Intentionality & Complex Systems Theory in Language Education

I am proud and happy to announce that Juup Stelma and I have just had a chapter published in New Directions in Language Learning Psychology, an edited collection put together by Christina Gkonou, Dietmar Tatzl and Sarah Mercer, and published in the Springer Second Language Learning and Teaching series.

If you scroll all the way down to the end of this post, you will find a link for downloading the chapter. Before you get there, you may also be interested in reading a short summary.

What is this chapter about?

In the chapter, we suggest that many activities in language teaching and learning might be easier to understand if we look into the forces that drive and sustain them. These forces, which we call intentionalities, are roughly akin to the ‘purposes’ of each activity, the reasons that make teachers and students behave together in particular ways.

We also point out that teaching and learning is usually driven by several intentionalities, which are interwoven into each other. Rather than looking into each intentionality separately, we therefore suggest that it may be helpful to try to understand them through a complexity lens, because this allows us to see their combined effect.

New Directions in Language Learning Psychology (Cover Page)
The book

Juup and I support our theoretical argument by drawing on data from our doctoral theses. Juup describes how a group of learners in Norway got increasingly involved in a set of role-playing tasks, and engaged in increasingly more elaborate theatrics. This activity, he argues, was driven by a ‘performace intentionality’, and he discusses how it came into being, and how it eventually faltered. In my part of the chapter, I talk about how the teaching and learning activity in an evening language school in Greece was driven by what I call a ‘competition intentionality’, which emerged from the interaction with the state school system.

Why is this important?

When we think about second language teaching and learning, we are sometimes frustrated by two unhelpful misconceptions. The first misconception, which I have termed the predictive fallacy, is that it should be possible to associate outcomes to specific causes – or intentionalities, to use the terminology of this chapter. That is to say, we might be tempted to think that things happen in a classroom because someone (a student, a teacher, a policy maker) influenced them with their decision-making. The perspective that we put forward in this chapter highlights the interconnectivity of decisions, at many different levels, and offers a more nuanced account of how activity emerges.

The second misconception, which is associated with some strands of complexity thinking, is that language teaching and learning is so unpredictable that anything might happen. Such accounts downplay the role of individual responsibility, and may render opaque the underlying processes that sustain or hinder change in an educational setting. In this chapter, we show how intentional activity can still be traced in a complex system, with a view to developing a deeper understanding of what shapes lessons, classes, and schools.

Download the chapter

If you’re interested in downloading a free copy of the chapter, you can do this by clicking on the button below.

For those of you who find this kind of information useful, the full bibliographical reference is:

Kostoulas, A., & Stelma, J. (2016). ‘Intentionality and Complex Systems Theory: A New Direction for Language Learning Psychology’. In C. Gkonou, D. Tatzl, & S. Mercer (Eds.). New Directions in Language Learning Psychology (pp. 7-24). Cham: Springer.

I hope that you find the chapter interesting, and please do feel free to share comments and feedback, either by dropping a line in the comments below, or by emailing me directly!


Image Credit: adikos @ Flickr , CC-BY

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