March 2013
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Language Classrooms as Complex and Harmonious Systems
Lía D. Kamhi-Stein, & Nairi Issagholian, California State University, Los Angeles, USA


 Lía D. Kamhi-Stein

Nairi Issagholian

The Language Classroom as a Complex Adaptive System

Originating from the disciplines of biology, physics, and mathematics, complexity theory examines complex, unpredictable, dynamic, open, nonlinear, self-organizing, emergent, chaotic, and adaptive systems (Larsen-Freeman, 1997). Such systems consist of multiple agents that constantly interact with one another and their environment, and this interaction is what gives rise to the overall system. In applied linguistics, the work of Larsen-Freeman (1997; see also Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008) has contributed to a reconceptualization of language and second language acquisition. From this new perspective, language is viewed as a complex adaptive system (CAS), which develops and changes over time as opposed to remaining a static thing (Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008). Much like language, classrooms can also be considered CAS (Burns & Knox, 2011; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008). As Larsen-Freeman and Cameron (2008) argue, in this view (1) all classroom actions are interconnected and classroom actions cannot be analyzed and understood in isolation; (2) co-adaptation is central to the dynamic system, that is, changes in one of its parts will result in changes in another part of the system; (3) teaching involves managing the dynamic system; and (4) language is dynamic, that is, as learners integrate new language into their repertoire, it takes different forms. Additionally, the CAS is further complexified by the teachers’ instructional practices because these are affected by their professional and personal identities (Kamhi-Stein, in press).

This Study

Drawing on the notions of CAS and professional identity development, we set out to conduct a case study designed to investigate the pedagogical practices of a multicultural and multilingual novice ESL instructor (the second author of this article). Our goal was to understand how the novice teacher’s pedagogical practices and thinking about teaching and learning evolved in her first year of teaching (spring 2011–fall 2012). In fact, we focused on the teacher’s trajectory from spring 2011, when she was a preservice teacher enrolled in an MA in TESOL practicum course, to the end of fall 2012, when she had been teaching for an intensive English program for 1 year. The data analyzed included (1) the teacher’s classroom journal for spring 2011–fall 2012, (2) the teacher’s instructional practices during her practice teaching experience, (3) the teacher’s entries in forum discussions during her practice teaching experience (spring 2011), (4) an autobiographical narrative written by the teacher during her graduate studies, (5) the mentor teacher’s report, (6) lesson plans for the various courses the teacher taught over the period of this study, and( 7) presentations given by the teacher to three different groups of preservice teachers in three different quarters.

Initial Findings

The qualitative analysis of the data shows that the novice teacher’s pedagogy was not static; that is, the teacher’s pedagogical practices changed as a result of her evolving beliefs about teaching and learning. Additionally, the teacher’s pedagogical practices were found to be relational because they developed through the interaction of many agents. In fact, the smallest changes in one agent affected the teacher’s immediate pedagogy and, in turn, influenced the teacher’s pedagogy in the following term, and this affected the classroom environment. An example of the relational nature of the teacher’s practices can be drawn from the teacher’s diary in which she explains that her initial degree of friendliness (during her first term as a salaried teacher) gave students the impression that she would be lenient with classroom management, academic expectations, and grades. This impression led students to complain when they felt disappointed by their midterm grades (e.g., “But teacher, you are so nice to give me this grade”). Therefore, in subsequent quarters, the teacher decided to be welcoming, but at the same time to establish clear expectations from day one. In turn, the teacher’s change contributed to creating a more positive classroom climate because students were clear about classroom expectations.

The findings of the study also show the relational nature of agents such as the teacher’s pedagogical practices, the physical setting (e.g., the different types of classrooms in which the teacher taught), programmatic policies (e.g., expectations about the curriculum), and the teacher’s beliefs about the construction of the classroom (e.g., the notion that the classroom should be co-constructed).

At TESOL 2013, we will present the results of our study and discuss its implications for classroom pedagogy and teacher preparation. We look forward to seeing you in Dallas!


Burns, A., & Knox, J. (2011). Classrooms as complex adaptive systems: A relational model. TESL-EJ, 15(1), 1–25.

Kamhi-Stein, L. D. (in press). English language teachers narrating their lives: From the construction of professional identities to the construction of the language classroom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Larsen-Freeman, D. (1997). Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, 18(2), 141–165.

Larsen-Freeman, D., & Cameron, L. (2008). Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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ALIS Business Meeting
The ALIS business meeting will take place on Thursday, March 21st from 5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.  See the convention guide for location details. We hope to see you all there!!
ALIS Academic and Intersection Presentations
The ALIS Academic session, Practicalities of Teaching Academic Reading and Writing, will be held on Thursday, March 21st from 1:00pm – 3:45pm. Our Intersection session, Applied Linguistics and IEP Teaching Essentials of Academic Skills, will be held on Saturday, March 23rd from 10:00am – 11:45am. See the convention guide for location details.