Category Archives: Complexity and ELT

New publication: Intentionality & Complex Systems Theory

I am proud and happy to announce that Juup Stelma and I have just had a chapter published in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology, an edited collection put together by Christina Gkonou, Dietmar Tatzl and Sarah Mercer, and published by Springer.

In the chapter, we suggest that many activities in language teaching and learning might be easier to understand if we look into the forces that drive and sustain them. These forces, which we call intentionalities, are roughly akin to the ‘purposes’ of each activity, the reasons that make teachers and students behave together in particular ways. We also point out that teaching and learning is usually driven by several intentionalities, which are interwoven into each other. We suggest, therefore that it is useful to try to understand them through a complexity lens.

Juup and I support our theoretical argument by drawing on data from our doctoral theses. Juup describes how a group of learners in Norway got increasingly involved in a set of role-playing tasks, and engaged in increasingly more elaborate theatrics. This activity, he argues, was driven by a ‘performace intentionality’, and he discusses how it came into being, and how it eventually faltered. In my part of the chapter, I talk about how the teaching and learning activity in an evening language school in Greece was driven by what I call a ‘competition intentionality’, which emerged from the interaction with the state school system.

For those of you who find this kind of information useful, the full bibliographical reference for the chapter is:

Kostoulas, A. & Stelma, J. (2016). ‘Intentionality and Complex Systems Theory: A New Direction for Language Learning Psychology’. In Gkonou, C., Tatzl, D. and Mercer, S. (eds.). New Directions in Language Learning Psychology. Berlin: Springer.

Download Chapter

A copy of our chapter can be downloaded by clicking on the link above, and comments and feedback are always welcome!


Image Credit: adikos @ Flickr , CC-BY

How can complexity inform ELT? Diane Larsen-Freeman has some ideas

Yesterday, I blogged about this symposium that aims to explore the ‘connectivities’ of ELT, i.e, the ways in which ELT bridges languages, cultures and disciplinary boundaries. The more I think of the symposium topic, the more interesting it seems; but at the same time, I am becoming increasingly conscious that ELT theory has perhaps failed to provide a convincing account how to straddle the faultlines that run across the field.

And this reminded me of a video I watched recently, where Diane Larsen-Freeman, the co-author of Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics, discusses complexity theory, and the ways in which it can help us to think beyond the dichotomies that are somewhat too prevalent in ELT theory. I’ve embedded the video below and written up an overview, in the hope that it may be of help in case anyone is interested in preparing an abstract for the symposium (or if you just have a general interest in how complexity can inform ELT).

The video

Just to provide a brief summary, Larsen-Freeman starts by defining complex systems as systems that are made up of many interacting components, which produce higher-order phenomena through their interaction. She uses a bird flock as an example of a complex system: when you approach a feeding flock of birds, they all rise in unison like a single super-organism, and perhaps unexpectedly, they evidence coordination despite the fact that there is no central organiser.

She then goes on to point out that complexity can help to challenge dichotomies that have pervaded our thinking about English Language Teaching, such as process vs. product, form vs. meaning, etc. She argues that while these dichotomies often provide us with useful heuristics, but can unhelpfully obscure any connections between the phenomena they describe.

With this in mind, she suggests that complexity can offer a way to look into the connections between three dichotomous pairs that come up often in the ELT literature:

  • grammar process & product: Complexity helps us to understand how grammatical regularities originate in language use, rather than from the top-down imposition of formal rules. Emergent regularities then become sedimented into patterns, through a process of ‘grammaring’, and it is these patterns that then constrain future use.
  • lexis & grammar: This dichotomy has already been challenged by empirical work in corpus linguistics, which has raised awareness of lexico-grammatical phenomena. Lexico-grammar ranges from fixed phrases to semi-lexicalised patterns, and complexity theory can help to account for their use.
  • learners & learning: Larsen-Freeman cites evidence from emprical research including her own, which have suggested that while learners share a common learning process, they also go through unique developmental trajectories. In this case too, complexity can help us understand how the trajectories interrelate with shared learning processes.

Larsen-Freeman concludes her talk by suggesting some implications of these insights for English Language Teaching. For example, she suggests using iterative learning processes, that allow for creative repetition of language. She also recommends creating affordance-rich learning experiences, from which each learner might learn in different ways.

A word of caution

When engaging about a new, analytically powerful, and somewhat broad theory such as complexity, there is a danger of believing that this is the ‘correct’ way of thinking, and that previous approaches were ‘wrong’. I would argue that complexity is neither the ‘right’ way to thing about ELT, nor is it ‘wrong’; it is just one tool, out of many that make up our analytical toolbox. There are times when using complexity may not be the most appropriate analytical choice – to build on the toolkit metaphor, this might be like using a spanner to hammer a nail on a wall. There are other instances though, for which complexity is ideally suited to generate new insights, and I would argue that exploring the ‘connectivities’ across ELT theory one of them.


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

Manchester Roundtable on Complexity Theory and ELT

I often circulate conference announcements in this space, but today I am very excited to announce a seminar that I am co-organising, which will focus on Complex Systems Theory and English Language Teaching. This will take place in Manchester just after IATEFL, so if you happen to be around, do join us!

We’ve put together a website for the event, and we’ll be populating it with more information in the coming weeks. In the meanwhile, any feedback or comments will be appreciated. You can download our flier here (in .pdf form). If you could circulate this to anyone who might be interested, we’d be most grateful!

And finally, here’s the call for participation:


 Manchester Roundtable
on Complexity Theory and ELT

Wednesday 15 April 2015
9:00am – 3:00pm
The University of Manchester

Complexity Theory is becoming an established perspective in the field of ELT. To date, Complexity Theory has been used to generate understandings of ELT, and has also served as a framework for empirical studies (most prominently studies of language learning and use in ELT situations). However, Complexity Theory has not yet been used to directly inform actual ELT practice and it will remain of limited value to ELT practitioners unless it can generate practical insights deemed as useful by practitioners.

Through a combination of invited presentations and participant discussion, the Roundtable aims to identify how Complexity Theory may enhance ELT practice. Tentatively, this may include discussion of how Complexity Theory may inform language classroom teaching, teacher development, innovation in curriculum, syllabus and materials design, and the inclusion of learners as fuller participants in language education. There will be opportunities for Roundtable participants to add to this tentative agenda.

There will be presentations offering starting points for discussion by:

  • Lynne Cameron (Professor Emerita, Open University)
  • Susan Dawson (University of Manchester and INTO Manchester)
  • Achilleas Kostoulas (University of Manchester)
  • Sarah Mercer (University of Graz, Austria)
  • Juup Stelma (University of Manchester)

The one-day Roundtable will take place immediately following the annual conference of the International Association for Teaching of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL), also in Manchester. If you are an ELT practitioner and/or researcher and have an interest in Complexity Theory (broadly construed), you are warmly invited to this Roundtable and we would welcome your input. This is a free event.

If you wish to participate in the Roundtable, please register before April 8th on Eventbrite. Please note that we need to limit the number of participants. Once the maximum number of participants has been reached, we will no longer be taking any further registrations.

The Roundtable is sponsored by:
Institute for Development, Policy & Management
School of Environment, Education & Development
The University of Manchester

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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)