Does Complexity Research Have To Be Complicated?

We recently published Complexity Perspectives on Researching Language Learner and Teacher Psychology edited by Richard J. Sampson and Richard S. Pinner. In this post the editors explain how their conviction that complexity should be simple inspired the book.

What makes learners and teachers in additional language classrooms tick? How does this ticking change over time? And in what ways does the ticking coalesce with that of others? In a nutshell, this volume looks at how we can explore such questions. Of course, the ‘ticking’ is psychology, and we are talking about how people have been researching the dynamics of L2 learner and teacher psychology through the lens of complexity thinking.

One of the points of departure for this book was an encounter we had at a café in Toyama, Japan, a number of years ago. Before heading to a symposium at the local university, over coffee we started discussing complexity, and a tendency in published work towards being overly-technical and elitist. Both of us had written books in which we approached our own research from a complexity perspective, and we thought, “If we could do it, surely it can’t be that complicated!” We also shared our observations of discussions with various colleagues, through which we had noticed consternation at the mere mention of ‘complexity’. Not only fellow teachers but also researchers seemed to find complexity research horrifying, alienating, confounding.

Complexity is ubiquitous in everyday life, not least of all in our classrooms as we engage with our students in learning, teaching and researching. Complexity perspectives understand that it is through co-adaptive interactions over time that novel phenomena emerge, phenomena that could not have been predicted based on consideration of any one element alone and out of context. These ways of thinking provide a set of tools to describe in a more contextualized and dynamic fashion things observed in our practice for a long time. They also furnish a reminder of why research that reduces and separates has little relevance for those of us who interact with real people in real classroom environments. Yet, there seemed a danger of complexity being lost as an academic fad. We were keenly aware that there needed to be more research using complexity perspectives to look at what goes on inside the language learning classroom.

To this end, we decided to organize a symposium on complexity at the biennial Psychology of Language Learning conference which was to be held the following year in Tokyo. Our idea was that ‘complexity should be simple’, and we were out to show the world (or the few people we predicted might come to our symposium) the usefulness of this way of thinking and doing research. Amidst inviting speakers, one colleague suggested that an edited volume along the same lines might be well received.

We wrote a call for chapter proposals, and spent a good part of the conference chatting with people to encourage them to add to our collection. We asked our contributors to open a window on how they use complexity in real research. We wanted them to show readers what the complexity paradigm offers, how it is useful for making sense of the lived realities of the psychological and social human-beings in our classrooms. The authors who have contributed to this volume have done an incredible job of doing just this, looking at a variety of psychological dimensions. And what we noticed, both through the enthusiastic participation of the many who ended up attending our humble symposium, and in the weeks and months following as we crafted this collection together, was an atmosphere along the lines of, “It’s high time for this!” We hope you agree!

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics by Phil Hiver and Ali H. Al-Hoorie.

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