Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Photo of the book, A Language School as a Complex System, among other books on a shelp

Describing a school as a complex system

A topic that comes up often in my writing (e.g., in these posts) is Complex Systems Theory (or complexity), and the ways it can help us better understand language education. But what exactly is it that makes complexity helpful, and in what ways is a complexity-informed account of language education more useful than a more traditional one? In the paragraphs that follow, which are a revised extract from my book, A Language School as a Complex System (pp. 20-21), I attempt to answer these questions: 

Describing an entity like a school as a complex system looks deceptively simple, but is fraught with challenges. One set of difficulties that we will immediately confront relates to how we might define the system – where do we draw the lines around the system?

When thinking of a school, these lines seem to be suggested by the real world. Schools have very unambiguous topological perimeters, such as building walls or schoolyard fences that separate the school from the community in which it is embedded. They also have recognisable temporal boundaries: we can, for example, decide to concern ourselves only with what teachers and students do between the start and the end of the school day. Or maybe we could focus on what happens to a child between their first and last day at school.

Even if the borders of a complex system are suggested by the physical and social worlds, these borders are somehow ‘fuzzy’.

But even with the clarity provided by such unambiguous limits, it is hard to know what to do with contextual influences, such as decisions by policy makers, or the activity of the students’ parents. It is equally unclear how to account for societal attitudes and expectations. The problem with these is that they are shaped outside the school, but are embodied by the teachers and students, so they reside – in different senses – both inside and outside the school at the same time. One might argue that even if the borders of a complex system are suggested by the physical and social worlds, these borders are somehow ‘fuzzy’.

Another set of difficulties pertains to group membership. Thinking again of the example of a school, there there is a certain illusion of unambiguousness. Teachers are either members of the faculty or they are not; students are either enrolled in a course or they are not. We might, then, be forgiven for thinking that we can enumerate the components of a system by consulting the organigram, payroll and student register.

The problem with this line of reasoning is that the school is not just an aggregate of individual students and teachers. It also includes learning resources, syllabuses, buildings and desks, which may (or may not) need to be included in our description. It even includes non-concrete entities, like attitudes and expectations, ideologies and traditions that need to be accounted for. Most importantly, it includes a dense web of relationships that connect all these entities with each other. There is a reason why we call these systems complex.

In the holistic description of a system, borders and inventories of components are of secondary importance

But if we cannot even agree on how to define a system, and what its components are, how can we presume to study it? The answer to this question takes us back to the definition of systems in the previous sections (see here). We focus on describing the system as a whole, not with reference to individual constituents. This is something that will perhaps become clearer in the chapters that follow, where I describe a language school as a complex system. In this description, I do not concern myself with an exact specification of the system’s boundaries or an inventory of the components which could potentially be included in its definition. What I will describe, instead, are the outcomes of their interaction, or — put differently — the phenomena that I observe in the collective activity of the school. In such a holistic description, borders and inventories are of secondary importance.

If you enjoyed reading this post, you might also want to take a look at the following extracts from the book:

My publishers would also like you to know that the book can be ordered through Amazon, or directly from their 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. Alternatively, feel free to use the social sharing links below to share this information with anyone who might be interested.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Create a website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: