Building Stronger Competence Through Variety

April 2011

Chaos Infinity Butterfly

Cybernetics is the study of systems be they biological, computerised, or social. In 1956 the Scottish cyberneticist, Ross Ashby who was very much the father of the field, coined the Law of Requisite Variety which states that

Only variety absorbs variety.

This may sound a bit confusing but if we look at nature as a system of living things interacting with each other, the organism which is most able to adapt – to vary its behaviour – is the organism which is most likely to control that system. In such systems, over-specialisation in the bigger scheme of things is detrimental because when a big change suddenly occurs, the company or person or culture which is least able to vary its behaviour is usually the one which will become irrelevant. Likewise in work and life, the person with the most choices available to them is the person most likely to succeed in any given situation.

Lack of requisite variety is why ancient civilisations died away. A culture becomes so powerful and stable that it cannot recognise, never mind embrace, the need for change. This in turn breeds traditionalist instincts, conservatism and restrictions of freedom. When the outside world changed in a big way, the glorious old civilisations were unable to move positively against the new order of things. One thing we can learn from history is that the more open a culture is to change, the more chance it has of surviving. This truth can be applied to many aspects of society. When the government introduces regulations to curb derivatives trading in the City, bankers find a way around the laws to stay one step ahead of the authorities, who then have to respond with even tighter laws. This ongoing cycle of competition reflects itself in everything from traffic congestion to natural selection and political organisation.

So how does this affect ELT? Similarly, language is a socially constructed system involving interaction with others and therefore it is crucial that speakers have competencies and strategies to deal with divergent issues when communicating. This is not some machiavellian motive for language use but a basic requirement of surviving linguistically and this is why I think think the achilles’ heel of English for Specific Purposes is that it is always prone to become a gimmicky extension of old notional-functional approaches to language learning. There’s nothing wrong with a focus on Business English – business by definition is a very generic word, but once you start stepping over that line and building whole syllabuses around areas like ‘English for Cabin Crew’ or ‘English for Sports Coaches’ then I think you are asking for trouble.[1]

Hammering it home
Abraham Maslow’s Principle of the Golden Hammer - If all you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.

I think it’s more practical for teachers to encourage learners to be independent in pursuing specific avenues themselves, meanwhile providing a solid foundation in the general language during class time. Ultimately the issue is a freedom-versus-control one.[2] Language is a big sprawling general beast which cannot be tamed by formulaic functional approaches. Language needs to be faced head on rather than via restrictive niches. As Wittgenstein vividly puts it,

“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shows them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;---whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” ~ Philosophical Investigations (1953)

I think the analogy is particularly apt. If you want to orientate someone with a city, would you send them down specific districts or would you try to inculcate them with a wider view that stands them in better stead over the long run? English for Specific Purposes makes a lot of money for publishers but does it benefit learners beyond what they should be learning anyway as a result of their own efforts? Should a guide be holding a person’s hand and walking them around their own neighbourhood when they can be an explorer opening them to lesser known parts of the city while making themselves progressively unnecessary? Isn’t a more important role in this context to be encouraging autonomy and critical thinking skills rather than providing prescriptive phrases and a lexicon of words that the learner should rightfully be familiar with already?

Eridu Ziggurat
The Ziggurat Ruins of Eridu – a likely candidate for original Tower of Babel. Perhaps if the Ancients had used more divergent methods and less LSP, they might have got it finished and stuck around a bit longer.

If we read further into Investigations we can see that Wittgenstein extends this idea of a language as a place of dwelling.

“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Then the words ‘this’ and ‘there’ are introduced as well as the words ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ representing numbers so Builder A can now point and say “d – slab – there” whereby four slabs are counted out (“a, b, c, d…”) by builder B and placed in the desired spot.”

This activity is now recognisable as a language – a language for builders that can and must increase in complexity and size as the operations involved in building the structure increase from foundation and rudimentary functionality to perfection and an elaborate finish. However, the problem with such raw functionality is that if the house does not expand as needed, then along comes an unexpected wind and topples it over.[3]

Which brings me to one of the flawed parts in my last lesson plan which I felt was the inclusion of a slide of functional phrases for debating. The problem with these is that when you introduce functional phrases in class almost nobody uses them unless explicitly drilled to do so. And when students do use them they always sound rather contrived. To me, including functional phrases is a bit of a pointless formality that people do because they feel they have to – it’s another remnant of a flawed approach that was once de rigeur.

I believe that teachers are better off recognising the non-linear and diverse nature of communication. A focus on functionality causes a dearth of variety and like a crutch, it fosters an inability to think and talk on your feet, in real-time, adapting to situations and information as they arise. Teachers should give people a solid comprehensive grounding in the language – from the bottom up so that no matter what the real world throws at them they can cope. The failure of notional-functional and specialised approaches is the very thing they were devised to prevent; they are often not so useful. They lack breadth and meaning and therefore they lack value for the learner.[4]

E=MC Escher – his Tower of Babel defies the laws of nature. If speakers don't square themselves with the law of variety that situations demand, we get communication breakdowns and suspended progress.

1. You may notice that in my last post I provided a very specialist lesson plan for discussing politics, but that constitutes one unit from a largely divergent and eclectic currciulum-view.

2. See Tao Te'a' Ching, Post 76 by D. Fogarty

3. See TEFL 101, Chapter 75: Wittgenstein on Language Games

4. See TEFL 101, Chapter 21: The Notional-Functional Syllabus – A Flawed Approach