RoLL: Comprehensible input

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For the last 30 or so years, I have been working with computers. When working with machines, input is an important concept. In the nineties, I read, heard, and thought a lot about input in the context of language learning and in – what Stephen Krashen called – language acquisition. I struggled with his input hypothesis and his no-interface hypothesis. In all discourses after that, researchers in Applied Linguistics and trained language teachers focused their attention on more applicable and theoretically better founded concepts. In other words, all quiet at the input front … until recently when I started working in the world of teaching of languages labeled less commonly taught, heritage, community … and often also – in the US – critical and strategic. Here it re-appeared; comprehensible input, the whammy of the 1970s and 1980s, is left, right, and center in these classrooms and discussions. So, how come, and why am I worried about it?

Input is a metaphor that has been borrowed from the world of machines. Machines receive input, and then, if you are lucky, they produce output. For humans, we do not talk about input when we eat, when we breathe, when we drink. Why would anybody want to do this when we listen or read? Why would language teachers conceptualize language, texts, utterances as input for their students? I really don’t know. What I do know is that my students are not machines that I need to feed with input so that they produce output. Language learners are multilingual subjects, which implies that they have – what theorists call – agency. They make their own decisions what text or utterance they take in and which ones they do not; and they decide whether to say anything and what it is they are saying. Only for a machine, some input will trigger some output.

But perhaps the meaning core of ‘comprehensible input’ is in the adjective? I am not sure. I find that ‘comprehensible’ is not very comprehensible [pun intended]. So, teachers want to expose their students to some language, which they in turn can learn; but how do teachers make these texts comprehensible?

There are two main strategies – appropriate selection and pedagogic augmentation – and neither one can just be derived from the concept of comprehensibility. Appropriate selection: Teachers select linguistic units – words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts – that are relevant to the students’ learning and their current or future life contexts, so that they are motivated to engage with them. Teachers select these linguistic units such that they optimally impact the language use of their students by selecting texts that reflect current language usage in a variety of genres, give priority to vocabulary, grammatical constructions, and communicative functions that their students will need in realistic interactions in the language they are learning. Teachers select the same building blocks – words and grammatical constructions – as frequently as is needed by their students and pay attention that these words and grammatical constructions are repeated in different contexts, that is in different places in a sentence, in different texts, in different genres, and both spoken and written. Students need to encounter these words, constructions, sentences, paragraphs, and texts repeatedly in chunks that are conducive to language learning. Sometimes pauses need to be left between words (each word is such a chunk), sometimes students need to have the chance to study a sentence word by word, sometimes a text can be better understood if read paragraph by paragraph, a video clip might have to be interrupted a couple of times, so that students can iteratively engage with each chunk.

Selecting appropriate texts is necessary, but it is not sufficient. Since most texts that teachers select contain material that is new to the students, the (linguistic) information contained in the text needs to be augmented. In other words, information needs to be added. How? Each text contains parts that are less salient, which means students – or anybody else for that matter – will find it more difficult to notice them. Well, and if we do not notice something, our chances of learning it or learning about it are pretty slim. Grammatical features such as prepositions or, in a number of languages, verb inflections are very difficult to notice because they are not always salient. Augmenting means here making them more salient. In a written text we use graphical means (underlining, color-coding, bold-face print, …) and in spoken texts we use sentence and word stress, intonation, and pauses to make the words and constructions we want students to notice stand out. Multimodality is the second important concept when it comes to augmenting texts to which language learners are exposed. When a text is presented just as such it is in one mode – printed or spoken – only. The students have to rely on only one “channel.” Providing captions for a listening text or reading aloud a text students also have in front of them gives them the same information through two “channels.” Even better if the text is accompanied by pictures or a video. This redundancy – information being given more than once – is very useful for cognitive processing and hence (language) learning, particularly if the information is in different modalities – printed, spoken, pictorial, video. As providing the information in different, complementary modalities augments the text from which the students are supposed to learn something, so does additional linguistic information. The most obvious ways of scaffolding the students’ understanding of a text are providing monolingual or bilingual glosses or captions, the use of a dictionary. The same also works for grammatical features – word morphology and syntax – with the help option to look up declension and conjugation tables. Online texts can have the additional functionality of providing the base form for each infected form. In a language like German it is difficult to distinguish between proper nouns and other nouns because they both have a capital initial letter. The opportunity of looking up who Kohl, the former Chancellor of Germany, was, as opposed to looking up the word Kohl in a dictionary and finding out it means ‘cabbage’ means learners do not get distracted from the actual language learning.

Of course, there would be more that could be said about selecting and augmenting texts for learners, and other strategies can and should be used. So, is it really better to replace one phrase – comprehensible input – by a set of strategies?

  • selecting utterances, constructions, words which are necessary to learnrelevant to the learners’ cultural, social, and biographical contexts, and pedagogically appropriate;
  • selecting texts that are socially relevant and that reflect current, appropriate language usage in the speech community of the learned language;
  • repeating linguistic units frequently and in different textual, communicative, and genre contexts;
  • making the texts and smaller units teachable by chunking them appropriately, that is breaking them up into a pedagogic sequence of smaller parts;
  • augmenting texts by
    • making the words and constructions that are in the teaching focus stand out (saliency);
    • exposing learners to multimodal texts – combining text, picture, animation, video, gestures effectively to help them notice new information and obtain through different channels;
    • providing the necessary (meta-)linguistic help and scaffolding so that learners can handle the new texts successfully.

I realize it took me far more words than just a simple phrase to express what I think is necessary when exposing learners to examples of how the language they are learning is used. Well, I would think sometimes more really is more. In my experience, teachers find it much easier to apply this detailed information in their daily classroom practices. Admittedly, many of these strategies also get listed when teacher developers or trainers explain ‘comprehensible input’, but why use a machine metaphor first and potentially lead them down a garden path, when you can start with practically applicable strategies?


I had posted this on my personal website in April 2018. Now it is the last post that I am transfering to this blog. Promise: future posts will be new, now that everything has been tidied up.

RoLL: Language proficiency

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She is fluent in English. I am a native speaker of German. I am not sure he speaks Pashto well.

I am not sure what any of the sentences above mean. The other term that gets thrown around in the circles in which I move – often – is language proficiency. It is a useful concept, but what does it mean?

In Applied Linguistics, proficiency is operationalized – for research, teaching, and testing and meaning getting ready to be measured transparently – as a collective variable that consists of complexity, accuracy, and fluency as are evident in spken or written texts. Each – complexity, accuracy, and fluency – are also collective variables, which means each is made up of a relatively stable configuration of smaller variables. The make-up of complexity is diversity (a larger range of vocabulary (lexical) and a larger inventory of linguistic constructions (syntactic) are more complex) and sophistication (longer words with a more elaborate morphological structure (lexical) and longer sentences with additional adjectival phrases, modifiers, and sub-clauses (syntactic) are more complex). Linguistic constructions, sentences, and texts that deviate less often and less significantly from an expected norm are more accurate. Uttered texts that contain more linguistic constructions, for example words, per time unit or task unit and that are more coherent and cohesive are perceived as more fluent by listeners and readers. Increasing complexity and fluency of learner texts normally correlate; for example, learners with a larger accessible vocabulary tend to be more fluent. On the other hand, there are trade-off effects between accuracy and complexity; when students focus on producing more complex and longer texts, they tend to make more mistakes proportionately.


I had posted an earlier version of this text on my personal blog quite some time ago. I am posting it here to make it part of the budding series of posts on RoLL: Research on Learning and Language.

RoLL: Sketch of an Instructional Approach

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Some time ago, I collaborated with my colleague Chris Brown on outlining the approach to language instruction in our short intensive language training courses. His contributions and the many discussions I have had with colleagues such as Shahnaz Ahmadeian-Fard and Farid Saydee informed my thinking and are gratefully acknowledged; shortcomings and gaps are my own. The following sketch is a slightly adapted version of an excerpt from the text that resulted from this project.

Over the years, our instructional approach has been built on two pillars: sustained student engagement and systematic language proficiency orientation. Student engagement has been achieved through lesson plans and learning processes in the classroom pursuing the strategy of gradual release of responsibility. The gradual release of responsibility follows the schema of I do > we do > you do together > you do alone and progresses in six dynamic steps: orientation, presentation, guided practice, collaborative practice, independent practice, and reflection. First, the teacher orients the students towards the learning goal(s) of the lesson, by providing a schematic conceptualization of the learning goal. In Sociocultural Theory and its pedagogic practice, Concept-based Instruction, such a schema is called SCOBA (Lantolf & Poehner, 2014). SCOBAs are multimodal, student-centered representations of the concept to be learned. Such concepts are, for example, a communicative function (greeting, introducing oneself and others), a semantic field of vocabulary (kinship terms, food and cuisine), an abstract grammatical construction (subject-verb agreement and verb conjugation, definiteness and indefiniteness), and a cultural concept (social respect and honor, a holiday tradition). SCOBAs need to be multimodal, that is, they need to incorporate two or more of print, spoken word, image, sound, animation, and video, in order to facilitate students’ cognitive understanding, to succinctly provide them with the ‘why?’ and ‘what-for?’ context, and – most importantly – to engage them successfully and to boost their intrinsic motivation. This comprehensive orientation is also important because it facilitates the students’ focusing on learning goals during the subsequent phases; this in turn enables them to notice features and facets of the language and culture, which they have not yet learned or with which they are not yet comfortable. After the orientation, the teacher can present more concrete examples of the concept. In the presentation phase the teacher models target language use and makes important features more noticeable and transparent, always engaging the students as active participants. During guided practice, students try out the new vocabulary and grammatical constructions, or they work and talk in pairs and small groups. Often this is done in direct student-teacher interaction. Throughout, the teacher provides individualized guidance, support, and feedback. More responsibility is released to the students during the collaborative-practice phase. Students interact with their peers and engage with and learn from each other. In the last practice phase, each student works independently, so that they have the opportunity to check their own knowledge, abilities, and skills. This phase or the final reflection phase can be combined with formative assessment. In the reflection phase, students publicly demonstrate their work and achievements, monitor their learning outcomes, and plan actions to further deepen their knowledge, abilities, and skills.

With all class sessions following this six-step lesson plan progression, target language use in the classroom is made increasingly possible and productive, as learners quickly become accustomed to teacher expectations, and they are able to tell for themselves if they are having success, or if they need more support. In this lesson plan structure only the first two phases – orientation and presentation – are instructor-focused. All other phases have the students at the center of the interaction in either an interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational mode, consistent with the ACTFL National Standards and recognized language teaching best practices.

Sustained, productive target language use is also achieved through a parallel progression in students’ learning activities, which is based on the dynamic phases:

  • reception (understanding the orientation and presentation, listening to the teacher’s explanation or feedback),
  • verbal imitation (repetition of teacher models, response to recasts),
  • material manipulation (accompanying words with associated gestures, total physical response, manipulating words and sentences by hand),
  • verbalization (explaining word choice or a grammatical rule while applying it in target language use, explicitly stating personal or transcultural contexts of a cultural concept),
  • private speech (students make explicit their planned and current language learning and language use steps only for themselves), and
  • inner speech (students are actively aware of their newly acquired learning material when they apply it in communicative situations).

This sequence, which again is rooted in the sociocultural theory of Vygotskian provenience, ensures that learning always moves from the social plane – student-teacher and student-student communicative interaction – to the psychological plane – the internalization of newly learned material. Instructors, and students, intertwine these two dynamic sequences to maximize learning success.


A lot of things have changed since then. We have been doing some more work on structuring the daily schedule of our intensive language training courses, we have worked on lesson plans and syllabi. But the main premises of the sketch above still stand. Their refining, adapting to different (daily) contexts, and their implementation are part of a continuous and complex process.

To be continued …

RoLL: Student Centeredness

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This exploration of a concept in teaching and pedagogy in general, I wrote in 2018 for my personal blog at matschulze.net. I am reposting it here — after some minor edits — as the first post on training, teaching, and learning.


Let’s start off with the word itself—as I often like to do. Student centeredness. A compound noun with two constituents that are both nouns. We will talk about student some other time and just accept any prior, also pre-theoretical notion of what a student is. Centeredness is, of course, derived from the past participle centered. Past participles in English are used to form the perfect tenses: past perfect (I had centered sthg. yesterday), perfect (I have centered sthg.), and future perfect (I will have centered sthg. by tomorrow). These verb forms all denote an action was (past perfect), is (perfect), or will be (future perfect) complete with a result relevant to the speaker/writer. The past participle is also used to form the passive voice (Sthg. is/was/has been/had been/will be centered). Why is it important to consider all these verb forms? Because—as all past participles—centered retains some important meaning facets from these forms, even if it is used like an adjective as in the construction student-centered. Thus, centered  denotes a process of centering that has been completed in the past and the result is part of the speaker’s/writer’s reality now. In other words, whatever has been centered was not in the center before and is in the center now. Centered also retains its passiveness. So, in student-centered, students are not the actors or carriers of the verb event (the grammatical subject), they are the (passive) direct objects; they suffer the event the verb describes.

The metaphor of student centeredness thus conjures up images of a process of her/him being moved by somebody else from somewhere that is not the center. They then arrive at the center and stay there while never actively participating in the process of moving. So does the student-centered approach in language teaching suggest that teachers should move students around like pawns on a chess board? Probably not; but the problem is the metaphor does suggest that. This, I believe, has led to some misunderstandings in classroom practice. Also, nobody would want to suggest, I hope, a student-centered approach consists of or can be achieved with a single move and the student is in the center for all time.  And there is another – linguistic – problem.

Center—now the noun, not the verb—is always the center of something. Yes, the student has ended up in the center, but in the center of what? The center of the classroom? The center of the universe? The center of attention? The center of a circle? The center of gravity? Okay, I am being facetious: it is neither the universe nor the circle nor gravity. Time to leave the realm of linguistics and move into didactics, the theory of teaching.

Does the student-centered approach to language teaching imply that the student should be—metaphorically speaking—in the center of the classroom? Yes, it does. As many have suggested, students should be given the most possible time to speak, to do, to practise, to act, to apply, … They need to have frequent opportunities to come to the front of the class to present, lead an activity with their fellow students, to perform, for example, a role play, … So, students being at the center of the classroom is necessary to achieve a student-centered approach, but it is most certainly not sufficient. To put it bluntly, a teacher asking students frequently to give a presentation in front of the class or even to lead a learning activity, does not make for student-centered teaching (alone).

Students also need to be at the center of attention of the teacher. When designing the curriculum, a unit, or a lesson, not the topics the teacher likes, the linguistic constructions the teacher believes to be interesting, and the facets of the language community’s culture the teacher has experienced or finds fascinating should be included, the topics, constructions, and cultural facets that the students need to grow in their development of language proficiency and cultural awareness at this stage in their learning and with their learning goals and objectives need to be included. Not the methods of instruction the teacher finds convenient and the activities they enjoy or are comfortable with should be introduced, the teaching methods that are proven to be most conducive to the students’ learning and the activities they most fruitfully engage in need to be used in the daily teaching.

Student-centered teaching is a repeated attempt grounded in reflective practice. Teachers constantly learn about the changing needs of their students, the instructional methods through which their students learn best, and the activities through which they engage best with the language and culture. To put it more holistically, everything in the process of teaching and learning (what Russians like Vygotsky call обучение and German teachers call Unterricht—the unity of teaching and learning) is appropriated, designed, or employed such that the students make optimal progress in their development of the second language and culture.

So it is both—surface and essence. With a student-centered approach, language teachers constantly strive to give center stage and prime time to students speaking, activity, practice, and performance; and more importantly, the students’ needs, their goals, and optimal achievements are first and foremost on the mind of the teacher in everything they do when learning and preparing for class, working in class, and reflecting on learning processes after class. And with this approach, students are never passive pawns and teachers can never rely solely on what they did in the past; the center and focus of all learning processes is a teacher-led collaboration with active students that never stops …

On the complexity of change: It’s time — now

Hey, Friend,

Time, doesn’t it fly … I have not been wasting any time. I had no time. There simply never was a time when I could sit down and write. Perhaps, it wasn’t the right time. A time to gather stones? A time to cast them them out?

Time!
Chris, I am always reading your comments immediately. In a timely manner, so to speak. And then I think, I should pick up on this, I should pick up on that. And then time goes by … In both my brief exploration of the word herd immunity and your comment to that post, we talked about our schedules. Yes, schedule, time management, the passing of time, the future, … have been on my mind for some time.

Time: Just now, I have learned that the word schedule is related to the German noun Zettel and the Spanish cédula, simply meaning a sheet of paper, a note sheet. How do I know, you ask. Well, I looked it up at https://www.etymonline.com/word/schedule. I learned that schedule only came to mean a sheet with a timetable in the nineteenth century. Does this mean only with the beginning industrialization schedules became more important? Are they important to you? How important is it to be on time? Is it important to you to do something in time?

Time? What is that anyway—time? Is it ambiguous?
We measure. Each hour has 60 minutes. Exactly. Each day—only 24 hours.
We plan: I will work on this blog post today. We will finish the project next week. School begins next month.
We experience: This took forever. That went by so quickly.
We remember: Has it really been five months that we have not been “at work”? That we sat in our offices, with door knocks and phone rings punctuating the day? That a mostly electronic leash propelled us from one place to the next, spending – too much? – time with different people? Waiting for a meeting to end, so that we could go somewhere and do something else?
We dream: What will happen in November? How will it be next year? When will the time come?

Time is all these. It crawls. It stands still. It passes. Time is nonlinear. What does that that even mean? I am not sure we know, even after millennia have gone by. We do know what time is not.

Time is not homogeneous. In good times and in bad. Everything changes all the time.

Time does not live in a clock nor in a calendar. Like light does not live in the kitchen fridge. The time comes and the time has gone.

Time is not periodical. There is no sinus curve, no going in circles. Not even around the clock.

Time does not have a schedule. It does not have an agenda. Time does not have to be anywhere. So, time can never be on time.

Time changes and is the same all the time.

Chris, I am sure you remember my writing on the Complexity of Change. Timely to pick it up, I thought. Don’t complex systems change over time? We often feel the times are changing. It looks like it, when watch the hands of a clock, hear the bells ringing, or turn a calendar leaf. But, hey!? The clock, the bell tones, and the calendar are changing. The time is not. The time is always now. It was now yesterday. It will be now tomorrow. What changes between yesterday and tomorrow, I believe, we can influence a little — now.

That’s all we do with a schedule: we write a little note on a, perhaps virtual, sheet for when the time comes to know a little better what to do — now. Time management sounds like one is managing time. You know, I have tried … and failed … miserably. So, I think I better do something – in my time, with my time. Now.

Time is up.

In eigener Sache

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It was bound to happen. You can take Mat out of Germany, but you can’t take Germany out of Mat.
Addressing two challenges—one linguistic and one very worldly.

Challenge #1

In eigener Sache. It is what it is, but it is difficult to translate into English. Literally: in one’s own matter. Often used in company announcements that pertain to the company itself. Please note … does not really capture it. We are happy to announce … does not fit the context I am thinking of. Any suggestions that go beyond the the discussions in the forum of the online dictionary leo.org?

Until you come up with something better, I will just call it About us, which is

Challenge #2

Life goes on. Work piles up. COVID-19 has been confusing people, making many sick, and killing far too many. Too many lost their livelihood, feel frustrated and excluded, and wonder when and how this will end. And many say: I can’t breathe. Not now and not before.

And that is just the context. For this blog. On May 2, more than two months ago, I wrote the last post. Silence. Busy processing. Busy with busy. Busy learning, trying to understand. To understand what’s going on.

Doesn’t writing help? To process? To understand? Yes, it does. For me, it does. Reading also helps, doesn’t it?

So, what’s the challenge then? Finding the time to write, before one is overtaken by events. Having the energy to key in thoughts. Being focused on writing about one when a trillion is happening all at once.

But that is not all. Writing when everybody is talking is hard. Is anybody listening? Am I listening? Enough?

On the complexity of change: The chaos of COVID-19

A fractal phenomenon of sacrifice and comfort, of loss and gain, of hope and fear. An experience of chaos. And a time of chance. And opportunity.

Below I will make use of the explanatory power of Complexity Theory to make more sense of my lived experience. Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers I will show below, I find it far more important that each of us thinks first about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come close to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.
And the learning for after all this? The opportunities? A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

Why am I only writing about this now?

My colleagues and I have been teleworking from home for the last three weeks. I did predict that I would have more time to read, to think, to write. It has been 25 days since the first post with my initial thoughts on COVID-19. The next came four days later. And then nothing until now. I had not predicted that I would dedicate longer hours and more effort to my day job, thinking that working from home meant saving work time, having time for other pursuits. I was wrong. And I have been very lucky. Not only my mortgage payments are still withdrawn on the first of the month, my salary comes in at roughly the same time. I have a job to go to and I don’t even have to go to do it. So, the least I can do is do my job well to keep our contractors in gainful employ as newly minted teleworking teachers. And I hope that some good is coming of sharing my thoughts on the COVID-19 pandemic through the rational lens of complexity. And chaos!

Really? Now also Complexity Theory has something to say about COVID-19?

In earlier posts I referenced the Cynefin framework of problem solving by Dave Snowden and his collaborators. I talked about simple and linear problems—which he calls complicated—and I slowly began a discussion of complex problems and complexity in general. Little did I know at the time that I would feel that now I have to dive right into a discussion of the societal and individual situation of COVID-19 as a chaotic problem and could not develop my thinking further about complexity and the solving of complex problems.

Why Complexity Theory after toilet paper, shelter-in-place, social distancing, self-isolation, unemployment, recession, …?
The quality of a theory can be gauged by its power. Many theories have predictive power. When we apply an appropriate powerful theory to a set of observations of a system, we have a chance to predict in what state the system will be next or some time in the future. For complex systems, this is very difficult and perhaps impossible. I would argue that Complexity Theory is often not applied for its predictive power—maybe it even has less of it. For me, its strength is its explanatory power.

Is this chaos?

When is a complex dynamic system—a global process such as the pandemic COVID-19—in chaos?
When we perceive it as such. When the many interacting agents, components, and variables produce stark contrasts of change rapidly. At times, it looks like this rapid change came out of nowhere. At times, a minute action—the ill-informed and ill-advised tweet or utterance of a prominent political actor; the well-intended intervention of a country doctor—impacts the system at an extraordinarily disproportionate scale. At times, a draconian measure—a shelter-in-place order in a whole state or country; the closing of a national border to all non-residents—has dramatic and unpredicted side effects. Especially, when a dynamic system grows nonlinearly and exponentially. This is when it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to ascertain the temporary relationship between two agents, between two components, between two variables, because the relationship of any one of these to other agents, components, or variables is blurred. This makes it difficult and nearly impossible to carefully consider the context of the two agents, components, or variables.

Exponential growth

What does nonlinear exponential growth mean? I am not a mathematician; I am simply a person who derives a lot of meaning and sense from numbers. They hardly ever tell the whole story, but they tell you often what to look for in a story. In the story of COVID-19, you might have heard a lot about the doubling rate. Let’s do a very sad and saddening thought experiment because we often remember them better: We have a country—let’s call in Drumland—with 200 million inhabitants. It’s doubling rate is three days. Every three days, twice as many people get sick of an infectious disease.
Day 1=one Day 3=two Day 6=four Day 9=eight
Day 12=16 Day 15=32 Day 18=64 Day 21=128.
After three weeks, more than 100 people are sick. Nobody really notices. People get sick all the time. Yet, these are in addition to the ones who normally get sick during these three weeks.
Day 24=256 Day 27=512 Day 30=1,024 Day 33=2,048
Day 36=4,096 Day 39=8,192 Day 42=16,384.
After six weeks, people begin to notice. Especially, if there are large clusters of sick people in a particular community or group. Some begin to worry. Some take action. It is difficult to understand what is going on. Some action works, some does not. But the infectious disease does not slow down.
In Week 7=65,536 after Week 8=524,288 Week 9=2 million
in Week 10=16 million in Week 11=67 million.
At this rate of exponential growth in this artificial thought experiment, all 200 million people of Drumland are sick after 12 weeks. If this exponential growth were homogeneous.

Nonlinear and not homogeneous

Any process—a complex dynamic system—in a community or society is, of course, not homogeneous. Each person in Drumland can help slow down or speed up the growth rate. Some will stay home and not spread the disease virus. Some are healthy enough to not only be immune soon but also not contagious any longer. Some will help the more vulnerable to be more protected. Some will help heal the sick.

So, we could ride it out? Theoretically, maybe. Some governments worldwide still seem to think so. As I said in a previous post, I have no background in medicine or public health at all. All I can do is look at the numbers and think of the people. If only 1 in 100 infected people dies, in Drumland, this will be 2,000,000. If the health system is fragile, many people did not have a good chance of living healthy beforehand, or measures introduced sped up the growth of the infection, it could be more. Every single person in Drumland who knows at least 100 people will in all likelihood know one other person who succumbed to the virus, to which no one was immune before it arrived.

So what?

So, does Complexity Theory predict doom and gloom? For me it does not. It explains the seriousness of the current situation worldwide. I realize that it is far more serious in some countries, far more threatening in some cities, far more frightening for some families. Yet, I believe that the numbers show clearly that it is not a national problem nor an individual problem. I believe a pandemic is a problem for whole societies, for the world. Individually, we can get through this by staying home and strengthening our immune system further, if we are lucky to have our livelihood secure. If we all assume our individual responsibility for our society as a whole, for our neighbors and the people we have never met, and the people in other corners of this world, what can we do, once we understand one small aspect of this chaotic complex system a little better?

And a verbatim repeat of the beginning:

Once we understand the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic a little better, we can learn from it. We can grow. We can do things better now in the crisis. And we can certainly do things better after the crisis.
I believe, it would go a long way, if we did not just think about protecting ourselves and our loved ones from catching the virus. Given the numbers above, I find it far more important for each of us thinking about spreading the virus.
Feel healthy and fine and assume you have the virus. It is the safer assumption in this chaotic situation, where all of us know so little. Think of it as physical distancing. Don’t come in close proximity to people. Especially not your family in other houses and your friends. Don’t be an unknowing spreader. Be safe and be an unknowing non-spreader. Protect others in any way you can: don’t leave the house if you can do that, wear a mask if you have one, stay your distance to other people, if you can. I believe every little bit of comfort each of us is willing to give up will help all of us a lot. Disproportionately. It’s nonlinear, remember. And stay in touch socially more than ever before. Phone, message, chat, send pictures and jokes, write emails and letters. Do it often. Talk with many.

And the learning for after all this? The chances and opportunities?
A crisis makes it very easy to identify our collective and individual vulnerabilities, weaknesses, shortcomings. It also makes it very difficult to address them during a crisis, because it is more difficult to see our robustness, strengths, and achievements. Take note now and let’s remember what we learned about about the quality of our leadership, our societal institutions, our processes of and attitudes to health, education, and the environment. I am sure there are things we can do to at least mitigate the next crisis and perhaps even avoid it. To save lives and make all of our lives a little bit better all the time, not just in crisis.

On the complexity of change: Online—off-line in time of COVID-19

Set of the film “Good bye, Lenin” (Photo: DPA)
from https://www.thelocal.de/20190925/films-east-germany-legacy-east-germans-perceive-them

COVID-19: In many parts of the world, regions and institutions are in lock-down, venues of education, culture, and entertainment have been closed, people return to their homes and stay there, supermarkets have closed for a time because their shelves are empty, education administrators advocate the move from – what they call – face-to-face instruction to – what they call – virtual teaching online … I would like to talk a little about the latter two, calling them off-line and online:

This seems to be a good time to tell a story, one of my stories. So, why don’t you sit down comfortably, protect your back, don’t hunch over your reading device … this story might get a little longer. Because it is a story, I will give my best to refrain from weaving in scientific or theoretical references; I will leave the look through the theoretical lens for another time. Why can I do that? Our stories, interrelated narratives, anecdotes are not only complex in and of themselves, they are also a way to make sense of complexity (and sometimes chaos) around us or even in us.

Once upon a time in the last century, I was born in a tiny country that called herself Deutsche Demokratische Republik. Others called her East Germany or Soviet Occupation Zone. There was on-line and off-line even there and then.

Quite early on and also later, my mom would send me shopping with a list, which was off line on a small piece of paper. I would go and stand in line, ask the shop assistant for things from my list. My question never was: Could I have …? It was: Do you have …? And often the answer was: No.

My mom sent me shopping well before stuff was needed – so were many others or they went by themselves, when they were old enough. Mom seemed to know when and where yoghurt or toilet paper was in store. I would buy it then, so we had it at home when it was needed.

Signs on shelves often said: Take Only 2. And that was what I did – as did many others – I took 2, whether I had it on my list or not. It was cheap, and who knows what was to come, we might need it.

Shortages were frequent. One day, I was in a butcher’s. In stead of cold cuts and schnitzel, two small flower pots were on display. I asked whether there was anything behind the counter and was told that, no, everything was exported to make hard-currency cash for the COMECON economy. I did not buy a flower pot, because it was not for sale.

I had always thought that these were characteristics of a command economy with overwhelmed, partially educated, paranoid, underwhelming elderly men in government. The economy was not geared toward consumption; infrastructure and logistics were poorly funded and organized. Well more than 30 years later, I did not expect to see empty shelves in supermarkets …

Let’s move to the second part of my story. Let’s go online.

And then I went online. Occasionally. With the telephone. During my year abroad in Kaluga, Russia, I would go to the local post office. Waited in line. Was told to go into booth number 7. Picked up the receiver. And could talk to my mom in Germany. The line was neither stable nor clear, but we were both grateful about the marvels of technology – I was in the post office booth, she was at a neighbor’s house which actually had a landline telephone. We stayed in touch by whatever means available: telephone, letter (sometimes also given to somebody traveling back from Kaluga to East Germany), or small packages with treasured goodies, in my direction only.

In the early 1990s, I moved to England. Staying in touch with the family got easier. Phone bills were high, and connections were stable and from home to home.

And, I used Gopher and later Mosaic to go online with my office PC. The Internet had emerged, and I was showing students how to find a few German fairy tales or the odd Spiegel article (still hosted on a university main frame computer). In the computer language lab, we used a web page that I had written with a set of annotated links to all texts that I could find and that were in German, in addition to little programs stored on computer disks. Soon after, things came on CDs and had images and sound. Hypertext. The students and I still talked. A lot. We sat in front of the computer(s) and talked. We shared screens in one computer lab and talked. We put in floppy disks and talked. We all learned to type – even umlauts äöüßÄÖÜ – and talked in and about clear writing. We recorded ourselves on stand-alone PCs and listened to audio files and we talked.

In 2001, a few colleagues and I began to design an online course – one semester of learning German from scratch. And we used the telephone to exchange spoken texts and we talked. Students would pick up the phone, punch in a felt 273 different digits upon request, and speak their oral assignment into the phone. The sound file was magically streamed to the server, where I would see it seconds later, listen to it, take some notes, pick up the phone, punch in 273 digits, and record a response that was streamed to the student. I still remember the system’s name: VERA. Vera means hope and belief in a number of languages.

Since, my students and I have emailed, Skyped, built wikis, blogged, discussed and chatted by both writing and speaking, and Zoomed. And we talked both online and off-line. All the time. More than ever before.

Long story. And I have not told the half of it. But where is COVID-19? Apart from the two mentions at the very beginning? The pandemic, the precautions, and the social and individual reaction to the unfolding complex web of events have been here all along. It is the counterpoint and context to my story. And the story is the counterpoint to the complex and – at times – chaotic phenomena of the pandemic, as I am experiencing them here in Southern California, at work, and through the omnipresent media and public discourses. So, let me finish my story by talking about this week. And then I will spare you the theoretical lens. This time only; I will put it on for the next blog post.

I have watched the clip with Walter Ulbricht denying the plan to built the Berlin Wall, listened to rambling propaganda word assemblies of the East German swamp and establishment, heard Erich Honecker explain that green salad just needed to be washed and it would be radiation-free after the Chernobyl disaster, and saw and experienced empty shelves and the shortage of toilet paper in days long gone.
Until 2017, I had hoped that such ill-worded and ideologically biased government statements and speeches at such a low level were a thing of the past. Until this week, I was so sure that I would not see or stand in front of empty store and supermarket shelves, in the country where I live, again. Full disclosure: I have not been to a supermarket this week, but I could not avoid listening to friends and family who have and seeing pictures online.

Online, I have been researching and advocating the considered pedagogic use of digital technologies in education for the last thirty years. This week, it seems, everybody in education, abruptly asked to abandon their classroom, is talking about online learning, virtual teaching, blended, hybrid, asynchronous, … Why am I not relishing the moment? First, the words! A blend should only happen in a blender in the kitchen. It is bad enough, sometimes, if it is done to whisky or wine, inmho. It should not be done to people and with people, I believe. In the relevant literature, hybrid used to mean (until this week, it seems) having a course that was done partially face-to-face, partially online. How is that gonna work when all classes are moved off campus. And virtual teaching? Most professors believe they know what teaching means. Virtual means “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized.” So, I am asked to teach – virtually – and won’t be recognized for it? By whom?
For many educators who deep down have always believed that computers, digital media, and remote communication are either evil or at least vastly inferior to a close encounter, this change to education not in the classroom, lecture hall, or lab has come too sudden and was enforced from the top or forced upon them by adverse and unusual external circumstances. And I have come to believe, after being a student at the time of the Peaceful Revolution, that change better be gradual and voluntarily embraced by many to be sustainable.

Today, I am hoping that soon we are all going to come out of COVID-19 healthy, being again able to travel to different places without any fear, coming together in families, in small and large groups, and, if you enjoy that sort of thing, in huge gatherings, to have fun and a feeling of community. I am also hoping that online – teaching, learning, and talking – will finally be seen by many as what it is. Just another way of getting in touch with people, learning from one another and about one another. A way to communicate that is neither worse nor better than writing somebody a beautiful letter or chatting with somebody sitting next to them on the sofa or teaching a group in a comfortable classroom. It has always been more important to me that we talk with one another and learn from one another than through what channel and by what means we do this. It is up to us to learn how to use new(er) technologies and other means better. There is a tool for everything, but not everything is a hammer.

Especially in times of crisis or a pandemic, it is important to keep talking to one another truthfully and to keep learning.

On the complexity of change: What is happening with COVID-19?

A colleague cancelled her trip to Italy. She knows the country well and is not afraid of going there. She is afraid of being quarantined, when coming back home to the US. The conference of the American Association for Applied Linguistics with 1,400 registrants in Denver, CO, at the end of March has been cancelled “in light of developments over the last few days” (AAAL, March 9, 2020). Schools are closed in some parts of the world; universities in the US are preparing to take all their courses online until the end of the semester.

Is there a way to make sense of this change, these changes, the angst? I believe there is.

If you have read previous posts or our Team page, then you know that I am neither a medical professional nor a specialist in public health. I watch the international news, care about my own health and that of others, also in other parts of the world, like traveling and (international) get-togethers. And generally, I prefer when I can follow through on a planned course of action. I had planned to buy tickets for the two trips my wife and I want to take in the summer months last week. I didn’t.

How can we make some sense of this complex phenomenon? From what I have read thus far, COVID-19 has not yet been traced back to its initial conditions yet. Why would this be good to know? Generally speaking, because these variables – however minute – are there from the beginning and are often influential at all iterations through which the complex process goes. Unfortunately, misunderstanding initial conditions can lead some people to make decisions that at least appear to be unnecessary. I read recently that the sales of Corona beer are down because of the “namesake” Corona virus; apparently fewer people feel like going to a Chinese restaurant in the US because of the belief that the virus was spread from China.

Not only because I had intended to write about nonlinearity – as an important characteristic of a complex adaptive system – in this post, I will say that understanding the complex global spread of a nasty virus as a nonlinear process is of utmost importance.

Quickly in a nutshell, what does that mean for each one of us?

  • Small changes are likely to have a disproportionately large effect. Washing my hands, avoiding to touch my face, and in general being very careful with hygiene, can and will have the effect that I am better protected from catching the virus and that, if more and more people follow such guidelines (and other measures are taken in concert), the spread of COVID-19 can be contained.
  • Consider the context, learn about the many components, facets, and variables of this complex phenomenon. How is the virus spreading and impacting people in different places of this world? What can its many nonlinear trajectories tell us about its nature? From the little I understand COVID-19 is a relative of the SARS and the MERS viruses. In 2003, I lived in a city close to Toronto, and Toronto was one of the metropolitan centers affected by SARS at the time. SARS had a lower spread worldwide than COVID-19 has already had until now. On the other hand, it had a higher fatality rate (of almost 10%). It passed in about six months. Even with my very limited expertise in things medical this gives me a more rational perspective. It gives me hope and it gives me compassion for other people, people with different fears, people quarantined on a large cruise ship, people with responsibility for large gatherings such as a university or an international conference.
  • Accept the complexity. This acceptance mainly leads me to NOT do something. I do not expect a linear change. Just because we do A – whatever A is – just because the government implements measure A – whatever A is – just because the WHO issues guideline A – whatever A is – I do not expect a direct – linear – outcome B. No single step, measure, cancellation, … will change the course of COVID-19 singlehandedly. All the measures by many different people, bodies, and institutions, our preparedness of making considered – often small – changes, and our mindfulness that continued observation and analysis of the system – of the development of COVID-19 worldwide – are and will be necessary.

Change has the best chance of being sustainable, if it is considered and iterative.

I realize that I quickly glossed over the intricacies of nonlinearity. Well, this gives me a chance to write another post on the topic in the near future and do a better job.

On the complexity of change: Initial conditions … … … do you like skiing?

I do. Like skiing. So, please bear with me for a minute. This is one of those strange texts where things are only revealed at the end.

First, we are going on a skiing hill. And because we are talking about initial conditions and the sensitivity complex (adaptive) systems have to them, this is a very special hill. For this thought experiment, the hill has been designed by a mathematician. The slope of the hill is homogeneous. The hill has moguls. These are of perfectly identical smooth shape, and they are spaced evenly, both horizontally and vertically. Let’s take the comfortable chair lift and go up. Not to worry, you can come; you won’t need to ski, a ski will do all the work. All we have to do is make predictions, observe, take notes, and then compare our observation notes with our predictions. This way we will know a little more about the nature of complex systems. We are on top of the hill. Take one ski, please. You can also use a snowboard, if you prefer. Place it flat on top of the slope, mark its position, and let it go downhill. We are observing its path, the trajectory of this process. We know exactly how it went down the slope. And we mark its exit position at the bottom of the hill. Just memorize it. Meanwhile, I will go back down and fetch the ski. I am sure you noticed that the one initial condition, to which we are paying particular attention in our thought experiment, is the entry position, where we let the ski go. The end state of this complex dynamic system is the ski’s exit position at the bottom of the hill. Alright, I am back up; let’s do this again. Find the first entry position. Move the ski or snowboard just slightly to the left or right, whichever way you are inclined. Mark the second entry position. Now is the time for predictions! The entry position is minutely different. What trajectory will we observe? Identical to the first one, because minute differences don’t matter because they are just noise in the system? Parallel, because the slope is homogeneous and the moguls are identically formed and evenly spaced, and all we changed a tiny wee bit is the starting position? Or just different in so many parts? How about the exit point? Is it going to be exactly the same distance between exit points 1 and 2 as there now is between the two entry points? Or are the two distances going to be different? Unless you really are on this skiing hill, you will have to believe me: The trajectories are different, and the distance between the two exit points is not the same as between the two entry points. We can let the ski go down time and again. The probability of both the trajectory and end state being different to any one of the earlier ski runs is significantly higher than the probability of trajectory and exit points – the end state – being the same.

Why is this so? Because complex systems have a high sensitivity to initial conditions. To show in our thought experiment that the sensitivity is high we only introduced a minute change to the initial condition, the entry position, and we assumed that nothing else changed. The weather and snow conditions remained the same, the force of letting the ski go is always the same, the ski did not carve into any mogul, … And still, trajectory and end state are different, and sometimes wildly different.

In Chaos Theory, this has also been called the Butterfly Effect. (When talking I am often prone to go off on an – interesting – tangent. Here I won’t do it and you will have to wait for a later post. Or you can look it up in Wikipedia.) It is a good example of how important initial conditions are, because the system is highly sensitive to them, even when many other variables – also of a larger magnitude – interact and change in the process. There is one main reason why this is so: These variables – the initial conditions – are the first ones to impact the process, even if only slightly. When we observe a complex dynamic system, a complex process, we can split it into time segments, iterations. And in one way or another, the variables of the initial conditions impact each iteration. Or as they say: Constant dripping wears away the stone.

Are initial conditions equally important when we want to understand complex social processes, such as work in a team, leading and managing a project, or an intimate relationship or marriage? I think we all know what the answer is, simply from experience: Yes, they are. Once we encounter a complex problem, we are well advised to look for and at the initial conditions of the underlying process(es). How we can figure out what the initial conditions were and how they influenced how events unfolded, we will have to leave for after the introduction of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems. What is important to take away from this brief excursion is that all complex systems are sensitive to their initial conditions. And (not only) because of this sensitivity to initial conditions, complex systems cannot easily be reversed to a prior state. No one steps in the same river twice. Complex adaptive systems have what we can call a history. This is strongly connected to the characteristic of nonlinearity. And that is the beginning of another post.

On the complexity of change: Complex and adaptive

Let’s forget about changing anything. Just for a little while. Let’s just think about complexity. Something complex. A complex process. Got it? Why is this process complex? What makes it complex?

First answers are simple: a process with more than one actor is more complex than a process with just one actor. But it is not just the participants. Many natural or industrial processes are complex, and they do not necessarily even have participants (humans) that act in them. So, there can also be many components. And if that were not enough, more often than not there are many variables. You remember these variables from math classes in school.

x + 7 = y

This is a nice linear equation – and thus not complex. For each x there is exactly one y, which can be calculated, if you know how do do this sort of thing.

Think about the complex process you have in mind. It does not just have one variable, one x, that changes or can be changed. Most processes in life, in society, in biology, in physics, in nature, … in most places where we care to look, have more than one variable. More than one (in)observable trait, characteristic, or feature that can change or that can be changed.

Now that’s OK, you say. We just have to look at a few more things. Right! Problems arise when there are very many, often too many, to always keep our eyes on, to look out for, to consider. And not only that. Each of these variables, each x, if you like, does not just have one dependent y. More than one variable can depend on each changing variable.

I am changing the period of time I use for exercise in the morning. I am changing time t. Time t influences my fitness level; I am increasing muscle mass and flexibility. Because of the increased muscle mass, my metabolism changes during the day. I feel better, I am more agile, I move more and quicker, burning more calories than on the days prior. And by increasing time t for exercise, I am reducing time r for reading … Twitter, my favorite book, a newspaper, or some emails. I am also reducing time c for cooking, so I will have to have my lunch prepared the evening before or will have to go to the cafeteria to buy something to eat.

You get the point.

A complex phenomenon does not just have many variables. Each of these variables potentially interacts – metaphorically speaking bounces off and changes – one or more other variables. Overstating just a little bit: each of the many variables changes all the time, in concert and against each other.

Did I say at the beginning: Let’s forget about change for a little while? Impossible. We quickly returned to the concept of change. Change is part of complexity and complexity is part of change. We cannot – and should not – consider one without the other. [Maybe just for a quick thought experiment, or if we are really tired in the evening.]

What are the consequences? Complex phenomena are in constant flux, change constantly. That’s why we often talk about complex dynamic systems. Variables interact with one another, components interact, actors (participants) interact. In these many continuous or iterative interactions, each variable, component, and actor are also prone to change. They co-adapt. Especially for social systems, we often use the label complex adaptive systems (CAS). And if we want to understand change better, be able to influence it a little bit, or just deal with it, it is useful to look at some of the characteristics of complex adaptive systems.

  • CAS are likely to be on a nonlinear trajectory, which means a change I put in does not necessarily result in a proportionate change to come out.
  • CAS are sensitive to initial conditions. The variables, however small they might be, that were there from the very beginning are most likely to have had a relatively large impact on the whole process, simply because they have been around for long enough.
  • CAS have attractor states – states they are more often and more likely in. They also have repeller states, states which they could reach theoretically but never or hardly ever reach.
  • CAS are likely to reach an equilibrium – like a standstill, change is very close to zero – if no new energy enters the system.

I am glad I got this out of the way. And maybe so are you. Remember that I said it is often useful to apply a theoretical lens to gain a better understanding of a problem? At some stage I had to introduce the lens. In subsequent posts, I will look at these characteristics of complex adaptive systems, one by one. And I will show for each one what role their understanding can play in solving personal problems, problems at work, in social interactions, or just around the house.

The neat thing with these CAS is that there has been a lot of research that tried to figure out how to get a better handle on the complexity. And I am as sure as one can be that what we learn about the ever-changing complexity will come in handy almost every day, when solving problems. Whether this is in your personal life, when making leadership decisions, or simply when you are trying to fix something that you believe needs fixing.

And to finish off, if you’d rather read the texts on the Complexity of Change in one possible order … a table of contents is emerging.

On the complexity of change: All these complications!

A good morning. I know what I want to do. I know I can do it. I am optimistic. I have sufficient energy. [Not as much as I used to have some years ago, but good enough.] All this makes me feel great. Then! I glance at my email inbox. I see the one email. Yes, that one. I read it again. It sinks in deeper. I sink deeper. I have seen “this” before. I have dealt with “this” before. I had fixed it. Was that not good enough? Really, “this” is coming up again? It obviously is. ∑√i†!!! I have to do “this” again and can’t do what I want to do. Again, there is no time to do what I want to do, what actually needs doing [or so I believed], because I have to go back. Again. And again. Really?!

Sitting here writing, I can see “this” as what it is: yet another one of my encounters with a complex problem. Why does it happen so often? Time to put on our theoretical lens to get both a little more clarity and some – also emotional – distance.

The four types of problems – simple, linear, complex, and chaotic – do not each arise with the same frequency. Simple problems arise far less often than linear problems. We encounter linear problems far less often than complex problems. [Since we all live in a good world at a good time, chaotic problems arise least frequently of them all. But that’s a topic for another day.] We often find complex problems complicated. We might even react with frustrated surprise. Normally, we are more familiar, more comfortable, and hence more successful (in solving the problem) when we have encountered something more frequently. Here the opposite seems to happen: the more often the problem occurs, the more complicated we find dealing with it. It gets more and more frustrating. Why is that?

Essentially, a problem is wanting to move a process from state A to state B, and there is a hurdle between the two states. Two states. This makes us think of “this” as a binary. It is either “this” or “that.” It is an If—Then; if I do this, then that will happen. Either “this” gets fixed now and will be in a “good” state, or “this” does not get fixed and will be in a “bad” state forever. [We as humans seem to have a preference to see the world in linear binaries: either—or, if—then, cause—effect, plus—minus, right—wrong, … female—male, black—white, we—other, native—foreign, … That is also a topic for another day.] In other words, we expect to encounter linear problems more often than linear problems do occur. And, complex problems, because of their complexity, are likely to look different every time they arise. And, they appear frustratingly similar at the same time, especially if one looks at their surface first and foremost.

How can we deal with a complex problem effectively? This problem type arises from us being one actor in a complex dynamic system, which is basically a process that has multiple interacting actors, components, and variables and that is (very) sensitive to its context. [In a later post, we will take a good look at complex dynamic systems.] Because of that, we – as the problem solver – have to be prepared to consider this emerging process thoroughly and comprehensively. We have to assume there is no best solution, as their is for both simple and linear problems. After careful consideration or analysis, there is a solution. It is unlikely – and it might actually be undesirable – that a solution will bring the whole process into a stable end state. This means, we implement a solution and need to be prepared and willing to keep observing the changing system, ready to repeat our work of consideration and analysis and to implement another solution. The complex process will change again. The change is unlikely to be proportionate to the solution. The reasons for that are in the complexity of the process. More on this also later. So, we will have to be prepared to observe the system, consider it and its context, and to implement another solution, as we did the first time and as we will be doing as long as we care. Although different facets of the system, the problem, and our solution are often self-similar, it is not the same over and over again.

No one steps in the same river twice.

On the complexity of change: What problem do you have?

It’s too difficult! Does this really have to be so hard? You are being complicated.

Have these thoughts crossed your mind? Every day? Each hour? Fleetingly? Or have they lingered, recurred? Made you swear or resign? Or you buckled down and tried harder? I know for me it has been all of the above. And more. I have to ask, though. All of these feelings and experiences are subjective. It depends on us whether or not and to what degree we perceive something – a task, a request, a plan, an experience, a process … – as hard and challenging or as easy and quick. Yet, many of the problems or challenges we face or see others tackling “contribute” in and of themselves to being more complicated than others. Why?

At first sight, the answer is trivial. Such processes are not only complicated, they are complex. Complex problems.

I believe it is useful to take a good look at their complexity. At bare minimum, we know better what we are dealing with; at best, we arrive at a path to a solution and—with a little bit of luck—get a feeling of ease and simplicity.

Let’s put on our theoretical lens. (Very helpful, remember?) What is a problem? And what makes many of them complex?

Let’s pretend you have not encountered the concept of problem before. Let’s take a fresh quasi-naïve look.

So, you stare at your very first problem … What is happening? The process you look at is in state A. You want to, have to, plan to have the process reach state B. There is a hurdle, an obstacle between state A and state B. It’s easy, right? Solving that problem involves overcoming the obstacle and getting the process from the current state A to the desired state B.

The management consultant and researcher David Snowden distinguishes four different types of problems. I will call them simple, linear, complex, and chaotic problems.

Simple. You get up in the morning. You want some coffee (desired state B). There is no coffee; the pot is empty (current state A). The obstacle is minimal: fresh coffee needs to be brewed. You have done it a thousand times. You know exactly what to do, without having to analyze the current state and its context, available tools and avenues, and possible solutions. This is a simple problem. It presents itself, you immediately recognize it, automatically know the details of the desired state B – a nice cup of dark roasted coffee, no milk or sugar because its acidity are low and neither is needed.

Linear. You have had your coffee. The day can start, but first you decide to immediately wash your cup. And! When you pour water in the sink, you realize the drain is blocked (current state A). (The desired state B is an unblocked sink drain, of course. The obstacle is the drain has to be unblocked.) You analyze the situation. You look and think, you poke around. What is blocking the drain? How stubborn is the blockage? You look at some contextual factors: how urgent is it? how much time do I have? what tools do I have at home? what am I able and willing to do? who could help? how much does it cost to call a plumber? and when are they gonna come? You do this analysis of state A and its context once. You know how to do it. You match the result of your analysis with an appropriate course of action, such as pouring hot water or drainage cleaner down the drain, removing the elbow underneath yourself and cleaning it, notifying the landlord or building manager, or calling a plumber … If this is indeed a linear problem, then this course of action will produce a result. With a bit of luck – and skill and effort – the drain is unblocked. And the cups of the future can be washed. A linear problem like this one requires analysis. Both the analysis and overcoming the obstacle require a skill set and some labor. Linear problems have a best solution, which is the one that most likely and most efficiently leads to the desired state B. You can consult an expert who will present, and often implement, the required solution to/for you.

Since the third type is called complex problems. You are assuming right: neither linear nor simple problems are complex. The general problem of problem-solving is, as David Snowden pointed out, that most problems we encounter in our daily lives, with our and other people’s’ health, at work, in relationships, in politics, with the environment, in history, … are neither simple nor linear.

I am going to hazard a guess: most problems you have encountered, witnessed, heard about are complex. So, in the next post—you have been reading for long enough—I will take a closer look at these omnipresent complex problems.

On the complexity of change: How did this all start?

Something changes, I change something. I experience this change or I don’t (really) notice it. I anticipate or plan this change, I am surprised or spontaneous. I feel joy or sorrow or both about it, in it, after it.

We are all the same and all different in how we bring about change, experience it, and handle it. Some of us—and I am surely one—find it easier to start and sustain change, to enjoy and tolerate it, and to (co-)adapt and vary the speed and direction of ever-present change, if and when we—I—understand it, its context, and its origin, at least to some extent. And when this specific change feels familiar. It even seems to be secondary whether this change is perceived—at that moment—as positive or negative.

How can one gain a better understanding and more familiarity of and with change? The very simple answer is: Through sustained and reflective learning: we notice a “gap” or a tension between us and our context—the people, things, and processes, within this context, or within ourselves. If one then does decide to act or react, we begin to gain a better understanding through – mainly – repeated reflected experience of this and similar phenomena of change often in the realm of emotions, through action engagement (basically by doing stuff about it), and through rational thought.

All three—emotional experience, relevant action, and rational thought—are reactions to change. They also can induce change, and can help us adapt to and influence change. Of the three, I will continue in subsequent blog posts with rational thought. And this is where complexity comes in.

Change is a complex process. It has multiple actors, components, facets. Quite obvious, right? What is often less obvious, especially when change is experienced as pressure, stress, and/or adversity (at that moment or for longer periods of time) is that the actors, components, and facets are changing too, repeatedly. They “have to” change because they are in continuous, repeated, intermittent interaction with one another.

I am well aware that I have invoked a number of theoretical concepts (change/dynamism, complexity) in this text already, and I am sure so are you. This is deliberate because I believe that I can reflect better, more productively, and more constructively, when my reflection is informed by an appropriate theory. Of course, complexity in and of itself is complex. So I find it helpful to use theory both as a crutch and—more importantly to me—as a lens.

Since I am hoping you find it useful both to think about change and to inform and influence your thinking systematically, I have picked a set of related theories—Chaos Theory, Complexity Theory, Dynamic Systems Theory—and will be writing about these by making them the servants of understanding change both theoretically and practically.

More on this in later posts. The titles of these posts (will) all start with “On the complexity of change.” If you find this or a later one interesting, I am hoping you will want to look at the others. So, why not follow this blog, if you are not doing so already.

Panta Rhei — what does that mean?

It is Greek, and not just to me. I am told the translation is: Everything Flows. The first one to say this was the Greek philosopher Heraclitus (c. 535 to c. 475 BC). He believed — as do we — that everything always changes, that we can understand ourselves and the world around us better, if we start with the premise of ever-present change. It is that change that we experience as development. Sometimes we are happy with it, sometimes — not so much. Sometimes we like the speed and direction of change, sometimes we don’t.

Heraclitus was known as the Obscure Philosopher. He apparently enjoyed playing with words, but more importantly, he believed in the unity of opposites and assumed there is some harmony in this world. Today, we capture the unity of opposites — things are plus and minus at the same time — as one part of a dialectic. [More on that in a later blog post.] It is difficult to understand and then express opposites at the same time. Helping somebody is both positive and negative simultaneously and subsequently: it is positive because the helped benefits from the help, it is negative because the help curtails, prevents, or even disables the potential for the helped to act for themselves. We are capable of self-determination — autonomy — and make our own choices; at the same time, we are always also other-determined — heteronymy: we choose to act on our want for a nice meal in a comfortable environment and might go to a restaurant. Quite determined, we hop into the car and drive off downtown. The restaurant owner might have decided to not serve dinner at 2am at night and went to bed already. Our eating habits are also determined by that and by many other decisions and choices many other people made.

So, in large part because of these tensions between opposites, because of different factors bouncing off off each other, changing, amplifying, and cancelling each other, and because of each of us determining to some extent how we are going to act at any given moment, something or other is always happening — everything always changes.

Heraclitus also said: No man ever steps in the same river twice. We use this sentence as the tag line for this site, by only changing one word: No one steps in the same river twice. In our experience and from our perspective, change from the “outside” does affect everybody the same and differently; everybody changes the same and differently—independent of our gender.
Why doesn’t anybody step in the same river twice? The river always flows; one way of looking at it is that it is not the same river water just a second later. And we also change. When we step into the same river (if this were possible), then we are not the same; we are a little older, maybe a little wiser, maybe just a little more hungry, or already wet …

Such constant change is complex in itself, and we often perceive it as such, and, when we are in the midst of it — and we often are — we find it complex and complicated to deal with this change.

We believe it is good to think about the complexity of change, to talk about it, understand it better. We don’t want to simplify change, belittle it, or reject it. Change is all around us and all within us; we might as well understand it better. In some way or another — based on the concepts in our blog post tags — we will always look at change, and not only in our blog writing.

What were you thinking? And what do the tags mean?

This is our initial set of tags. We implemented them on the site first to have a guideline for ourselves.

Change is not just the first word alphabetically. It is the central concept we are thinking about. It’s a cliché to say that change is the only constant. It certainly will make a frequent appearance in our writing. The topics and concepts will change; the tags might change; our approach will change. And all that is good. Some of the concepts from the social sciences – coadaptation, complex system, development, dialectic, dynamic system, nonlinearity, social dynamics – help us to understand change better, enable us to to talk – and write – about change, and facilitate living and working with change.

We have been working in Language Education for some years. Our linguistic training is helping us to make sense of many things in this world. Thought and language are inextricably linked. Everyone of us also uses language to construct our identity. We all mediate our social relationships with language. So, concepts such as cognition, common ground, communication, discourse, discourse analysis, discursive construction, language development, metacognition, negotiation of meaning, rhetoric, textual analysis, transcultural, word meaning, will be central to our pondering of life’s and work’s questions.

People work in teams, are part of a smaller or larger organization, and are members of communities and societies. Some of us find themselves in leadership positions. Especially at times of change – and change is the only constant 😉 – such social concepts gain in importance. We will involve the following: leadership, management, org behavior, org culture, org theory, social dynamics.

Although we both think of ourselves as predominantly rational and pragmatic, we are well aware that we would not have a full grasp of this world in all its beautiful facets and not a full picture of a fellow human, if we only relied on analysis and rational thought. Therefore, we will ponder questions of spiritualism, spirit, energy, and emotion.

Why are we conducting such discussions in a public blog? Both of us have been teaching and training different groups of adults (and to a lesser extent also teenagers and younger children). We hope to be able to put our knowledge, expertise, and experience – manifested in this emerging blog – to good use soon by holding workshops, training, teaching, consulting, and coaching.

But first we will explore individual concept tags in individual blog posts and see where this leads us in our thinking, and what feedback and questions we will receive from you.

This was an empty post

About a week ago, I took some time and built a little skeleton of blog posts to set up the functionality of our site. Chris and I began the Panta Rhei site for two reasons (I believe; he will correct me soon if I am wrong):

  • We believe that with our joint expertise, experience, and education, we have a couple of things to share, things that we hope others might find helpful.  We have always shared them with family, colleagues, students, friends, … at conferences, in the classroom, in meetings and informal conversations. We want to reach out more and do this more systematically.
  • At this stage, our thoughts are on different phenomena, challenges, fields, prospects, questions, … It is a whole complex – a bit like a nourishing, comforting stew – of ideas, insights, lived experiences, learned theorems. Difficult to digest and even more difficult to name the ingredients and teach the recipe. So initially, we will use this blog to bring clarity and system to our thoughts. To stay in the picture: we don’t expect anybody to want our stew exactly the way we have had it simmering for many years. We will use the stew as a solid base for a variety of soups, soups that are not only nourishing but also presentable and transparent. In other words, each blog entry will bring more clarity to one thought. And we decided to do this “live” and publish each blog post immediately or soon after writing.

We are hoping to get your reactions, your comments, your questions, …

This post has been tagged with all 36 tags we currently have for this blog to give you an idea what this is all gonna be about. A little more in this vein in the next post.

First blog post

Everything has a beginning. Has everything? Probably not. Something that has been here forever, did it have a beginning?

Well. This philosophical question doesn’t really matter at this time and in this case. Because this website and its blog have not been here forever. Chris and Mat decided to build this site about a week ago. It started off as an empty shell, a downloaded template … and a bag of ideas. Ideas about which we want to write and to talk, which we want to ponder and debate, and which — most important to us — we want to share with you. Yes, we believe we have some ideas that are worth sharing.

So we decided to just have this site emerge. We realize this requires work, a sustained effort, and consistent striving. We are ready. Are you? We will always appreciate your comments, your input, your support and counterpoints, your feedback, …

So, let’s get started.

If you arrived through this blog, you could go to our homepage or look at the whole Panta Rhei Blog, starting with the latest post and going back in time.