The Challenge of an Ecological Approach

I recently read an article from a few years ago that I had tucked away in the disarray of my unkempt pile of papers.  It’s concerned with language teaching, but I think it provides some equally good bits to ponder over for the language learner too.

In his article ‘Learning to live with complexity: Towards an ecological perspective on language teaching’ Ian Tudor writes,

“…there is the question whether the complexity of language teaching is something incidental— grit in the machine of pedagogical efficiency, or whether it is an inherent feature of the activity itself. In this article I will suggest that the latter is the case, and that acknowledging and working openly with this complexity is fundamental to any honest attempt to understand language teaching as it really is.

Big Idea # 1 : Language teaching is complex, duh…

The institutional constraints within which teachers find themselves have serious consequences for the outcome of educational quality.  If a standardized test is staring you down in all its bureaucratic glory, the motivation, creativity and passion for teaching that drove you to be there in the first place is slowly sucked from your pedagogically impassioned veins by the vampiric powers that be.  Or perhaps you are lucky enough to have an institution that, recognizing your competence, gives you the wiggle room to design a class that fits your creative vision.
Most likely, it’s a mix between the two, where assessment and creativity come together in a chemistry designed to satisfy both the institutional hunger for assessment and the pragmatic approach of customized, and individualized teaching/learning.  Tudor leads the paper by writing, “attention will be given to the strategies involved in the practical realisation of an ecological approach to language teaching.”  So what does this consist of?

The evolution of the field of language teaching since the 60’s has come a long way.  From the translation method, audio-lingual approaches to a surge in approaches improving basic competences in communicative abilities to complete ‘real-world’ tasks.  The communicative approach has also been central to the balance in teaching of form (grammar), or accuracy in language learning, and meaning (content), or fluency in language learning.  Increasingly, technology has come to play a larger and larger role in developing methods for more effective teaching and learning over the years, and especially beginning in the early eighties, everything from computer programs to video to new language materials and academic courses and journals have come to encompass what Tudor refers to as the new “technology” of language teaching.

Big Idea # 2: technology vs. ecology?…or an ecology of technology?

Technology, of course, has given us an enormous range of materials to choose from as well as unprecedented access to those materials which weren’t available before, but as Tudor warns:

The real effectiveness of educational technology depends not just on the inner logic and potentiality of the technology itself but rather on the appropriacy of its use, and this involves consideration of a variety of ‘‘soft’’ data relating to the perceptions and attitudes of the people who will be using it and of the context in which it will be used.

In consideration of this ‘soft data,’ Tudor argues, or at least asks of teachers to engage with a more ecological approach to language teaching, not only because of the increasing role of technology, but also because of the complex social environment that is that incredibly significant institutional space: the classroom.

If it could be assumed that learners were ‘‘simply’’ learners, that teachers were ‘‘simply’’ teachers, and that one classroom was essentially the same as another, there would probably be little need for other than a technological approach to language teaching.

If language teaching were simply like producing cars, where a sufficient technology of language teaching could produce a predictably stable product, with perhaps a variety of variations, maybe a Ford here and Toyota there, then the steady development of our teaching technology will eventually achieve a reliably determined outcome consistently.

But this is not the case. Teachers are not simply “teachers” and learners are not simply “learners.”  The complex variety of contextual factors that come to play in any classroom create a kind of jambalaya of human interaction.  The technology used cannot be simply applied to a classroom to produce proficient language users like a car off the assembly line, consistently engendering that phenomenon we ambiguously refer to as “learning.”  Rather, technology has to be used intelligently in conjunction with complex human beings.  This can be referred to, as some have called it, an an ecological approach to language learning and teaching.

The educational technology we use in a particular classroom is just one part of this web of factors that contribute to a successful (or unsuccessful) outcome in the classroom.  But a method or technology in and of itself is not the key to unlocking the language learning black box.  With any method or use of technology, their are people employing them with goals, perceptions and opinions of their own.  Students have their opinions as well as to what teachers should be doing, what they’re supposed to be doing in a classroom and what their expectations are of what their future abilities will be when they step out of the classroom and into the real world.
The growing understanding of the complex factors that come to play in finding meaning in the learning experience of language learners in the classroom has been apraoched by researchers form several directions, showing us that whatever the key is that will lead to this learning, will be just one key among many as no one key will be the holy grail of language learning.

Big Idea # 3: what should be? or what is?

These research traditions have explored both the social and psychological dimensions of language learning in the classroom.  Psychological factors explored have been the role that students’ learning styles, sociocultural backgrounds and students’ individual differences.  On the sociocultural side of the coin, it’s become clear that teachers need to be sensitive to the ways in which students perceive the target language in the first place, and even at a grander scale, the role world Englishes play, where English is seen as the ‘dominant medium of global capitalism’ (p. 5)

But the truth of the matter is this ‘soft data’ doesn’t often impress policy makers, politicians, and through the art of constructing convincing soundbites and easily digestible ‘facts,’ parents, teachers and learners as well have been taken by the seemingly clear cut efficiency of standardized assessments and the promise of NCLB or Obama’s Race to the Top program.

And as Tudor rightfully points out,this ‘ecologically informed’ approach to language learning and the more ‘technologically driven’ approach creates tension.

There can, however, be a tension between the two perspectives. A technological approach to education seems positive and confident, and promises a specific product. An ecological approach, on the other hand, often calls upon us to ‘‘Wait a moment’’ and has many ‘‘It depends’’. Perhaps for this reason, the technological perspective has the most attraction for those who are further removed from classroom realities—planning committees, educational authorities, and so on.

This tension that exists between these two centrifugal  forces, developing a sensitivity and pragmatic stance to the inherently complex environment of the classroom, and the hard lined, ‘results’ driven approach embraced by governments in need of slogans and numbers, at times seems incommensurable.  But does this tension need to be a negative force or is it possible for it to be a positive force?  Not all tension is a bad thing…

In this sense, the ‘design’ of education can be defined in two ways; what should be, what the ideal outcome of learning should look like, and what is, or an ecologically informed understanding of what the reality of the situation is.

This of course is quite simplistic, but it highlights the ‘official discourse’ that teachers encounter when learning about technologies, methods of instruction and curriculum design when learning about how to teach.  What education should be and the often ‘messy’ reality of what education is in real full technicolor life are two aspects of this tension that are difficult to reconcile.  The infinite variety of conditions for education are happening everywhere, now, and will be happening tomorrow and the next day, and so will the ideas of what this education should be.  But how can progress be made, how can technology be applied when faced with such an infinite array of possible situations?  How can any knowledge gained be cumulative and not just one more piece of an infnitely large puzzle?

Tudor argues that researchers should embrace, or at least accept a more ‘emic’ approach to the environment they are trying to understand as opposed to the etic approach of an outside researcher.

The etic approach, which has tended to dominate in language teaching research, adopts the standpoint of the outsider concerned with general principles and objectively verifiable phenomena: It represents what is generally seen as the ‘‘scientific method’’ and is strongly influenced by positivist thinking. Emic research, on the other hand, accords more attention to the perspective of insiders—how participants perceive a situation and their place within it. It is also concerned with discovering local coherence, or how a system operates in terms of its own inner logic and rules.

Tudor reenforces this point by quoting another researcher,

The complexity of teaching cannot be cleaned up simply by pretending it is not there; order cannot be forced on to it by writing and talking in a detached manner about its messiness (Freeman, 1996: 107).

Tudor’s main point is that through understanding ‘localness,’ the ‘tapestry of diversity’ woven into each context of a learning environment we can get have a frame of reference from which decisions about the selection of methodology should be done.  How language should be approached then, is from the bottom up rather than the pursuit of a top down agenda.  This requires the teacher to be an in-class ethnographer, researching the environment they find themselves in, understanding the dynamic of their particular classroom.

The essence of an ecological perspective on language teaching is precisely that it works with situations in their own terms and in the light of the dynamics which operate in these situations…In this respect, it is important to distinguish between methodology as theoretical principle and methodology as pedagogical reality in the classroom.

Big Idea # 4: The challenges of an ecological approach to language teaching and learning

When I see a statement like the one above, as much as I’d like to use the metaphor of ‘ecology’, sometimes it seems that it’s just a cool sounding name for what seems to basically be a more pragmatic approach to language teaching.  To assume that teachers are automatons that robot dance into a classroom, chanting to themselves, “must teach theoretical principles, must teach theoretical principles,” seems to me to be viewing the teacher as a kind of naive straw man strategically used to argue for a fairly obvious position on the educational environment of language learning: that who is in your classroom is important to consider in the methods you choose to teach.

Whats more, using neat terms like ‘emic’ vs. ‘etic’ also gives this approach a nice academic ring to it.  Equating the ‘etic’ approach to the “scientific method,” hard data, and thus by consequence a position that is blind to the inner workings of a complex system does some disservice to research that is seriously attempting to understand such a complex phenomenon as the classroom.  To assume that simply taking an ‘emic’ approach is all that is needed in order to really understand the inner dynamics of the classroom context so as to implement a viable methodology seems to me a bit naive.  This article also still leaves one wondering exactly what an implementation of an ecological approach might look like in a language classroom.

The dichotomies generated in this article struck me as a bit simplistic and although I agree with the principles of the position Tudor takes in expressing his ideas on this ‘emic’ and ‘ecological’ approach to language teaching, I can’t help but wonder if using these kinds of metaphors is actually helping advance the field in a helpful way.  Emic/Etic, technological/ecological, and hard data/soft data are the kinds of fairly simplistic ideas coming from researchers smitten with new and cool sounding metaphors under which to place old ideas.  Articles that do this often present themselves as somehow inventing the wheel, when in fact they are simply reinventing the wheel, and sometimes not a very efficient one at that, perhaps it’s even square…

I think it is important for teachers to be aware of these ideas, arguments and metaphors for understanding language teaching and learning, but when we sweep away the intellectual debris of cool sounding technical terms to find lying behind what could be described simply as a pragmatic approach to language learning and teaching, it feels to me to be a bit anticlimactic and we are left wondering what the ‘soft data’ we generate from these situations might be.

So I think I’ll throw in my two cents here: equating an ‘etic’ approach as a ‘hard data’ endeavor, exemplifying the theories of education from a positivistic, scientific standpoint – an approach which doesn’t capture the real essence of a classroom – and an ‘emic’ approach as a ‘soft data’ endeavor, searching for the meaning of the educational context from the ground up, developing an understanding of the goals of students in the class while engendering awareness about the students backgrounds and perspectives on education seems to me a bit simplistic if not completely backwards.

If anything, the inductive approach to research, where actual realities on the ground and their complexity is what interests us, is in my opinion a fairly straightforward scientific stance.  In fact, the ‘etic’ approach,  where researchers develop their theories from on high in their ivory towers, handing down their ‘findings’ to the teachers below, seems to me to be a fairly pseudoscientific approach.

In fact if the idea that what the world should be is the scientific approach, and how the world really is isn’t, then I don’t think there is much hope for the social sciences in general.  I appreciate where Tudor is coming from, that there is a quality to the educational environment that only comes through in understanding the experiences, stories, backgrounds and contexts of all those participating and that those things aren’t necessarily quantifiable and amenable to statistical analysis.  That in many ways I can agree with, but as Clifford Geertz, the famous anthropologist once wrote:

“I have never been impressed by the argument that as complete objectivity is impossible… (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose. [T]hat is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”

Perhaps it’s best to conclude with something I wrote in a previous note: there’s nothing more complex than simplicity.  But this leaves us a bit hoping for more from this ‘ecological’ metaphor, one which strikes me on the surface as deeply meaningful.  I’ll close with an excerpt from a discussion of several prominent second language aqcuisition researchers talking about just this approach to research and the possibilities it might hold for future directions in research:

BODINE: In many ways, these ecological models borrow most ostensibly from biological theories. We talk about organism, emergence, trajectory, adaptation, affordance, etc. What might be the implications of working so intimately within this metaphor for our research? Should we examine the ways we are thinking about and applying the word “ecological” in our research?

LARSEN-FREEMAN: Absolutely. This is the century of biology, we are told, so it is not surprising that we borrow our metaphor from biology. Metaphors can be very powerful in shaping the way that we think. Therefore, it’s important for us to call attention to the fact that the mainstream of the field is operating according to a different metaphor or set of metaphors. The ecological metaphor is undoubtedly nonmainstream at this point, and therefore one of its contributions is that it enables us to see the assumptions underlying more traditional paradigms.

This is not to say that we should leave our own metaphors and their implications unexamined. We have to keep on looking at our own ways of conceptualizing, both creatively and critically. This attitude is, I believe, part of the complexity-theoretic perspective. It encourages us to take a stance of humility. What this means for the researcher is a certain imperative: to keep looking at the phenomenon from different angles because it is essentially dynamic and constantly transformative.

- Kramsch, Claire J. Language Acquisition and Language Socialization : Ecological Perspectives, 2003. p 93.

The main resource used for this post is the following:

Tudor, I. (2003). Learning to live with complexity: Towards an ecological perspective on language teaching. System, 31, pp. 1-12

The featured image for this post was taken on the east side of the island of Oahu on a small but fun day of surf!

One response to “The Challenge of an Ecological Approach

  1. Pingback: Gregory Bateson and thinking ecologically about language | Leaky Grammar·

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