Second Language Writing
My research looks at how students learn to write in another language. Most research to date has been descriptive in nature but not explanatory. To help me develop an explanatory model for learning to write, I use three complementary theories: complexity science, activity theory, and radical constructivism.
My research is influenced primarily by the work of John H. Holland and his model of complex adaptive systems. Two key aspects of his model are how resources flow through networks in complex systems and the building blocks of those systems. The notion of flows is important in learning because networks always multiply and recycle the resources in the system, or in the case of a composition classroom, they multiply and recycle the rhetorical knowledge and practices that students need to acquire. With respect to the notion of building blocks, I am interested in developing a pedagogical approach in which students formulate kernel models that are recombined across varied and new contexts so that students master the essence of the concept, build a deeper understanding of writing, and gain the ability to apply their understanding flexibly in novel and varied situations, especially once they leave the classroom. For more information about networks and building blocks, see my articles The Role of Networks in Learning to Write and Building Blocks and Learning.
Activity theory in some ways is similar to complexity theory in that it considers the activity system in which learners are embedded. Thus, academic achievement is not simply a matter of individual skills because students are social beings embodying the sociohistorical influences of their institutions and cultures. Students' participation in class, their appropriation of rhetorical concepts and writing tools, the conflicts they face in learning, their ability to expand and generalize their learning, all are mediated by the concepts and tools of the past and present activities in which they have engaged and are engaging. Consequently, to understand how students learn to write in a second language, or learn to do anything, requires an analysis of the activity systems in which they are embedded and an analysis of the contradictions inherent within activities and between them. For a pre-publication draft, see Contradictions, Appropriation, and Transformation.
Radical Constructivism complements activity theory. That is, activity theory looks at the contradictions within and between systems, while radical constructivism looks at the contradictions within an individual, or Piaget's notion of equilibration between assimilating and accommodating experience. Radical constructivism is useful in understanding the process of learning because many assume that learning is merely a straightforward process of building upon prior experiences and filling in schemas with new data, or knowledge. Rather, learning to write, or learning, anything, involves a process of acting on contradictions between one's existing schemas and present experiences. It is also useful because of its concept of viability, that objective reality cannot be directly perceived. This notion means that teachers, as well as students, construct models representing their experiences rather than an actual reality. Thus, the student's schema may not only be coherent according to his or her experiences but may also be insightful and effective. Until the student shows otherwise, we must listen closely to hear what is productive in the students' models and build from there rather than misconstrue their understanding as wrong.