Complexity & ELT

This page contains information about my doctoral research, which led to the award of a PhD in Education in 2014. The research project, which looks into how English Language Teaching (ELT) is practiced at the periphery of the English-speaking world, is a case study taking place in a language school in Greece.

Set between the Anglo-Saxon culture of the target language and the local culture in which it is embedded, the language school represents a crucible of differing views on language, culture and pedagogy. This interaction is sometimes described in the literature as a one-way imposition of the target-culture norms onto the cultures of the periphery, and it is variously described as linguistic imperialism, nativespeakerism or hegemony, depending on one’s focus. While I believe that there is value in this perspective, I also think that it tends to ignore agency in the local settings, and it does not usefully account for everything that is observed if one looks very closely into particular settings. In fact, I would argue that such a theoretical outlook might divert our attention away from some of the more interesting phenomena that seem to be taking place in such pedagogical settings. For example, why do local teachers seem unforgiving of grammar and spelling mistakes, but not pronunciation, and how does this relate to the muted staffroom conversations about the language awareness of colleagues who are native speakers of English? And how does one reconcile the fact that certain Greek publishing enterprises list UK addresses as their headquarters, but market their courses as being ‘specifically researched for the Greek market’?

So, what this project is trying to do is to produce a ‘thick’ ethnographic description of a setting where English is taught as a foreign language. As a snapshot of English language education at the under-researched periphery of the English-speaking world, such a description has intrinsic value because it adds to our understanding of the global reach of English, and raises awareness of its impact. Moreover, I believe such a description can provide us with insights into how global and local influences are synthesised into a distinctive and idiosyncratic form of pedagogy. By using inductive methods, loosely based on grounded theory, I aim to generate a conceptual framework that can help to account for how traditional (local), communicative (mainstream) and post-modern (critical) perspectives blend into pedagogical practice. Lastly, this project aims to test how useful Complex Systems Theory might prove in describing and interpreting the behaviour of collective entities, such as a school, as an outcome of competing intentionalities of individual teachers, learners and other stakeholders.

In practical terms, I believe that the findings of this study can be used to inform syllabus development and teacher education, by raising awareness of the varying influences under which professional practice is shaped, and by suggesting how these sometimes competing influences can be usefully synthesised.

The pilot study that preceded this research has been reported in:

  • Kostoulas, A. (2010). ‘Between paradigms: a case study of a language school in Greece.’ In Georgogiannis, P. and Baros, V. (eds.) Proceedings of the 13th International Conference on Intercultural Education, Immigration, Conflict Management and Pedagogy for Democracy. Vol. B. (pp. 401-411). Patras, Greece: University of Patras Centre for Research on Intercultural Education. (full text)

Preliminary findings have also been presented as conference papers, including the following:

  • Kostoulas, A. (2011). From local pedagogy and global influences towards eclectic practice. Paper presented at the 7th BAAL Language Learning and Teaching Special Interest Group Conference “Theorising practice and practising theory: developing local pedagogies in language teaching”, hosted by Aston University. Birmingham, UK: July 2011.
  • Kostoulas, A. (2011). Places for Pedagogy, Spaces for Innovation: the emergence of eclectic pedagogy in ELT settings. Paper presented at “New Dynamics of Language Learning: Spaces and Places – Intentions and Opportunities” International Conference, hosted by the University of Jyväskylä. Jyväskylä, Finland: June 2011.

More recent publications drawing on my PhD thesis include:

  • Kostoulas, A. and Stelma, J. (2016). Intentionality & Complex Systems Theory: A New Direction for Language Learning Psychology. In Gkonou, C., Mercer, S. and Tatzl, D. (eds. New Directions in the Psychology of Language Learning. Berlin: Springer.
  • Kostoulas, A. (2014). A Greek tragedy: Using a complexity perspective to understand and challenging the Known in Greece. In Rivers, D. (ed.) Resistance to the Known in Foreign Language Education: Exploring new possibilities through critical perspectives. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Kostoulas, A. (2014). Tracing dynamics of intentions in Greek ELT. Paper submitted for consideration in the 2014 Annual Conference of the BAAL Language Learning and Teaching SIG.

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