Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Fractal patterns against a blue background

Complex Systems Theory as a Shared Discourse Space for TESOL

The June 2018 issue of TESOL Journal, which has just been published, contains a short feature article by me, Juup Stelma, Sarah Mercer, Lynne Cameron and Susan Dawson. The article has been online since April 2017, but this seems like a good opportunity to share some background about it.

Signs flanking door, with information on the building and events held in it
The entrance to the Manchester Roundtable on Complexity Theory and ELT

The Manchester Roundtable

Back in 2015, we —the authors of the paper— were involved in organising a small academic meeting that brought together a number of academics and teachers with an interest in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages and Complex Systems Theory.

One of the key insights that came out of the Manchester Roundtable on Complexity Theory and English Language Teaching was that there was much resonance between the theoretical tools used in complexity and the language teachers’ intuitive knowledge. For example, the observation that the same lesson plan could lead to two very different lessons when used in two seemingly identical classes seemed to connect to themes like non-linearity and sensitive dependence of initial conditions, which are described in the complexity literature.

At the time, we were unclear whether such similarities are just a useful metaphor, or if there is a deeper link worth pursuing (Three years and a book later, I still don’t know the answer to that question). But what we all seemed to agree about is that this overlap in perspectives created a very useful opportunity for teachers and researchers to explore ideas together.

Computer, flanked by telephone, laptop, wine glass and potato chips.
A view of my office at the University of Graz.

Writing the article

This observation, namely that complexity could be viewed as a shared discourse space for language teachers and TESOL researchers, was further developed in an article that we, the organisers of the Roundtable started writing soon after the event.

The article was initially submitted to TESOL Quarterly, where it remained under review for several months before being rejected. The reviewers’ comments suggested that the reason for rejection were at least partly political. In their view, the article aligned too closely with a neoliberal agenda that had to be resisted. Specifically, they wrote:

I am concerned that a theory cast in terms of “contextual dynamics” and “non-linear effects” runs the risk of being used by the powers that be to justify unfair employment practices, the cutting of programs and the disparaging of traditional forms of institutional hierarchy that feels threatened by CST and for very good reason. (…) I am also concerned that, by not mentioning the symbolic power struggles between native and non-native instructors (…), between English and other languages, between public and private institutions etc., and not explicitly building in human intentionality and agency in educational practice, CST can be recuperated by neoliberal forces all too happy to make themselves invisible while they continue to tighten the control processes and the accountability measures over the individual practitioner.

These are, of course, very valid points, and concerns that I unreservedly share. The point where these reviewer and I disagree is that I believe CST can actually raise awareness of these disconcerting processes, rather than hide them – and such is the approach I have taken in my own book, where these themes are discussed through a complexity lens. At any rate, I would view the points the reviewers raised as examples of exactly the kind of discourse a complexity-informed line of inquiry might hopefully generate. It is perhaps a wasted opportunity that this discussion took place in editorial correspondence, rather than in the published literature, where it might be more useful to the profession.

Rather than challenge the editorial decision, however, a decision was made to submit a revised version to TESOL Journal, where it was accepted for publication with only minor changes.

person writing on white printer paper on beige wooden table
Photo by on

The article

We begin the article by providing an overview of what complex systems are, drawing examples from education in order to highlight how the theory can be usefuly applied to discussions about language teaching and learning:

In education, for instance, a class could be viewed as a system because its members (teachers and learners) act and speak in certain ways when they are together. In addition to being associated with a space and a particular time, systems may have a historicity that influences their activity. For example, classroom behaviour will be a product of current dynamics as well as past experience that has been sedimented in the system. (…) [So] it may be analytically expedient to view a class as a system, taking into account its semipermanent structure, the similarities in the learners’ backgrounds and objectives, and the physical boundaries of the classroom. But when framing the system in such terms, we must remain alert to the fact that its boundaries are permeated by rules and norms of the school culture, the influence of extracurricular events on the learners’ affective states, and more. In a sense, then, “the boundary of the system is neither purely a function of our description, nor is it purely a natural thing” (Cilliers, 2001, p. 141).

We then go on to argue that complex systems have a tendency to settle in “fairly regular patterns of activity (…) such as the initiation‐response‐feedback discourse pattern (Sinclair & Coulthard, 1992) or learner‐learner interaction with distinct modes of disputational, cumulative, and exploratory talk (N. Mercer, 1995)”. However, this stablity should not be confused with stasis. In fact, complex systems will often reconfigure their structure in ways that are not truly random but are certainly not fully predictable:

More generally, as teachers we all know well that language learners’ progress is seldom linear; learning often comes in spurts, interspersed with periods of apparent lack of progress or even regression (…). In the CST literature, change is variously described as gradual, cumulative, sudden, and/or unpredictable, which is consistent with what we know about the variety of change processes we observe in language education.

We go on to explain that this change is sometimes associated with minute differences in initial conditions (the so-called butterfly effect), or with emergent phenomena that develop within the system.

In the final section of the paper we note our concern that “research in ELT, and related domains of inquiry such as linguistics, psychology, and education, is often framed in ways that are incompatible with the practicalities of everyday teaching”. We argue for the necessity of bridging this gap, and suggest that adapting compatible ways of looking at education could be a first step towards that end.

A shared discourse space, such as the one we are suggesting, can develop only through interaction. We believe that this interaction has already begun in the academic and professional literatures, where practitioners and researchers are increasingly turning to CST to frame their insights (e.g., King, 2016; Kramsch, 2012; Maas, 2005). Interaction is also beginning to take place at practitioner and academic conferences, where complexity‐informed talks are becoming more common, and in journals and online environments, where complexity thinking is becoming increasingly visible. Interactions such as these, including the Manchester Roundtable, have helped us, the authors of this article, move our own understanding of CST and its affordances for TESOL forward. However, we are concerned that many of the interactions have not always included practitioners and researchers in the same space, nor have they always led to enhanced dialogue and cooperation. We would like this article to be one further step on a journey towards a shared discourse space enabled by CST. We hope that this journey will develop momentum, and we look forward to other practitioners and researchers building on these tentative first steps.

If you are interested in reading the full article, this can be found in the TESOL Journal website, where it is regrettably hidden behind a paywall. The APA reference, for those among you who find these things helpful, is:

Kostoulas, A. , Stelma, J. , Mercer, S. , Cameron, L. and Dawson, S. (2018). Complex Systems Theory as a Shared Discourse Space for TESOL. TESOL Journal, 9(2), 246-260. doi: 10.1002/tesj.317

I hope you find the article useful, and I am looking forward to any comments, either in this space or by email!

In-text images own, unless otherwise credited. Featured image:  Fractal flame (Wikipedia, CC BY-SA)



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