the classroom and build on it. “Treat them as human beings and delve into their minds to achieve what you want,” he suggests strongly.

It is not surprising that observations such as these gradually kindled Tom’s interest in classroom reflective practices, which explains his doctoral dissertation titled “Qualitative analysis of four ESL teachers as reflective practitioners.” Tom espouses his own philosophy on classroom teaching with just the mention of the phrase ‘reflective practices.’

“I have observed that teachers can be like a machine in the classroom, churning out exercise after exercise for the students to do. They are akin to a ring master in a circus who drives the show at a pace he thinks is right. Such teachers are focused on finishing their lesson plans for the day without any concern about whether learning is really taking place.” He feels that such an approach can ultimately result in a burnout, as teachers can become slaves to routine.

This is where reflections and reflective practices can “reinvigorate” teachers, according to Tom. He calls such practices “self-initiated professional development.’’ He cited video- taping a teaching session as one example of gathering evidence on one’s teaching, as reflection does not merely imply reflecting about what happens in the classroom. “It is also about coming up with evidence about what works and what does not and why, and about what needs to be done.”

Reflective practices involve systematic thinking and planning. They can help teachers “uncover aspects of one’s teaching that may remain tacit and also show inconsistencies between their beliefs and actual practices.” This guides teachers to make “informed decisions about their teaching and teaching materials and not be influenced by their instinct and opinion.” They evolve into a “teacher scholar” as they move from “research to practice” and from “practice to research,” Tom added with conviction.

To a question about who shaped his teaching philosophy, Tom shared the names of Richards, Freeman and Faneslow. At a time when he was inundated with the communicative approach and several second language acquisition theories, the three applied linguists were highly influential in helping him conceive and develop his “practice approach,” based on his context and classroom. Therefore, it is not surprising when Tom unhesitatingly states that “the teacher is the method” as he/she is solely responsible for creating a conducive learning environment. Tom has gone on to publish extensively. It is not surprising as he writes every day from 7.30am to 10.30am, working on his different publications. “This is a discipline I have not deviated from,” he asserts confidently. He has just secured a grant for Canadian $50,000 to study three college teachers and their reflective practices using a case study approach.

Tom’s discipline in academia extends to his martial art regime as well. He practices for forty five minutes every day. He jogs regularly, loves reading thrillers and enjoys a regular pint of beer. When in Singapore, his favourite haunt is the Wala Wala Bar in Holland Village. While in Singapore, should you bump into someone in Holland Village with a baseball cap which says ‘Reflective Practice,’ you should know who it is, for Tom the ‘reflective practitioner,’ literally walks his talk. More importantly, remember not to mess with Tom Farrell.

* Farrell, T.S.C. (2008). Reflective language teaching: From research to practice. London: Continuum Press.


About the Author

Chitra Varaprasad is a senior lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication (CELC), National University of Singapore. She has taught academic literacy, communication and language proficiency courses. Her research interests are teaching methodology and materials development. She has presented and published several papers on teaching reading and writing. Chitra’s doctoral thesis was on reading for macrostructure. She is currently CELC’s Head of Professional Development.

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