New Dynamics of Language Learning (Complexity papers)

There is, I think, very little point on trying to complete or complete with Lou’s comprehensive and engaging narrative on the Jyväskylä conference, so I will confine myself to reporting on a few papers that were of particular interest to me. The theme which links these papers is that they are all informed by complexity thinking, which involves -in brief- an attempt to explain collective behaviour through the study of how individual forces interact. I was particularly intrigued that several papers would appear under this shared focus, despite this not being explicitly listed as a conference theme.

The first of these papers, titled Agency as a complex dynamic system was presented by Sarah Mercer (University of Graz). Sarah argued that a complexity outlook was particularly helpful in understanding agency, which she described as being situated temporally, contextually and interpersonally. She then argued that agency emerges from the interaction of beliefs, motivation, self-regulatory skills and affordances. The concept of emergence, I should note, is used in complexity thinking to describe the development of a pattern of behaviour that somehow transcends the ‘sum of its parts’ (e.g. consciousness emerging from the interaction of cells). This argument was fleshed out with data from a longitudinal study she conducted   with a tertiary language learner in Austria, which showed her participants’ motivation to dynamically stable at an underlying level, despite observable fluctuations. Interestingly, this study began as a grounded theory project, and the relevance of complexity only became evident when Sarah was well into analysis.

The second paper to invoke complexity was titled The seductive state of saying nothing: An investigation into language learner silence using Dynamic Systems Theory, by Jim King (Nottingham). This paper focussed on the tendency among Japanese tertiary language learners to remain silent in language lessons, even during ‘communicative’ activities. Patterns of classroom behaviour were recorded using a custom-made observation protocol somewhat akin to COLT (“It’s called COPS; COPS gives you the evidence, you see”). Having demonstrated that surprisingly little time is spent by learners in actual communication, the presenter then described silence as a kind of ‘attractor‘ i.e. a state in which a system regularly finds itself, and speculated about the forces which force the learners (systems) towards this behaviour (the attractor). From a methodological perspective, this seemed to be strongly influenced by Dornyei’s Retrodictive Qualitative Modeling.

Zoltan Dörnyei’s work is most closely associated with motivation, but on this occassion he chose to speak about a methodological issue: how do we go about researching a system that is, by definition, largely unpredictable? He inintentionally made this point in his presentation when he tried to show us a video of a double pendulum, in order to demonstrate that this simplest of contraptions, subjected to very simple linear forces will nevertheless behave chaotically. For whatever reason, the video failed to load despite his claim that it had worked on his computer. Same presentation, same software, different results: there’s complexity for you.

Dörnyei’s answer to this challenge, delivered at the plenary talk titled Instructed second language acquisition from a complex dynamic systems perspective, was to invert the customary order of research, and exemplified this by reporting on projects carried out by his associates on the behaviour of language learners. Starting from the outcome, he proposed generating a taxonomy of behavioural patterns, which he viewed as attractors. Then, learners who best exemplified each pattern (prototypes) can be identified and interviewed. The rich qualitative data from these interviews could then be used to retroactively explain why these learners, though subjected to roughly similar instructed learning, nevertheless developed along different paths. The term signature dynamics was used to refer to the developmental trajecotries and the forces that shaped them.

My own paper was differentiated from the ones I described above in that I have chosen to focus on the macro-level of a social entity (a language school) rather than on the micro-level of individual activity. This is by no means atypical of complexity thinking, which in fact allows for the coherent integration of different levels through such ‘level-jumping‘. That said, I should also add that I feel that complexity works better, for me, at the level of collective social entities rather than individuals. I am not sure I can convincingly and coherently argue why this is the case, except that it is difficult for me to reconcile the deterministic overtones of complexity thinking with ideological concepts that are important to me, such as free will, individual responsibility and agency. But I am digressing…

My presentation can be found here (link no longer active). Eagle-eyed readers will surely spot a number of differences from the version presented on the LTE day, some of which -I think- are actual improvements. Essentially, I put forward a view of language pedagogy as a complex dynamical system, which is given form by the coactivity of various agents within the educational setting per se, its immediate context and the wider context of global ELT. I then subdivided this system into a number of smaller sub-systems, such as grammar- or pronunciation-teaching, noting that these are just smaller scale replicas of the overarching system as they are subject to the same range of forces (a concept called self-similarity). But crucually, these smaller subsystems seem to gravitate towards different attractors: for instance, grammar teaching seems resolutely oriented towards transmissive pedagogy, whereas pronunciation teaching seems to balance precariouly on the verge of transmissive, communicative and critical pedagogical paradigms. I used the terms dynamical stability and criticality to refer to these dynamics, and speculated that they respectively hinder and foster innovation.

The previous paragraphs were intended to bring together in one space a number of presentations that were scattered across the conference programme, so as to highlight the common ground they share as well as their differences. At the same time, I tried to provide a broad overview of certain concepts which are central to complexity thinking in the hope that they might be of some use even to people who are not working within this tradition. There was, of course, much more to the conference than this, ranging from experimentations with Viking cuisine, to the excitement of a post-midnight fire alarm, the minor triumph of having a Fin engage me in conversation (unprompted!), and the setback of failing to bribe my way into a post-doc position, all of which I will be happy to recount over beer or coffee. Some other time.