October 16, 2012 by Willy Cardoso
before the rambling below, this post is to introduce a new page I created: Edge of Chaos ELT (if you can’t be bothered to read just follow the link )
Every now and again, we see theories developed elsewhere being applied to education. I has been no different with chaos theory and complexity theory. Initially articulated in the scientific field in an attempt to understand natural phenomena, there have been in the last decade or so very interesting, dare I say intriguing, texts on how the so-called new science can be applied to teaching and learning.
My first encounter with this idea was a couple of years ago when I got hold of a book on research methodology in education, in which one page, and only one, was dedicated to complexity as a possible research framework. I later inferred it was there because one of the authors has also written more extensively on complexity as it can be applied to educational management and leadership.
Because it’s new, and maybe because it’s actually no big deal (even though I know it’s a big deal), it hasn’t vastly appeared in my field, ELT (English Language Teaching). There are though pretty good references, as you can see in the Complexity page of this blog. These references are present in for example new metaphors and theories, such as language emergence, the idea of affordance, and very generally yet not overtly articulated when we talk about the non-linearity of language and its acquisition, or should we now say its emergence?
See Dogme ELT, mainly in Scott Thornbury’s texts, and its sometimes between-the-lines references to these two constructs, emergence and affordances. Also, more academically, in the texts of Larsen-Freeman and van Lier, both of which I’ve recurrently read and appreciated.
Some people might say, why adding yet another ‘theory’, or even more ‘faff’ to the whole business of ELT when there are already so many questions answered and unanswered?
My answer is that precisely for this reason, that there are still, and fortunately, so many questions, that we need to find new metaphors, new meanings, to understand what we do; and hence, to progress our understanding, our theorizing, of what we do.
I’ve mentioned before my perceived anti-intellectualism in ELT. I no longer feel the same, because along the way I’ve found enough movers and shakers willing to engage in new conversations. And I know that it’s not going to include everyone involved and it’s not supposed to. Nonetheless, I’m one person willing to contribute to that even if sometimes I admittedly go off track trying to discuss things that are of little pertinence to the practicing teacher.
But I’ve come to understand that theory and practice are not at all dichotomous, and that in my conception of what it means to be a teacher, intellectual responsibility is one of the many responsibilities a teacher has. By that, I do not mean teachers are responsible for reading lots of theory, what in fact I hold dear is the teachers’ ability, and privileged position, to construct personal theories. And to encourage in their students the development of the same ability. I’ve come to realize that it is by adopting a certain skepticism, and a taste for inquisitiveness, that we can promote and further our educational endeavors. But sometimes we don’t have the means to achieve it, even after taking an inner look at our practice, we’re not sure about how best we can articulate what we’ve gathered, or how we can express our insights to the community of practice. That’s when we lack metaphors, and that’s when I found in complexity theory some concepts that I could use to describe what I’ve been experiencing.
Moreover, after a period of isolation and uncertainty that I feel many teacher would share, it is truly motivational to find some sort of external validity to what we’re thinking. To find that other people share the same concerns and that they’re working on ways to understand and improve their practice which are in tune with what one believes, but is not yet able to articulate.
That is when chaos/complexity became part of my teacher development. I know that in the grand scheme of things it’s not going to completely change language education; but nothing will, at this major level at least. Although holistic views are the order of the day, substantial changes happen at local levels, and locally-situated changes is what I’ve been concerned about. I starts in the classroom, within a group of teachers, and it may not, ever, reach the larger audience, but it doesn’t really matter. It is the satisfaction of unlocking contextual meanings that matters. It is the rewarding awareness that one has studied and understood why one does what one does that matters. It’s all very bottom-up to me now, and it makes sense in spite of so many questions still left unanswered.
It is in this self-directed yet socially-constructed teacher/personal development attitude that I’ve almost by coincidence met people, texts, ideas, that have shaped the way I make sense of what I do. I suppose it is a good way, it’s been fruitful. I don’t think though it is the way, far from that; what I hope I can achieve is a level where what I say holds a sense of transferability, that other teachers can agree or disagree with, but that in the end that what I have said made one think. Even if what they think is that what I promote is gibberish. From my side of things I will always do may best to receive commentary in a dialogic manner.
A note on ‘teaching at the edge of chaos’. I’m not at all proposing here that this is the ideal situation, I’m not proposing a ‘should be’ scenario. Quite the opposite, I have emphasized the need to steer away from ‘should be’s’ and first try to understand the ‘what is’. There’s no objectified ‘edge’ at which to stand; each one has their own. Living on the edge for a teacher is not the same as it is for a rockstar. The edge is not a crazy, euphoric moment of transcendence (!), for me it is where most of us will be for most of our lives. The point is that by acknowledging that we often stand at this edge, we will be okay with things such as unpredictability, non-linearity, networked and irrecoverable causalities. And by being okay with that, and knowing how to deal with that in a positive way, I believe we can face the long process of becoming more easily.
It may border esotericism, or self-help, what I’m saying, but I’m not one to preach that kind of thing. For better or for worse, I have developed a scientific mind, a very skeptical one, and that’s why chaos/complexity serves me, it gives me some answers and it leaves me without many, and that space is where I’ve found myself to be most productive.
One of the latest outputs of this journey was a presentation I gave at IATEFL in March this year. It was almost like a Chaos 101, in which I tried to put down in layman terms some of the principles about teaching and learning I’ve learned so far. Yesterday, I turned this 6min 40sec presentation into a webpage of its own. I hope that by doing this I engage some minds, initiate some conversations, and introduce one of the theories that changed my perspective of what teaching is. That’s why I called it teaching at the edge of chaos. You will find it at
I hope you enjoy it, be critical of it, spot the non-sense, and expand the sensible.