Contradictions in learning to write in a second language classroom: insights from radical constructivism, activity theory, and complexity theory
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This study explores how a multi-theoretical perspective can help researchers and educators to move beyond descriptive analyses and toward an explanatory understanding of how students learn to write in a second language. The multitheoretical perspective included the three theories of radical constructivism, activity theory, and complexity theory, as represented by Jean Piaget and Ernst von Glasersfeld, Yrjö Engeström, and John Holland, respectively. Taking a case study approach, this dissertation involved looking at how international students in a computer-assisted, first-year university rhetoric and composition course learned to write research-supported arguments in a second language classroom at a major university in the Southwest over a period of one semester. Data for analysis consisted primarily of audio-taped interviews with the students, samples of their writing, and the students’ observations and interpretations of their learning over the semester. The major conclusion of the study was that contradictions were the sine qua non driving force of learning in this class. Learning was not simply a straightforward process of participation but emerged nonlinearly as students reflected on and acted on contradictions arising from perceived discrepancies between their present experiences and their previous schemas, including sociocultural schemas. Moreover, the nature of the students’ learning was mediated by the sociohistorical influences they embodied, by the material and psychological tools they used, and by their interactions with other individuals both within and without the classroom ecology. Thus, by using a multiple theoretical perspective that shifts analysis back and forth among individuals, socially mediated practices, and underlying ecological dynamics, new insights can be gained of how students learn to write in a second language, thus broadening our understanding of second language composition theory and pedagogy.