A Language School as a Complex System: Why did I write this book?

There are times, in academia, when you write because you have to say something, and then there are times when you write because feel that you have something to say. When I started writing A Language School as a Complex System, it was because I felt that I had something to say about schools, and complex systems, and language teaching and learning. It was much later in the writing process that I realised there was also a somewhat more personal reason for writing the book. I had to revise the introduction hours before submitting the manuscript, because I felt it was important that I state this explicitly. This is (a slightly retouched version of) what I wrote (pp. 19-20):

Motivations, background, and queries

The origins of this book go back to a time when I was involved in the management of a language school in Greece. The school had an excellent reputation, which was sustained, among other things, by a strict monolingual policy, and an impressive record of preparing learners for language certification examinations. But what was bizarre, to my eyes at least, was the fact that the school seemed to be entrenched in traditional, teacher-fronted, grammar-focused ways of instruction, which had been evolving in an organic, glacial manner since the 1970s. From the perspective of a person like me, who had been trained in a communicative tradition, such methods could not be effective, and if learners were succeeding, that must have been despite the instruction they received, not because of it. I was wrong, and this book represents both the process that I went through to realise as much, and an apology.

With an amount of confidence that was only partly due to youth, I took it to myself to ‘bring the school forward to the 21st century’ (such was the language of ambition in the pre-millennium years). This was a major multi-year endeavour, which involved designing new courses from scratch, providing extensive professional development for the staff, and holding endless meetings where we discussed the whats, hows and whys of communicative language teaching. My own memory of these events was that this had been a futile struggle, although colleagues who have read this manuscript insist that changes were taking place.

I eventually moved on to different things, but I was back in the school several years later to do fieldwork for my doctoral studies. When I returned to my former workplace, one of the first things I noticed was how little long-term impact all the curricular reform had had on the workings of the school. The syllabuses for the courses I had co-created were still in use in many cases, but they had been re-interpreted to fit with the older modus operandi of the school. New courses had also been designed, and many aspects of these seemed to align to traditional, transmissive ways of teaching rather than to the principles I had tried to instil. I was also surprised to see that the school staff had developed creative ways of teaching, which appeared to conform with the communicative principles that underpinned the curricular review, but – if you took a closer look –  actually aligned with their established teaching and learning patterns.

On a personal level, I found this very frustrating, but this frustration was crowded out by a number of puzzles that kept appearing in my mind: Why is the school resistant to reform? What are the processes that forced it to bounce back to its preferred state once I stopped applying pressure towards change? If there is no one co-ordinating these processes of ‘resistance’, why do they seem as if they are somehow organised? It was perhaps a happy coincidence that at the time, I was gradually developing an understanding of complex systems, and I intuitively knew that many of the questions I was asking could be answered by drawing on insights from Complex Systems Theory (CST).

This book, then, is an account of how I attempted to answer these questions, using CST to describe the school. In the book, I draw on data from my PhD thesis, but my aims and my approach are different. My objective is not to describe the school as such; rather, I want to provide readers with a template for what a complexity-informed description might look like. In the chapters that follow, I will focus on different components of this description, such as the state space of the system, the affordances that are present in it, the intentionalities that emerge from it, and its attractors. In doing so, I want to show that a description that brings these elements together can provide us with a coherent theoretical account of the phenomena we observe in language education.


As I describe the school, I would like to invite you to perhaps think of similar systems from your own experience (these could be classes that you teach, schools in which you have been, teacher associations, or anything of the like), and to draw parallels between my description and the system or systems that you have in mind. Ultimately, this book will have succeeded in its aim if the conceptual tools that I used to make sense of my experience also help you to make sense of your contexts. And if the overlap is less than perfect, the book will have succeeded in an even more ambitious purpose, that of initiating a discussion on how to best use CST in order to describe phenomena in language education.

I hope you enjoyed reading this extract. My publishers would like you to know that the book can be ordered through Amazon, or directly from the publishers’ website. I have tried to keep the price down by forfeiting any royalties, and I hope that you find the content of the book interesting enough to justify the modest investment involved. I will be sharing more extracts in this space, and I am looking forward to your feedback!

2 Replies to “A Language School as a Complex System: Why did I write this book?”

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