Chaos Theory

Brief Overview

This is a brief overview of the chaos theory for the reader to understand the main points. Readers are encouraged to study more in-depth to gain a full appreciation of the history, development, and implementation. At the end are guiding questions for the educator to contemplate instruction and chaos theory.

The chaos/complexity theory traces its beginnings to the study of mathematics, but the tenets of the theory are easily applied to the study of second language learning. Chaos theory is commonly referred as the “butterfly effect.” The butterfly effect is a concept which states that small changes can potentially have profound results at a later date. The most common example is that a butterfly flaps his wings and weeks later that act causes a hurricane.

Daine Larsen Freeman (1997) identified twelve characteristics of chaos theory and how it relates to language learning.

  1. Dynamic: changes over time, not in a static state
  2. Complex: many parts that constantly interact
  3. Nonlinear: effect is disproportionate to the cause
  4. Chaotic: a deep, coherent structure within apparent randomness
  5. Unpredictable: cannot forecast future states
  6. Sensitive to Initial Conditions: a tiny change can have a vast effect
  7. Open: information freely flows in and out
  8. Self-Organizing: a structure/pattern emerges as components interact
  9. Feedback Sensitive: feedback is incorporated into behaviour
  10. Adaptive: optimizes itself according to environment
  11. Strange Attractor: global pattern but unpredictable details
  12. Fractal: a pattern that repeats itself at different scales

We really encourage everyone to study this theory in more detail, but for now, this article wants to only highlight how dynamic, complex, nonlinear, unpredictable, and feedback sensitive characteristics apply to the classroom.


This concept has been covered in previous articles such as interlanguage and morpheme order studies, but it is a constant with every student. All students formulate or apply rules that may not be accurate, but this does not mean that those rules will stay that way. Students are able to alter these rules with input and interaction. In chaos theory, this can apply to language learning or the language environment. A good class has the ability to change into a bad class, and vice versa.


Language learning is very complex in there are many factors involved that help or hinder acquisition. There are many factors within the educators control such as teaching personality, lesson planning, classroom management, but things like student level, class size, context, environmental factors, student personalities, student learning styles, etc… are not within the educator’s control. However, all these elements are moving parts of various weights that play a role in the potential for acquisition.


Small changes can have huge effects. This is the butterfly effect and explained in more detail in this article about educator rules.


Educators do their best to plan for future outcomes, but all the moving parts make it almost impossible to predict. The educator can produce a lesson plan that works great for a class, but fails miserably with another class. There are many reasons for this, but the key emphasis here is learning and the learning environment can be unpredictable.

Feedback Sensitive

The educator is the principle driver in the chaos machine because of the power to alter outcomes. Feedback can be a reaction to a condition in the classroom like the students becoming rowdy and the educator calming them down. The most common form of feedback is an educator’s remark on what students have produced. If a student is admonished for an incorrect answer, that student or other students may become afraid to answer future questions because of the previous feedback. The educator’s feedback constantly controls many elements in the class through their reactions, so measure reactions accordingly.

How to Use

  • In the Details: The attention to details can make a huge difference in the way the class performs. These details can range from proper arranging of desks to response to a student’s mistake or correct answer. Nonlinear actions such as placing classroom rules on the wall can result in students behaving better. It’s easy to view the large pieces of the classroom such as the material and activities, but small aspects like coming to class on time and understanding the students can cause monumental changes within the environment.
  • Be a Manager: The educator is the manager of the class; therefore, understanding the complexity of the class can produce huge benefits. Elements such as student level, content difficulty, strictness, leniency, and how the educator responds to situations must be considered. For example, if the students are being lazy and not showing much energy, does the educator give a pep talk, or does the educator change the activity to a stand up interaction activity? As the manager of the class, it is the educator’s responsibility to direct the class in production by appropriate means.
  • Change It: The educator should always observe the reactions of students to access learning and engagement; if something is not working, consider changing the activity. The class is dynamic, unpredictable, and nonlinear, so little tweaks in delivery can alter the results. For example, if students are not performing well in thinking of reasons why school uniforms are good or bad, then having a debate at the end of class will most likely not be possible. Instead of a debate, have the students perform a mingling activity to gather information on the pros and cons of school uniforms. Embrace the unpredictability and change lessons accordingly.
  • Dynamic Ability: Learning is a dynamic process which students should be allowed to explore. Make lessons where students are able to interact with the language and use personal language so they can be exposed to their lack of understanding and reorder incorrect information.
  • Find Balance: Chaos is not a negative aspect in the classroom, but too much chaos can be detrimental to the learning process. For instance, students may become a little rowdy enjoying an activity which is okay, but if the students are rolling on the floor in laughter then the chaos is impeding the ability to learn. Find the happy balance to fun and learning.
  • Provide Feedback: Providing feeding in the form of praise or correction can benefit students in positive ways if done correctly. Key phrases like, “great job,” or “that’s okay, you did great” can boost the students’ moral. Also, providing students with information on how they are performing or where they stand class wise can assist in providing motivation to do better. For instance, if the educator is teaching a class with curved grades, then providing students with a mid-semester information session that informs them of their current standing may motivate the student to do more to attain a higher grade.

Final Thoughts

Chaos theory is a very interesting theory that puts the classroom environment and production into perspective. It is a place of chaos, but at the same time, it is normally a place with great structure. The greatest benefit of chaos theory to the educator is being mindful of the complexity of components involved, and how one change reverberates throughout the elements. Plan for the chaos and react appropriately to situations, because one small action can have a disproportionate effect. Maybe not like a butterfly flapping his wings and starting a hurricane, but more like well planned lessons that make students see information in a new way or a vote of confidence that creates more of a desire to learn language.

D. Larsen-Freeman: Chaos/complexity science and second language acquisition. Applied Linguistics, Volume 18, Issue 2: June 1997, pp. 141-165.