Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Language education for refugees and migrants: An intentional dynamics perspective

There are few things as rewarding in academic life as working with intelligent people and seeing their projects to completion. In this sense, I consider myself very fortunate, as I had the pleasure of supervising two very impressive MA dissertations in our Language Education for Refugees and Migrants MA programme. In this post, I would like to congratulate both students, Ms Efpraxia Papoutsi, and Ms Maria Palavouzi for their hard work, and to say a few words about their projects.

Intentional Dynamics in Language Education

Before I do any of that, I would like to very briefly outline the theoretical frame that both students used. This was the Intentional Dynamics model, which Juup Stelma and I have been working on for many years. We also recently published a book about (Stelma & Kostoulas, 2021), and you can read more details there. The starting point of this model is that all language teaching and learning takes place in a dense network of ideas. We use ‘ideas’ loosely, to describe practices, resources, goals and more. We call this network an ‘ecology’ (although the term is often used in environmental studies, it was originally much broader).

Intentional activity in language education

Anything we do, as teachers and learners, within this ecology is shaped by the configuration of the ecology. Different configurations of the ecology create affordances for action, which are available to us at a given time. Sometimes this action is automatised and unthinking (e.g., we do not necessarily think deeply when grading spelling tests), sometimes it is imposed by authority and past practice, sometimes it is more creative and sometimes it is more purposeful. Depending on its characteristics, we distinguish between various types of (intentional) activity in teaching and learning (Table 1)

Intentional activityDefinition
ContingentAutomatised activity that emerges as a response to affordances in the ecology
NormativeActivity that has been predetermined, e.g., by authority or past practice
CreativeRelatively less constrained activity that generates new meaning structures in the ecology
PurposefulSustained activity that aims to bring about specific outcomes
Table 1 – Types of intentional activity

Ecologies of language education

All intentional activity, regardless of its characteristics, emerges from the meaning structures in the ecology. Some of these meaning structures are social (e.g., rules and policies that regulate teaching, or societal beliefs about languages). Others are more personal (e.g., motivations for learning). Most combine elements of both. We use the term intentional structures to describe all the meaning structures that are about something or intend to something. The verb ‘intend’ is used here in the philosophical sense described by Franz Brentano. When used in this way, it means ‘to be about something’, i.e., it is different from the sense ‘to want’.

In our book, we argue that intentional structures have four different aspects. These are:

  1. Individual intentionality refers to personal beliefs, values, motivations, etc.
  2. Shared intentionality describes the intentional structures that are co-constructed when a small group of people work together
  3. Derived intentionality is the intentional structures that are ‘sedimented’ in objects, such as curricular documents or textbooks
  4. Sociocultural intentionality encompasses all the meaning structures present in large social groups

All these forms of intentionality are always present in the ecology. Importantly, for us, they are what comes together to shape teaching and learning activity (Figure 1). Once formed, the activity has the potential to (re)shape the ecology. When the configuration of intentional structures favours the generation of contingent and normative activity, this results in the reproduction of the ecology. By contrast, when the configuration of intentional structures favours creative and purposeful activity, this allows for change. In this way, the Intentional Dynamics model provides the scope for explaining both continuity and variation in language education.

Intentional Dynamics Model
Figure 1 – Intentional Dynamics

Using the Intentional Dynamics model to study teacher’s perceptions

The study

Efpraxia Papoutsi’s dissertation used the Intentional Dynamics model as a frame for studying the challenges that teachers perceive when working with students who have a refugee or migrant background. Whether challenges really exist or not (a point that could generate much epistemological debate), ultimately what is important is people’s perceptions. If you think that something will be hard, you will likely treat it as a challenge, avoid it, or request additional resources. She, therefore, set out to create a questionnaire that can help to understand what teachers think about these challenges.

What this study involved

To make this happen, Efpraxia did a thorough review of the challenges reported in the literature on Greek education. She then grouped this information into five categories, which corresponded to the aspects of intentional activity from the Stelma and Kostoulas (2021) model. These were:

  1. Intra-personal aspects pertaining to teachers (e.g., teachers’ beliefs about their efficacy)
  2. Intra-personal aspects pertaining to learners (e.g., teachers’ beliefs about the learners’ potential)
  3. Inter-personal aspects pertaining to teacher-learner interaction (e.g., language barriers)
  4. Institutional aspects (e.g., rules and regulations, the curriculum)
  5. Sociocultural aspects (e.g., racism)

The reason why Efpraxia divided the ‘individual intentionality’ aspect into two distinct categories related to her research aims. Also, previous research by another of my MA students, Panagiota Taxiarchou (2022), had found that this is an important distinction in the way teachers think.

Following that, Efpraxia created a questionnaire which mirrored the structure of her literature review. In addition to demographic information, the questionnaire included five scales, one for each category. Each scale comprised multiple Likert items, such as the following:

I find it difficult to cope with extreme behaviours or other problems that might occur in my classroom. 

Teachers had to respond to these by selecting an option ranging from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree.

Teachers’ perceptions of challenges in refugee education

Finding respondents who have experience working with refugees and migrants is always something of a challenge for our MA participants. However, Efpraxia impressively managed to recruit about 70 respondents.

Efpraxia’s study also offers some interesting insights for language education and the education of students with a refugee and migrant background. Interestingly, the teachers in her sample provided a very different picture from what the literature suggests. Many of the issues that are described as major challenges in the literature were dismissed as insignificant by the respondents. This is perhaps easy to explain: Many of Efpraxia’s participants were highly qualified teachers with expertise in the education of this very population.

This does not mean that the information in the literature is wrong. It would make little sense to project findings from a small non-representative sample to a large population. But this discrepancy does alert us that it is just as problematic to project broad-stroke descriptions onto specific populations. It also makes a compelling case for needs analyses that are based on carefully conducted situated understandings, and for pedagogy that is responsive to contextual particularity.

Why this study is important for language education

In addition to the insights mentioned above, this dissertation also makes a more practical methodological contribution. The questionnaire Efpraxia created from scratch offers a useful starting point for similar dissertations in language education, especially with a focus on refugees and migrants. As she mentioned when presenting her research to the examination committee:

The questionnaire proved to have both strengths and limitations, but it can be used as a starting point for future research that uses it in its present form, or even builds on it.  

Furthermore, teh data analysis showed was that the scales worked reasonably well. All the items in every scale seemed to be measuring the same thing, and each scale seemed to be measuring a different construct. This was very pleasing to me because it seems to provide additional empirical support for the Intentional Dynamics model. When Juup and I developed the model, we were cautious about not making claims that our expertise our empirical data (both in TESOL) would support. This dissertation, and similar research, appear to suggest that what we came up with is a fairly robust model. This means that it could have broader resonance, and I am keen to continue exploring this direction.

The dissertation

You can download a copy of Efpraxia’s dissertation by clicking on the button below.

Recommended citation (APA) Papoutsi, E. (2023). Delving into the most salient challenges of teaching/learning in multicultural classrooms through the teachers’ lens: A survey about the Greek context. MA dissertation, Hellenic Open University.

Resilience as a process of intentional becoming

The study

The second dissertation that I want to talk about was very different in methodological outlook, but just as interesting. In this research project, Maria Palavouzi used the Intentional Dynamics model to show how a very exceptional person managed to overcome multiple challenges and integrate into her new home, in Greece.

Maria’s participant was a very unique individual. She was born in an Eastern European country before the fall of the Iron Curtain. In her home country, she often faced discrimination because she was a member of a religious and linguistic minority. This pattern was repeated when she moved to Greece in the late 1980s. In Greece, she found herself completely socially and professionally marginalised. Having an urbane background made it hard to integrate into the life of the small provincial town where she settled. She could not speak Modern Greek, and she her family and friends lived very far away. Despite all the above, within the space of some years, she managed to become a well-recognised and respected member of her community. She also achieved her dream of becoming a science teacher, and was working towards a doctoral degree.

What this study involved

Unlike Efpraxia who started her study with a systematic review of existing scholarship, Maria deliberately began her case study from a theoretically agnostic space. She had already read some work on resilience (including mine) and some work on research methodology. Based on this, she very rightly decided that a case study focussing on the life trajectories of this individual could offer useful insight into the resilience of people with refugee and migrant background. However, she also very rightly understood the risks of imposing theory on the data. So, shedecided to use a life history approach instead. This way the data would speak for themselves.    

This led to a series of three interviews, where Maria and the participant explored various aspects of her integration in increasing depth. After each interview, Maria would analyse the data and use these emerging understandings to guide the next interview.

Resilient integration among refugees and migrants

Eventually, Maria was able to pull together the various threads in herdata into a coherent theory of resilience as intentional becoming (Figure 2). ‘Becoming’, here, means moving towards the fulfillment of one’s potential. This process of development is similar to the ‘resilient adaptation’ trajectories described elsewhere in the literature. What this study has added, however, is a layer of theoretical depth, from the Intentional Dynamics model. Also, it has helped to draw attendion to the unique sets of circumstances that people with refugee and migrant backgrounds face.

The arrow in the centre of the figure represents all the steps a refugee or migrant takes in order to integrate into a new setting. These might include learning a language, finding employment, making friends and more. Such activities take place in an ecology (see above), which comprises inter-personal (social) and intrapersonal (psychological) aspects. Maria did not follow the minute distinctions that Juup and I had made in our book (Stelma & Kostoulas, 2021), because her data were not granular enough. This is, of course, fine. It is as theory that should adjust to data rather than visa-versa.

Maria’s theoretical model does not suggest that everyone with a refugee and migrant background will experience similar trajectories. But what it does is provide us with a conceptual frame for studying the trajectories that people do experience. Much like the older resilience model I once had a part in developing, this is a model that researchers can populate with their specific findings.

Why this study is important for language education

One of the things that I find most unfortunate in discourses about refugees and migrants is that they are often presented as having no agency. They are described as people who need to be educated, people who need to be helped, and —often— as people who are disinterested in the steps that are taken to support them. Maria’s study is a great example of how people who have refugee and migrant backgrounds can take charge of their own lives. While not all of them will be as exceptional as the person in this case study, the challenges they face and the ways they try to navigate them are similar. What Maria’s work offers is a useful tool that can help us to understand these efforts.

Personally, I was fascinated by how Maria connected two very different strands of my thinking, intentionality and resilience. I was especially pleased that she managed to revive my interest in resilience, which I had considered to be something of a dead-end. But more than that, I think that the way Maria worked inductively from the data to refine and produce theoretical understandings is a model of well-conducted and meaningful case studies.

The dissertation

You can download a copy of Maria’s dissertation by clicking on the button below.

Recommended citation (APA) Palavouzi, M. (2023). Transcending Boundaries: A study of multilingualism and cultural adaptation in the life of an immigrant woman living in Greece. MA dissertation, Hellenic Open University.

In lieu of a conclusion

As you may have deduced from the above, I am very proud of the work that our students do. I remain committed to the idea that language teacher education should have a practical orientation, and my work in the Language Education for Refugees and Migrants programme reflects this belief. That said, I also think that becoming a better teacher is more than just accumulating teaching techniques that work. To a large extent, it is about being sensitive to our context, understanding how opportunities for action develop, keenly observing how our students develop, and more. In this sense, I believe that these projects reflect some of the best work to which we aspire in our MA programme.

One last word If you are an HOU student and you’re interested in following up on any of these projects, I am very keen on hearing from you. Take a moment to familiarise yourself with this information for students interested in an MA dissertation in language education, and get in touch! If you’re not an HOU student, why don’t you join us? You can find more information about our Language Education for Refugees and Migrants programme at the link below, or contact me directly.


5 responses to “Language education for refugees and migrants: An intentional dynamics perspective”

  1. aiyshah2014 avatar

    Thank you for your valuable input to refugee education. We also have offered refugee language learning at our centre and find it a very inspiring and humbling experience. The hunger to learn and move forward and start a new life is so powerful.

    1. Achilleas Kostoulas avatar

      Thank you for saying this, Aiyshah. I would love to learn more about your work too, if it’s accessible somewhere. As you said, it is a hugely humbling experience, and perhaps one of the most meaningful things in my professional life.

      1. aiyshah2014 avatar

        We are based in Malaysia and offer courses during the day for our current students but for refugees in the evening because they are a bit afraid to go out. In Malaysia they very much live in the shadows as they have no real rights here. It is their choice to come, and I’d say that makes a huge difference too. The drive to learn is huge.

  2. John House avatar
    John House

    I have ordered The Intentional Dynamics of TESOL. I am reading your students’ work very carefully. Thank you.

    1. Achilleas Kostoulas avatar

      I’m glad it’s useful. I will let them know, and I will pass on any feedback you have :)

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