BAAL LLT 2014: an overview

This is a long overdue post about the BAAL Language Learning and Teaching conference, which I promised a week ago. It’s hard to do credit to such an intellectually stimulating conference in a single blog post, let alone one that I had to write in the midst of copy-editing my thesis for submission, so I’ll just come clean at the outset: this is a very selective account of the event: I discuss some highlights of the conference, move on to list a very small number of the presentations that are most relevant to the topic of this blog, and conclude with some shameless self-promotion of my own talk.

The conference

The theme of this year’s conference, which was hosted by the School of Education, University of Leeds, was “Recognising complexity in language learning and teaching”.

The concept of complexity, it appears, was approached by participants in two overlapping ways. Several contributions highlighted the increasing diversity that typifies teaching and learning contexts, and the ways in which our understandings of pedagogy and teaching methodology become more and more sensitive to the intricate ways in which these diverse elements interact. Another strand of thinking focused on a more technical use of Complexity, and investigated the ways in which Complex Systems Theory could inform language teaching and learning. In my opinion, these practical and theoretical approaches to complexity in language pedagogy prove mutually enriching.

photo (5)
Martin Lamb introducing Sarah Mercer [note the sign language interpreters on behind him: just one example of the conference organisers’ attention to detail]

Selected presentations

What follows is not a comprehensive listing of talks in the conference, nor is it in any way implied that the presentations listed below were in some way more important than the ones not mentioned. The criterion of inclusion, rather, has been the way these talks connect to recurring themes of this blog, such as complexity thinking, language policy and bilingualism.

  • Jurgen Kurtz showcased pedagogical tasks in which learner output balanced finely between structure and unpredictability. His video extracts showing such tasks were a highlight of the presentation!
  • Laura Grassick presented early findings from her research on curriculum innovation in Peru, and showed how Complex Systems Theory can be used to interpret such data.
  • Sarah Mercer delivered a plenary in which she reviewed Complex Systems Theory and made the case for using it to bridge the perceived gap between theory and practice.
  • Soo Yeon Yim used Relational Theory to talk about the linguistic behaviour of couples from different linguistic backgrounds who were engaged in a “romantic, intimate or meaningful relationship”.
  • Juup Stelma argued for ‘nativising’ Complex Systems Theory to Applied Linguistics, and used the construct of intentionality to interpret empirical data showing students engaged in task work, as an example of how this might be done.

More photos of the conference and tweets about most talks can be found in this Storify narrative that I’ve put together.

Pack of index cards outlining my presentation
I am, arguably, the last person in the world who still uses index cards :)

My presentation

My own presentation was all about intentionality, a construct that I ‘borrowed’ from ecological psychology. Roughly speaking, if I choose to view an educational setting, such as a school, as a Complex System which is always in flux, ‘intentionality’ is a way of describing the force, or ‘driver’ that keeps it in motion. If visual metaphors help you, you could think of intentionality like the flow of water in a stream.

Using data from my PhD, I showed examples of intentionalities that drove the day-to-day operations of a language school, and used these as prompts to describe how I understand intentionality. I argued that:

  • Intentionality is collective, i.e., it’s a synthesis of the beliefs, actions and preferences of all the participants in the language school;
  • Intentionality is emergent, i.e., it is not something purposefully put together by some authority figure;
  • Intentionality has generative properties, i.e., not only does it emerge in a specific setting, but also it moulds the setting from which it has arisen.

I also argued that several intentionalities may be present in a certain educational setting. For instance, in the language school where I conducted my research, activity seemed to be driven, among other things, by an expectation to provide learners with language certification (‘credentialism’) and an impulse to protect the professional interests of teachers and stakeholders (‘protectionism’).

I suggested that the synthesis of such diverse intentionalities generated a ‘dynamic of intentions’, which you can think of as a snapshot of the intentionalities present in a system at a given moment. I then argued that the dynamics of intention in the language school I had studied fluctuated in three ways, depending on the type of lesson (synchronic variation?), depending on the learners’ level, and from year to year (diachronic variation). [Incidentally, if readers can think of snappy names for these types of variation, that would be very much appreciated, as I seem to be stuck :/]

A copy of my abstract can be found here, and a copy of the handout and my PowerPoint slides are also available for download if anyone wants them.

I also gratefully acknowledge receiving the bursary for this year’s conference. I was certainly appreciative of such credit and financial support, but as I said on several occasions, it felt awkward to be singled out among so many truly outstanding presentations.

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