That’s a Good Question!

Dr. Larsen-Freeman will deliver a keynote address titled, “Complexity Theory: Renewing Our Understanding of Language, Learning, and Teaching” at the TESOL 2014 International Convention & English Language Expo, 8 am, Saturday, 29 March.

When one of our students asks us something we don’t have an immediate answer to, without thinking, we may remark “That’s a good question!” Calling a question “good” can be an admission that we don’t know the answer, or it may be a stalling maneuver while we search for a plausible one.

It could also mean the opposite. As I read in a blog recently: “A good question is one to which I know the answer off-hand.” “A very good question” means “I even have a slide for it,” and “a great question” means “It’s the NEXT slide up!”

A question is also good when it challenges us to think and to rethink our basic assumptions about how things are. It is this meaning of a good question that I’d like to consider at the 2014 TESOL convention—indeed our convention theme, Explore, Sustain, Renew: ELT for the Next Generation, invites us to do so.

It is not the case that good questions have no answers; it is just that they do not stay answered.  A contrary experience or thought challenges what I think, and I am off again in search of new answers. However, I have made some progress in finally finding a theory that is rich enough to allow me to address my questions in a more integrative and satisfying manner. I have found in Complexity Theory a way to rethink and connect my answers. Complexity Theory is the study of complex, dynamic, nonlinear systems. Indeed, I can think of few things as complex, dynamic, and nonlinear as language, its learning, and its teaching.

Now, Complexity Theory has grabbed and held my attention for 20 years, and I know that some members of the audience in Portland will have heard me speak about it before. Therefore, I will introduce the theory for those who have not yet heard of it, but I will keep my introduction short.  What I actually want to illustrate is how Complexity Theory has led me to ask even more productive questions.

In my time at the TESOL convention, I want to speak about these questions. I want to ask why it is important to appreciate the difference between iteration and repetition, development and acquisition, affordance and input, neologism and error, nonlinearity and linearity, grammar and grammaring, teaching learners and teaching language, and method as prescription and method as lived practice.

These questions are ones inspired by Complexity Theory. I have found that learning about and exploring these differences has renewed and sustained my practice over my long career, and I am eager to share what I have learned with my fellow TESOLers. But above all, I hope to convey my enthusiasm for a good question as one way for keeping one’s practice alive and for avoiding burnout. As Earl Stevick put it in 1976—“To learn a second language is to move from one mystery to another.”

What I most like about our field is that it still holds mysteries for me. Why does it after all these years? Now, that is a good question!

About Diane Larsen-Freeman

Diane Larsen-Freeman
Diane Larsen-Freeman is Professor Emerita of education and linguistics, and Research Scientist Emerita at the English Language Institute at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. In 1999, she was named one of 30 ESL pioneers in the 20th century by ESL Magazine, and she has published on SLA, grammar, language teaching, and complexity theory.
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