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Critical incident theory has helped teachers to reflect on their teaching practice and elicit ways of improving it through identification of preconceptions and through reflection on the significance of unplanned incidents. This paper adapts these ideas to the perspective of language learners, in order to promote awareness and development of learning through conscious reflection. Recognizing that language learning is a complex, dynamic process, with numerous interacting and often unpredictable factors, the research incorporates aspects of complexity theory, according to which, apparently insignificant ‘initial’ events can determine the way in which global structures (e.g. learning) ‘emerge’ over the long term. Awareness of this concept can enable students and teachers to facilitate positive critical incidents and avoid harmful ones. In investigating the significance of ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ in terms of language learning, this study invited graduate and undergraduate students to reflect on their learning over a semester and to identify critical incidents from their previous elementary and secondary schooling. Analysis of their responses led to the conclusion that sensitivity to initial events (critical incidents) does occur in language learning, but that the learner needs to ‘notice’ the incidents for triggering or realization to take place and to influence subsequent learning.
Journal: System - Volume 38, Issue 3, September 2010, Pages 422–431