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 was conducted under the supervision of Juup Stelma, Julian Edge and Susan Brown, involved an in-depth case study that took place in a language school in Greece, and it used a Complex Systems Theory lens to help understand the teaching and learning practices at the school.

The research context

Set between the Anglo-Saxon culture of the target language and the local culture in which it is embedded, the language school where the study took place was seen as 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 was also concerned that it tended to ignore agency in the local settings, and it did 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’?

My intuitive impression, when I started out the project, was that such questions could be best answered using Complex Systems Theory. This theoretical framework has been used in the natural sciences, and is increasingly used in the social sciences as well, in order to account for non-linear processes of change, and for the ways complex social structures can emerge from the collective activity of their constituents. The problem, which was even more accute when the project was conceived in 2007, was that Complex Systems Theory was developed in the natural sciences, and it could not be assumed that it would apply equally well in language education.

Aims of the project

This project had two aims, which corresponded to the two problems outlined above. The first aim was to produce a ‘thick’ ethnographic description of a setting where English is taught as a foreign language. As a snapshot of language education at the under-researched periphery of the English-speaking world, such a description could help us to understand how global and local influences come toghether to produce a distinctive and idiosyncratic form of pedagogy.

In addition to the ethnographic aim of the project, I was also interested in finding a way to ‘import’, or ‘nativise’, complex systems theory for the purposes of language education. I expected to do this by developing analytical instruments and frameworks which would be built inductively, or bottom-up, from the data, and connecting them to insights from the complexity literature. These instruments could them be applied to the analysis of the data from the language school, and this would demonstrate the feasibility and usefulness of a complexity perspective.

You can read more about the motivations of this project, including personal reasons that inspired by involvement in this post.

Conceptual Findings

The main argument made in my thesis, and subsequently developed in my book, A Language School as a Complex System, was that we can generate a theoretically coherent and powerful description of a language school if we account for four aspects:

  • The state space of the school: This is an outline of all the forms of teaching and learning that are conceivably available to the school. I derived this from the language education literature, and described the various option in terms of their linguistic, methodological and political implications;
  • The affordances present to the school: This is a description of the forms of teaching and learning that are made more likely, given the resources that are available to teachers and learners. This description was based on classroom observatsions and a content analysis of learning materials.
  • The intentionalities active in the school: This refers to the main motivational drivers that can be identified in the school, or the forces that sustained teaching and learning, whether these were explicitly acknowledged or implicit in the system’s activity. This description was based on observations, questionnaire survey data and interviews.
  • The attractors observed at the school: This is an description of the forms of teaching and learning that were actually observed in the school. These attractors took the form of prototypical instructional sequences, which —I argued— occupy a space in the state space and emerge from the interaction of affordances and intentionalities.

Ethnographic findings

In the thesis, I argued that ELT pedagogy (the state space in which the activity of the school took place, Figure 1) could be described in terms of three dimensions, which comprised several different positions:

Three-dimensional grid
Figure 1. The state space of the language school (from Kostoulas, 2018, p. 61)
  1. The linguistic dimension, which referred to how the target language was conceptualised. This dimension comprised the standard language ideology, World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca.
  2. The pedagogical dimension, which indexed to the methods and techniques used in language teaching and learning. This comprised the transmissive, communicative and post-method positions.
  3. The political dimension, by which I meant the implications of teaching and learning regarding the hegemonic role of English. The three positions that made up this dimension were termed neutrality, awareness and resistance.

By consulting the ELT literature, I noted that these dimensions tended to combine in three ways, which I called constraining structures in the state space. These were the traditional paradigm, the mainstream paradigm and the critical paradigm (Table 1).

ELT paradigms constraining activity in the language school
Table 1. ELT paradigms constraining activity in the language school (from Kostoulas, 2018, p. 87)

Using empirical methods that were loosely derived from Grounded Theory, a research approach that is used to build theory from the data upwards, I noted that the learning resources at the school tended to privilege teaching and learning practices associated with the traditional and mainstream paradigms.

I also found that the intentionalities in the system (roughly, the motivations of teachers and learners) were also associated with these two paradigms, but this association was not uniform. In the first years of instruction, I noted that teacher and learners were preoccupied with supplementing the state school ELT provision, and this led to transmissive methods of instruction. However, in subsequent years, the predominant intentionality became certification, or providing learners with a language proficiency certificate, and this made the school align with the communicative principles espoused by major examination boards. You can read more about the intentionalities in the system in this ELT Journal article.

In the study, I also uncovered traces of three processes of change or dynamism in the system. This included dynamism connected to lesson goals (which I called synchronic variation), dynamism connected to stage of instruction (a phase shift) and long term evolution (or diachronic variation).

The Thesis and the Viva

The thesis was submitted in September 2015 and my viva was successfully examined on 18 November 2014. The internal examiner was Dr Richard Fay and Prof. Adrian Holliday acted as the external examiner.

You can read their comments here.


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 presentations & publications drawing on my PhD thesis include:

  • 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.
  • Kostoulas, A. (2015). Resisting change: Using complexity to understand the resilience of traditional pedagogy. Paper presented at the Complexity Roundtable organised by the University of Manchester, UK.
  • 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. Cham: Springer.
  • Kostoulas, A. and Stelma, J. (2017). Understanding curriculum change in an ELT school in GreeceELT Journal, 71(3), 354–363.

A substantially revised version of the thesis has been published as a monograph:

Image Credit: Wikipedia | CC BY-SA