Complexity in ELT: what it is and what it isn’t

“The last time I did this lesson, the students loved it. I tried it again today, with another class that was just like the first one, and it was an absolute disaster”.

“They’ve been learning English for five years now! Why can’t they simply understand that you need to use an –s in the third person singular? It’s not that hard!”

Do these accounts sound familiar? That’s because teaching and learning are messy, unpredictable, non-linear – in one word, complex. In this series of posts, I want to unpack what ‘complex’ means, and to describe a way of thinking about complex phenomena.

Complex Systems Theory, or simply complexity, has become something of a vogue term in English Language Teaching in the last few years. There have been books written about Complexity in Applied Linguistics (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008, Ellis & Larsen-Freeman 2009), special issues in academic journals (Applied Linguistics, Revista Brasileira de Linguística Applicada), conferences in which complexity was the overarching topic, and I won’t be surprised if the term soon makes an appearance in teacher training, or if language courses are launched which claim to be informed by complexity. Rather unfortunately, interest in the term has not always advanced hand-in-hand with understanding of what it means, so in the paragraphs that follow I will try to put forward a working definition.

What is complexity?

Although complexity has been studied for quite some time now, it seems that we do not have a single, authoritative definition of what it is. However, for the purposes of these posts, I will roughly define it as follows:

Complexity is the study of how non-linear, emergent phenomena come into being from the co-activity of relatively simple entities, without the benefit of co-ordination.

There are three essential elements to this definition. First, that complexity is about the study of phenomena that challenge our ability to predict them. It is about how little things (the proverbial ‘flap of the butterfly’s wings’) can have unexpected impact, or how systems can withstand sustained effort to change them. Secondly, complexity is about the study of how entities interact, e.g., how the behaviour of one student can trigger reactions by their classmates or the teacher, and how these reactions come back and influence the future behaviour of the original student. Lastly, it is about how phenomena bootstrap themselves into existence, as happens when a group of learners spontaneously burst into play, or when language forms emerge, change and die out without central planning, and even in spite of attempts to regulate them.

Some examples

One of my favourite examples of complex phenomena is the ant colony. Individually, ants are quite unsophisticated creatures. However, when working in groups they build massive anthills in which they live, they regulate the ratio of workers and soldiers in the colony, they efficiently store food and dispose of waste and so on. Crucially, they do so on their own, rather than under the orders of a queen, and they do so using only the most rudimentary of communication signals. Complexity sets itself the task of understanding how the individually simple actions and interactions of ants lead to quasi-intelligent behaviour at a collective level.

Another example of complex behaviour

Yet another example, which is closer to ELT, concerns the global spread of English, and its hegemonic role. It has been convincingly argued that English is connected to phenomena such as cultural and linguistic imperialism or the decline of smaller languages (e.g., Phillipson 1992). However, individually, few if any educators embark on their careers with the intention of perpetuating the dominance of the English-speaking West. I am certain that most, if not all, teachers genuinely have the best interests of their students at heart. To even suggest that their often altruistic professional practice is, in fact, exploitative, seems deeply unfair. In such a situation, complexity helps us to understand how well-meaning actions at an individual level connect to broader social processes which are perhaps problematic.

What complexity is not

Since complexity is still a relatively new term, especially in the domain of Applied Linguistics and ELT, it often tends to be used imprecisely. Therefore, in the interest of clarity, I believe that in addition to defining what complexity is, it’s useful to also state what it is not:

  • Complexity is not diversity: Complex systems are typically made up of many components that differ in terms of characteristics, roles and even category membership. However, adopting a complexity outlook involves more than just acknowledging such diversity. In other words, simply saying that classrooms are hyper-diverse, or that ELT is a global profession typified by diverse agendas is not enough. Rather, a complexity perspective involves understanding how all this diversity is synthesised, and how phenomena emerge from a diversely-constituted system, which would have been qualitatively different if the system’s composition had not been what it is.
  • Complexity is not chaos: Complexity is often equated with chaos theory, or chaotic behaviour. There are two problems with this conceptualisation. Firstly, chaos is often understood in lay terms as random, destructive behaviour. In complexity theory, however, chaos refers to very specific type of behaviour that is unpredictable, and yet rule-governed. Secondly, although ‘chaos theory’ and ‘complexity’ have been used interchangeably in some publications, chaos is just one of many behaviours which a complex system may exhibit.    
  • Complexity is not about numbers: The fact that complex systems often consist of extremely large numbers of components (e.g., an ant colony) often leads to the misconception that complexity is about studying the behaviour of large groups. As I have explained in this post, the number of components in a system is something of a red herring, and even a system with only two components, such as a double pendulum, can in fact be complex.

Looking forward

Over the next few weeks, I will describe more examples of how complexity can be used to make sense of English Language Teaching. I will discuss how schools, and classes, and educational systems can be viewed as complex systems; what complex phenomena take place in such settings; and how complexity has been used in the literature so far. But before I do any of that, in the next post (to appear in a couple of weeks from now), I look into how complexity differs from more traditional ‘scientific’ ways of thinking. Until next time!


Featured image: Fractal flame (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA)

5 thoughts on “Complexity in ELT: what it is and what it isn’t”

    1. I sure hope so. That’s what my PhD was all about. There have been some complexity-inspired doctoral projects in ELT at the University of Nottingham as well.

  1. It’s a promising area in SLS! I hope to have a look to your PhD. Συγχαρητήρια για την διατριβή σου. Στη δίκη μου έχω μελετήσει για τις μεταβλητές κίνητρο και στάσεις στην εκμάθηση της ισπανικής ως ξένης από ελληνόφωνους. Καλή συνέχεια!

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