Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Fractal patterns against a blue background

Complexity theory in language education – What is it?

Complexity, or Complex Systems Theory, and its role in language teaching and learning is a theme that comes up often in my academic publications and in this blog (e.g., in these posts). It can be an intimidating topic (and its name does it no favours in terms of reader-friendliness!), but the ideas behind it are actually quite simple. In this post, which contains a slightly revised extract from my book, A Language School as a Complex System (pp. 20-21), I outline my understanding of what the theory is about: 

What are complex systems?

Complex systems are groups of entities that are so closely intertwined that it makes most sense if we try to understand them as a whole. Entities within a complex system are still discrete; so, for example, a class or a school is made up of individuals with discrete identities, histories, aspirations, behaviours and so on. But there is also a sense in which the system operates collectively: a system (such as a school) has a collective identity, a shared history, a common future-oriented trajectory, and a collective behaviour. These properties pertain to the system as an entirety, and they cannot be reduced to the properties of the people who make it up. If anything, these properties have permanence that transcends individual membership. That is, the collective properties of the system stay in place even when one or all the individual constituents have been replaced. Thinking again of the school as a complex system, it may well have a history, traditions and visions all of which transcend generations. So, when we decide to study a system, this means shifting our focus from the individual constituents to the system as a whole.

What is particularly interesting about complex systems is that they very often behave in ways that are quite unexpected. Characteristically, the activity of complex systems is non-linear. This means that small events could produce disproportionately large effects in the activity of a system, a property popularised in everyday usage as the butterfly effect. And yet, complex systems can also be surprisingly resilient. So, if an outside influence perturbs their structure or their activity, complex systems tend to reconfigure themselves and maintain equilibrium. It is on account of this resilience that they are also known as complex adaptive systems. But while complex systems seem to have preferred patterns of activity, they also change dynamically (hence ‘complex dynamic systems’ or ‘complex dynamical systems’), and this change happens across different timescales. For instance, if we view an individual’s psychology as a complex system, moods can change rapidly, whereas personality traits develop at a slower pace. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the activity of complex systems is emergent. This means that the interaction between the constituents of the system can produce higher-order phenomena, which are not centrally designed. The emergence of cognition from the bioelectrical activity of the neurons that make up the brain is a one example of that.

In writing this overview, I have deliberately chosen examples from a range of domains, including neurobiology, psychology and the social organisation of education. I have also drawn examples from a range of levels, from the neurons to entire communities. My intention was to show that complex systems theory can help us to understand diverse phenomena that interest us in language education. Therein lies, for me, one of its greatest appeals. Whatever our specific focus in language education, complexity can provide us with a unifying discourse, which can help to bring theoretical coherence to the field.

If you enjoyed reading this extract, the following posts may be interesting as well:

My publishers are keen that I make you aware 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 investing the price the publishers charge. Alternatively, feel free to use the social sharing links below to share this information with anyone who might be interested.


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