The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL

I have just learnt from our publishers, de Gruyter Mouton, that the book I have writing with Juup Stelma, The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL, is on the final printing stages, and that it will be available for purchase from 10th May onwards. This seems like a good time to say a few words about the book, what intentional dynamics are, and why we – Juup and I – think that this is a helpful way to look at language education.

Language education as meaning-making

This book is our attempt to answer a deceptively simple question: why is our experience of TESOL what it is? There are two ways of approaching this question, and we think that they are interrelated. We could start by describing TESOL settings as configurations of rules and routines, people and resources, beliefs and expectations, and trying to explain what it was which shaped this specific configuration as opposed to other possibilities. Alternatively, we might describe the activity of teachers and learners, and try to connected to the influences that shaped it and to its effects. We believe that both of these perspectives are different views on the same puzzle, and this is what we have tried to describe in our book.

Intentional ecologies

Our starting point in this investigation is the idea that everything we do in TESOL (teaching and learning languages, writing books, preparing for class, training to be a teacher, and more) is an act of meaning-making. Drawing on Gregory Bateson’s (1987) book, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, we suggest that these acts of meaning-making take place in an ‘ecology of ideas’, a configuration of norms, intentions, expectations, beliefs and more that reside in individual consciousness and beyond it. What all these constructs have in common is that they are about something, they have a certain ‘aboutness’ or -to use a more philosophical term- they have intentionality (Brentano, 1874/2015; Searle, 1983). We use the term intentional ecology to denote this.

Intentional activity

The first part of the book is largely about understanding what intentional ecologies are and how they operate. To do this we draw heavily on complex dynamic systems theory. This helps us to understand how different ecologies can be nested into each other (e.g., the ecology of a language school might be part of the broader ecology of TESOL), and how entities at different scales interact. Complex dynamic systems theory also provides us with the conceptual tools to connect ontologically diverse entities (e.g., routines, actors and resources) by looking at the activity that emerges from their interaction. We call this intentional activity, and we describe how it emerges from the ecology and how it comes back to recursively re-shape it.

Introducing intentional dynamics

A key insight to understanding intentional ecology and intentional activity is that these are not two different ‘things’; they are different aspects of the same phenomenon. This is not very unlike a wave in the sea, which is at the same time both motion and a body of water. We call this the intentional dynamics of TESOL (incidentally, this is what we tried to illustrate with the picture on the cover page of the book).

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is img_9185.jpg
The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL cover page (draft)

We also suggest that intentional dynamics can be experienced at several levels. For example, they can be viewed at the level of individual intentionality, which is the individual teacher’s or learners’ personal agentive contribution to the intentional ecology. Or they could be viewed as a more collective phenomenon, as shared intentionality, the intentionality that is co-created by small groups of people. Alternatively, intentionality might be sedimented in artefacts such as curricula or learning materials, and experienced ‘second-hand’. One last way in which intentionality might be present in an ecology is as sociocultural intentionality, i.e., rules, norms, expectations etc. that are present in a larger social group. All this information is summarised in the table below

Aspects of intentionalityWhat this meansMostly relevant to understanding role of
individual ideas, psychological states etc. of individual actorsteachers, learners etc.
shared ideas and activity jointly created through the interaction of small groups of peopleclassrooms, materials writing teams, groups of teachers etc.
derived ideas and beliefs that are ‘sedimented’ into artifacts like learning materials, syllabuses, administrative documentspolicy documents, textbooks, other learning resources etc.
sociocultural social beliefs about learning and languagesnational cultures, organisational cultures etc.
Aspects of intentionality

So far, I have tried to explain what intentional dynamics are, an constant interaction between an ecology that produces activity and the activity that is shaped by it. Let us not turn our attention to what this means for understanding TESOL.

Using intentional dynamics to understand TESOL

Our description of intentional ecologies draws on complex dynamic systems theory, a conceptual lens that Juup and I have worked with expensively over the last fifteen years or so. Viewed as a complex dynamic system, intentional dynamics have four important properties.

Properties of intentional dynamics

  • Firstly, intentional dynamics are adaptive. This means that they constantly reconfigure their structure in response to changes in their environment. In practical terms, a class may change in some ways if they get a new teacher, but they will also retain as much of their pre-existing way of working as they can.
  • Intentional dynamics are also shaped by historicity. This means that their current state is influenced by their previous states and their future state connects to its present one. Our experience and the norms of our professional organisations are examples of historicity.
  • In addition, intentional dynamics are non-linear. This means that it is hard to connect specific causes with definite effects. As teachers, we experience this in the observation that two lessons with the same lesson plans and similar classes could result in two very different lessons.
  • Finally, intentional dynamics are self-organised. This means that the ecology is shaped by activity and activity is shaped the ecology where it emerges.

All of the aspects listed above are present in every intentional ecology and all intentional action. However, depending on which of the four aspects is more prominent, this produces one of four types of intentional dynamics.

Contingent intentional activity

Contingent intentional activity describes the condition where teachers and learners act in ways that are, more or less, unconscious, automatic or spontaneous. This is the type of teaching and learning that appears to happen on ‘auto-pilot’, and where no conscious attempt is made to alter the intentional ecology or direct events. Intentionality, in this case, is experienced only unconsciously. Although contingent intentional dynamics appear to be very passive, they are actually an important part of the TESOL experience, which preserves adaptiveness and the potential for both stability and change.

Normative intentional activity

This configuration of intentional dynamics refers to conditions where teachers and learners act in a specific way which is directed by historicity. They do things because “that’s how we have always done it”. Historicity can be a powerfully conservative influence in TESOL, and it is manifested in administrative inertia, the attraction of convention, the fear of the unknown and the influence of authority. Regardless of how normative dynamics emerge, their likely effect is to reproduce the intentional ecology.  

Creative intentional activity

We use the term ‘creative intentional activity’ to refer to all those conditions where teachers, learners and other actors in TESOL engage in activity that aims to produce something novel. This does not just mean language learning games or imaginative writing, although this too can be part of creative intentional dynamics. It also encompasses any attempt to change a normative way of doing things, or challenge established ways of thinking and acting. The aspect that is most prominent in this case is non-linearity and its product is innovation.

Purposeful intentional activity

We use the term ‘purposeful’ to describe all types of intentional activity to refer to various types of deliberate, planned activity that aims to produce s specific effect on the intentional ecology. Examples of purposeful intentional activity might include trying out methodological innovation, studying for a test and more. Purposeful intentional activity is typified by self-organisation.  

Summary of types of intentional activity

We believe that, taken together, these four types of intentional activity can account for all of the activity that we experience in TESOL. They also provide us with a theoretically powerful way to connect activity in TESOL with the intentional ecology where it is produced.

Type of intentional activityTypical situationsSalient propertyLikely outcome
contingentspontaneousadaptivenesspotential for stability & change
creativeopen-endednon-linearitynew possibilities
Types of intentional activity

About the book

The book is structured in three parts, in which Juup and I describe our model of intentional dynamics, present examples of how it can be used and discuss possible additional implications for TESOL theory.

Establishing the model of intentional dynamics

Manuscript with copiting annotation
Proofreading the references of the book

The first part of the book consists of five chapters, where we introduce the various ‘building blocks’ of our thinking and then go on to synthesis them into a model of intentional dynamics. The ‘building blocks’ include a chapter on ecological theory, a chapter on complex dynamics systems theory and a chapter on intentionality. Chapter 5 is where we put all this information together, and outline a model of intentional dynamics, which shows how individual, shared, derived, and sociocultural intentionality interact in an intentional ecology; how this interaction produces activity; and how activity comes back to re-shape the ecology.

Exemplifying the model of intentional dynamics

In the second part of the book, we present empirical and conceptual work which serve as examples of our model. The empirical work that we present is a set of re-analyses of previous studies Juup and I had previously published, individually, together, and with colleagues. Chapter 6 shows how the activity of MA TESOL students was shaped by their changing individual intentionality. Chapter 7 follows a group of young English language learners in Norway, whose classroom routines evolved through shared intentionality. Chapter 8 discusses how the derived intentionality in learning materials shaped activity in an ELT school in Greece. Finally, Chapter 9 describes the diverse intentional structures that shape activity in global TESOL.

A key contribution which is mostly visible in chapter 9 is a conceptualisation where TESOL activity is constrained in a ‘transactional paradigm’. This paradigm contains resilient intentional structures such as the valorisation of ‘standard’ varieties, the status of native teachers, the instrumental aspirations connected to language instruction, the role of transmissive teaching, and top-down organisational structures. We set this against what we describe as a ‘transformational paradigm’ of TESOL, and we argue for more open-ended and purposeful intentional activity as a means to move from existing dynamics to desired ones.

Extending the model of intentional dynamics

The final part of the book consists of three additional chapters, where we discuss the potential of the model to inform disciplinary areas adjacent to TESOL. In Chapter 10, we explore the affordances of our model for applied linguistics, by offering the suggestion that language learning might be viewed as an act of ‘intentional becoming’. In Chapter 11, we argue for a ‘critical-intentional’ stance that aims to challenge and subvert normative assumptions about TESOL. Chapter 12 is more practically-oriented in that it outlines suggestions on how to conduct research that is compatible with our model of intentional dynamics. The final chapter of the book ties all this information together, by summarising what we believe to be the most important contributions of the book.

Some reactions to the book

Writing this book has been an intense but very rewarding intellectual experience. That is why I felt very proud to read the following comments from the reviewers, who are anonymous, but one of whom is recognisably one of the most important authorities on the interconnections between language and culture:

The book does a stupendous job rounding up the literature on the teaching of English in the last fifty years, especially Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s work and the application of complexity theory to the teaching of English grammar.

The book is an extremely ambitious attempt to reinterpret the whole field of research done in SLA/ELT and ELT methodology through the lens of CDST. It is clearly and strongly argued and the authors’ erudition is admirable. As such, I have not seen anything like it on the market.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, who also read the book before it was published, was also kind enough to write the following comments about the book:

Stelma and Kostoulas have enriched the potential of the partnership between complex dynamic systems and ecological theories by contributing the concept of intentionality. Importantly, their model of intentional dynamics places meaning and meaning-making at the heart of an ecological and complex dynamic systems account of TESOL. The authors don’t stop with theory. They illustrate the power of their model in exemplifying four different contexts and types of activities, reinterpreting them through the lens offered by their model and thereby making a case for its versatility. In so doing, they demonstrate its real-world relevance to the TESOL teaching and research community. In addition to conceiving of language learning as intentional becoming, their understanding affords a critical-intentional perspective on power, freedom, and agency to counter injustice—a perspective that is much-needed in the world today.

Diane Larsen-Freeman, Professor Emerita of Education and of Linguistics, University of Michigan

As for me, I guess I’m very proud. I have been involved in the writing of one more monograph and three edited collections ([1], [2], [3]) all of which will probably appeal to a broader audience. But, I honestly think that this was the project that makes the most important theoretical contribution to the field. It is also the project that helped me develop most as a writer and as a thinker, and -if each of us has one major idea with which they want their academic life to be associated, this is the one with which I am happiest.

I am also very proud to have written this book with Juup Stelma, whose impressively deep thinking has given birth to most of the intellectual content of this book. And I am grateful to everyone who helped to make this book happen, including especially our editors, Kirstin Boergen and Natalie Fecher, whose enthusiasm helped to carry this project forward.

Before you go: My publishers are keen for me to let you know how you can buy the book. You could do so by clicking on the button below, which will take you to Amazon. I would also like to very strongly urge you to consider ordering through a local bookshop, wherever that is an option.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.