Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

woman in red long sleeve writing on chalk board

Thinking of TESOL as an ecology

Elsewhere in this blog, I once commented that one of the defining characteristics of TESOL, and language education in general, is that we are experiencing a condition of post-certainty. Many of our fundamental assumptions about language and language learning are being reconsidered; and alongside this process, we can be less certain about the way we have been thinking about causes and effects in language education either. In this post, I would like to extend that line of reasoning, and argue for an ecological perspective of language education, i.e., a different and – in my opinion – more appropriate way of making sense of why things are the way they are.

This post is structured around three very simple premises about language education, which -taken together- constitute an ecological perspective of language education. These are:

  1. Our professional activity is situated in an ecology of education;
  2. Our professional activity emerges from the ecology and re-shapes it;
  3. Change in an ecology of education is complex;

I will examine each of them in turn, before discussing what I consider to be the main implications of this perspective.

Everything is connected

The starting point of my thinking is that everything that we perceive in language education forms part of an ecology. The term ‘ecology’ is often used in connection to the natural environment, so it might be useful to clarify a few points before moving on. The notion of an ecology was first used in the 19th century by the German biologist Ernst Haekel, who used it to refer to the study of how any entity relates to its surroundings (Stelma & Kostoulas, 2021: 26). The key idea here is not whether we are thinking about forests or oceans, but rather that there is a shift in focus from individual entities to bounded wholes, and from concrete biological units to the relations between them. It is in this sense that the term has made its way into psychology, the social sciences, and –eventually—TESOL.

Our professional activity is situated in an ecology of education

There are two ways of defining an ecology. One is to view it as a system of interconnected entities, such as teachers, learners, administrators, books, learning materials, classrooms, curricula and so on. Such a perspective could also include more abstract notions, such as rules, routines, expectations, and more. This is useful perspective in many respects, and I have used it myself –in conjunction with complex dynamic systems theory—to make sense of interconnected wholes such as a school. A second, and perhaps more powerful, to capitalize on ecological thinking is to think of an ecology consisting of the interaction between our activity and our surroundings. In this perspective, everything we do is shaped by the context and – concersely – our surroundings change forever because of our actions. This is a point that was made by Leo van Lier (2004: 62), who argued that “when we are active in a learning context … the world around us reveals its relevance for us” and makes specific course of action possible “because of who we are and what we are doing”.

By claiming that there are two ways of defining an ecology, I am not arguing that this is an either/or distinction. What I am saying is that ecologies, including ecologies of language education, are both systems and activity, and that both perspectives are present at the same time in our thinking about TESOL. An ecology of language education is, at the same time, a bounded whole that is made up of entities relevant to language teaching and learning (teachers, learners, technology, space, rules etc.) and situated language learning activity.

Everything changes everything

Our activity emerges from the ecology and shapes it back

The second principle of ecological thinking stems from the definition of ecology as activity. It holds that everything in an ecology of education is in a constant flux, it keeps changing dynamically. Even when everything appears stable, this is really a balance of competing processes counteracting each other, i.e., a state of dynamic stability. There are two aspects to this principle, one that explains how activity is soft-assembled from various aspects of the ecology, and one that explains how the structure of the ecology is generated from activity.

How teaching and learning activity emerges in the ecology of education

Let’s start by defining activity as any action, whether purposeful or not, which connects previous states of events with future ones. Even when it appears purposeless, such activity is not created at random: it is given shape by environmental and intrapersonal factors, or shaping processes (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Soft-assembly of teaching and learning activity in an ecology of education

To make this easier to understand, perhaps you would like to think about the last lesson you did; why did you choose to teach it in the way you did?

I am not sure it’s possible to make a comprehensive list of all the shaping processes that might be at work at any given time. However, some examples might include the availability of space, noise and lighting, technology, the curriculum, institutional rules, societal beliefs about language and language learning, and more; other factors that might work together to shape activity might include the emotions, beliefs and intentions of everyone involved.

Another important point to consider is that it is probably quite hard to connect activity to any one of the shaping influences that were mentioned in the previous paragraph. Rather, it seems that activity emerges as a synthesis of all the shaping processes. Using the vocabulary of complex dynamic systems theory, this synthesis is called ‘soft-assembly’; essentially, it is an ad hoc interaction of multiple components, until a pattern of activity emerges which is stable enough to be expressed. Importantly, it is unlikely that the exact same configuration of shaping influences occurs in multiple occasions, and this is what makes learning and teaching activity broadly predictable but nevertheless unique.

How structure in an ecology of education is generated from activity

On the other side of the activity vector, all our activity has some kind of effect in the ecology of language education. In the book I co-authored with Juup Stelma, The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL, we distinguish between four types of activity in language education:

  • Contingent activity This is the type of activity that happens without much deliberate or even conscious thinking. This is the kind of teaching and learning activity that occurs on ‘auto pilot’ mode, when we and/or our learners automatically adjust our behaviour to whatever the ecology presents us with. Contingent activity, we suggest, “maintains the potential for both stability and change” (Stelma & Kostoulas, 2021: 74)
  • Normative activity This type of activity is mostly shaped by the influence of existing norms, convention, or authority. It is the kind of teaching and learning that is informed by a sense of “this is how we’ve always done things”. The effect of normative activity is to reinforce the existing structure of the ecology.
  • Creative activity This is the type of activity that “does not follow neatly from its triggers” (Stelma & Kostoulas, 2021: 78); rather, it is an open-ended search for new possibilities, a trial-and-error process of creating new structure, i.e., new ways of thinking and doing, in the ecology.
  • Purposeful activity This is the type of activity that draws most explicitly from the teachers’ and learners’ intentionality.  It is a process of deliberately building new structure in the ecology by using all the resources available in it.    

What these four types of activity have in common is that they all feed back into the ecology, whether to reinforce or change it. Their effect is to reinforce, destabilise or generate patterns of action and thoughts, which we might call the strucure of the ecology. We use the term morphogenesis to describe this process of generating structure from activity (Figure 2).

The generation of structure in an ecology of activity.
Figure 2: The generation of structure in an ecology of activity.

So, to summarise: all the activity that emerges within an ecology of education is shaped by hte structure of the ecology, and conversely, the strucure of the ecology is generated by activity. Figure 3 summarises all this information.

Figure 3: A model of ecological activity in TESOL

It’s complicated?

So far, I have suggested that our professional activity as language teachers, and the activity of our learners, is embedded in an ecology of language education, and that this ecology is both the cause and the product of our professional activity. It that is the case, one might argue, then it should be possible, at least in principle, to shape our professional world in any way we want: all we need is a list of the ‘right mix’ of shaping influences, and a sound understanding of the rules that govern soft-assembly and morphogenesis.

Change in an ecology of education is complex

This line of thinking does back to the beginnings of the Enlightenment. In a book written in 1812, the Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, Pierre Laplace made the following argument:

[Let’s imagine] an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings who compose it – an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit this data to analysis (…) For it, nothing would be uncertain and the future, as the past, would be present to its eyes”.

P. S. Laplace, 1812/1902, p. 4

This line of reasoning, which I have called the predictive premise (Kostoulas, 2018: 39), is very intuitively appealing; but unfortunately it is little more than wishful thinking. We already know, from Poincare’s work on the ‘three body problem’, that the activity of any system with three of more entities cannot be determined using the laws of Newtonean physics. We also know that even the simplest mechanical contraptions, such as a double pendulum, can behave in entirely unpredictable ways. Trying to apply crude determinism to processes as intricate as soft-assembly or morphohenesis, and to a system as complex as an ecology of education seems rather bold.

A double pendulum

This does not mean that prediction, in the broad sense, is impossible. There is nothing controversial in saying that a reduction in funding for education will lead to adverse learning effects, or more active participation in a language class will likely lead to faster learning. What we cannot do, however, is make fine-tuned predictions: we cannot determine just how many years of language learning one will need in order to attain a specific level of linguistic proficiency, or how many hours of study are needed to reach a specific score in a language test. One would think that these are self-evident observations, but judging from the amount of research that uses crude statistics to formulate even cruder connections between learning and all sorts of variables like effort, socioeconomic status, engagement and motivation, affect, age of initial instruction and more, maybe it’s a point that needs to be explicitly stated.

Implications for our professional action

What I have tried to do in this post is outline a perspective about language education, which unites our professional activity and our professional context, and views them as a bounded whole. I suggested that within this ecology, everything is connected, everything shapes everything else, and that this linkages are complex.

When I first gave a lecture on this topic to TESOL students at the University of Manchester, I concluded by asking them what they thought were the most important implications of all this for their own professional lives. Their responses are recorded in this padlet. I am not sure it would be appropriate for me to go on and suggest what all of this should mean for you; rather, I would like to invite you to answer this question for yourselves.

For what it’s worth, here’s what I think are the main implications for me:

If everything is connected, this means that I need to be attuned to everything that is happening in my students’ lives; this includes being sensitive to the injustices they face outside the classroom and being aware of how the real-world impacts what happens in my lessons. It means that I should try to build into my lessons opportunities for learners to talk about their real-world concerns, in ways that will help me to better understand what they are coping with. This information will, hopefully, generate more affordances for my students to develop, not just as language learners but also in all aspects of their lives.

If everything is dynamic, this means that I need to be aware that my actions –all my actions—will have an impact on my students’ lives, however, imperceptible such an impact may be. I cannot escape this reality by pretending that a professional demeanour or clear boundaries will absolve me of the responsibility for my actions – the impact is there no matter what I do. What I can do, and should be doing, is find ways to make sure that my activity is consistent with my values.

If change is complex, it means that outcomes are not entirely in my control. This means that I should not burden myself with inappropriate guilt, when things do not turn out exactly as I would have liked. But it also means that sometimes small actions can yield surprisingly large rewards.

More to explore: This text is based on an invited lecture that I gave at the University of Manchester in January 2021. You can view the original slides in my Slideshare channel, and download the activity handout I used here.




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