By Simon Cox

Some of you may remember that in my last article for IHJ, I drew on recent events from an industry I have limited knowledge of (aeronautical engineering) and linked them to my experience as the academic director of an IH affiliate. This time I thought I’d try to be even more ambitious, so I’ll be looking at ways in which a theory from literary criticism could help all of us make sense of our complex working situations.

‘Food, glorious food!’

Let’s start with an example. If I mention the word ‘Dickensian’, I’m pretty sure that most readers will immediately conjure up a vivid picture of a particular place and time (for some of you, the sub-heading was probably all you needed). You don’t have to be an expert to have a very specific idea in your head … you’re probably thinking of foggy London streets, rogues & urchins in stove-pipe hats, workhouses & debtors’ prisons alongside mansions & coaching inns. You have a clear idea of what people look like, what they eat, where they live … and even their values and how they live their lives. It’s a surprisingly sophisticated and complete picture, isn’t it? It probably doesn’t matter if you haven’t actually read the books, watched the movies, or visited the places … you get a powerful sense of time & space.

Next, imagine a character in this time/space. It could be David Copperfield, of course, or Nicholas Nickleby, but it could just as easily be Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, or you. How are you engaged in this world … how do you feel, what do you do … how do you make sense of it? Part of the fun is that you can ‘play’ with what happens within the structure. Of course, Dickens didn’t have zombies, dinosaurs or UFOs in his original stories, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t.

The original idea of the chronotope, a word meaning ‘time-space’ coined by Mikhail Bakhtin in a famous essay from the 1930s [1], is that there is a time/place where the ‘knots of narrative are tied and untied’, or a ‘spatio-temporal matrix’ which shapes the actions of a character in the story. Basically, the space/time of early-Victorian London is what makes the story of Oliver Twist possible. Bakhtin’s original use of chronotopes was to allow for the comparison of stories over the ages – and he has a lot of interesting things to say about how characters in ancient texts perceived their worlds (especially the idea of ‘time’) and how this is very different from those in modern novels.

‘Consider yourself’

By this stage you may be wondering how pretending to be Martin Chuzzelwit could possibly help you with your day to day job in ELT. Thankfully, Mika Aaltonen discussed some of the applications of Bakhtin’s ideas in his 2007 book, ‘The Third Lens’ [2].

Let’s think of another ‘time-space’, this time closer to home … the ELT organisation that you work in. It doesn’t matter where it is, or even at what stage of its’ ‘history’ we consider it … they’re all part of its’ chronotope. If it’s anything like my ‘spatio-temporal matrix’, it’s a complex place – lots of different people pulling in many different directions. Perhaps there’s an owner who is obsessed by the technological marvels of the near future, of Silicon Valley fuelled ‘disruptions’ and how they could radically re-shape the business; perhaps there are groups of teachers who constantly hark to the past by clinging to the same text-books and activities that they’ve honed and grown old with over the years, and, of course, perhaps there’s a hard pressed DoS who spends all of the time trying to keep the whole thing functioning.

For the DoS, there may not be much time for ‘blue sky thinking’ about possible utopian futures and there may not be much time for reminiscing about the good old days either – what matters is focusing on how we’re going to keep the school ‘on the road’ for another day, week, or month. For all of these ‘characters’, no matter how much they may complain, there’s probably an awareness that the organisational ‘story’ is inevitably going to change over time (and it almost certainly needs some changes). The problem is often how much change and how quickly?

‘Reviewing the situation’

For Aaltonen, a key issue to consider is that we shouldn’t be rushing into making hasty decisions. First of all, we need a way to make sense of the situation. Of course, it’s a good idea to try to include all of the stakeholders in this process, but if you’ve ever tried it, you probably know what a tricky exercise it can be. It’s amazing how different people can see the same ‘facts’ in different ways, isn’t it? It’s also amazing how people can seem to be agreeing about how they understand something for a while and then, suddenly, seem to reach a point where they’re at polar opposites.

How can this happen? For some thinkers, Aaltonen included, problems occur when we view the world from limited perspectives - we only see through familiar ‘lenses’. For some, we can become restricted by seeing things purely through a limited number of approaches, methodologies & ways of collecting information – often they become fossilised as just ‘common sense’. It doesn’t necessarily mean that any one of these perspectives is ‘wrong’, it’s just that we may be over-applying them, missing bits out, or trying to use them at the wrong time.

In addition recognising our familiar ‘lenses’, we need to consider the ‘ontology’ behind the ways we are thinking. Ontology, Aaltonen’s ‘third lens’, requires us to remember where the methods & systems we’re using actually originated – a potentially challenging type of thinking that can often get over-looked when we’re in the rush to get quick results. However, ‘multi-ontology sense-making’ - which I’ve discussed before [3] - is one way of challenging some of our personal blind-spots & hobby-horses as we try to make sense of what is happening.

By using chronotopes in multi-ontology sense-making, we can get a fresh perspective on one of the most common issues faced by organisations – the notion of time. Although it seems, (actually, it is) complex, time is a key factor in all sense & decision-making. As individuals, it’s probably not so difficult to be aware of the ways that our present lives are shaped by continually re-living the past & imagining possible futures, but for organisations, the systems that manage time are often rather fixed. In general, they’re imagined as linear, moving in a straight line from time A to time B with clearly defined causal links (I think it’s interesting that it’s very difficult to describe notions of time without relying on metaphors of ‘space’). I know that I’ve spent plenty of time sitting in meetings where there didn’t seem to be a legitimate opportunity to discuss past experiences because we were making plans for a utopian future, and, of course, the opposite is also true – we can be so obsessed with re-living past glories (or digging over failures) that we never get any clear focus on the opportunities ahead of us.

‘Pick a pocket or two’

Unfortunately, chronotope analysis doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the simple kind of heuristic tool that we frequently see in leadership & management manuals – it’s a kind of ‘big picture’ noticing & narrative-building process, perhaps akin to collective ‘mindfulness’. However, to help see the practical applications of this kind of approach, I’ll finish with two very different examples of chronotopic sense-making, by way of demonstrating their potential.

The first is based on a recent article by Robert Burke at the University of Melbourne Business school [4]. Dr Burke describes himself as a ‘futurist in residence’ (how do I apply for a job like that?) and he sets out a fascinating challenge for his peers – given the frequency and scale of economic disruption, political uncertainties & environmental emergencies the world is facing (which could make the business mantra of ‘change to survive’ literally true), how can business schools prepare the next generation of leaders & managers for the challenges they will inevitably face? His answer is based around the idea of ‘adaptive leadership’, a process he pithily describes as ‘purposeful evolution in real time’ (I’ve been looking at this seemingly simple, but actually very tricky, quotation for days and I’m still struggling to get my head around it).

The key point for this first example, as it relates to chronotopes, is that he draws on some of Aaltonen’s ideas mentioned above and bundles them into a grand model for ‘future thinking’ for effective ‘future leaders’ that requires time & space focused ‘insight’, which is based on both ‘hindsight’ and ‘foresight’, at the heart of the sense-making process. For fans of very complex process diagrams, I heartily recommend spending some time with Figure 6. It’s title ‘learning from the past and learning from the future as it emerges’ seems better suited to the work of Damien Hirst, but it truly is a thing that management-theory dreams are made of!

‘I’d do anything’

Perhaps a more accessible example of using chronotopes for most of us can be found in Brown & Renshaw’s ‘Positioning students as actors and authors: a chronotopic analysis of collaborative learning activities’ [5]. They use chronotopes as a qualitative research tool and point out that they don’t see a classroom as merely a ‘passive container for action’, but as a creative and emergent time/space which both shapes and is shaped by the actions of people – in this case, students & teachers. Although the classrooms they discuss are not ELT classes (they’re actually observing teenagers in Australian state schools’ mathematics lessons and watching how the kids develop, like characters in an improvised story, over the period of a year), the questions they’re trying to answer are very familiar – how can the traditional student-teacher relationships & roles be adapted to engage and encourage the learners better? How do learners deal with this emerging sense of agency?

The activities that happen in the classroom are also familiar to ELT teachers – ideas such as ‘jigsaw’ activities and peer teaching (e.g. ‘majoring’ – when one learner takes on the role of tutoring others for specific activities), but a key technique for the research (again, pretty familiar) was the idea of ‘collective argumentation’ – in which learners are encouraged to solve problems through a process of (1) puzzling it out alone for a while (2) reworking the puzzle by negotiating within a small group to get a consensus and, finally, (3) presenting and defending their solutions in front of the whole class – including the teacher.

The really interesting part is how the researchers gather data and view the classroom as part of the longitudinal study – they focus on how the learners and teachers use the space of the classroom over time (e.g. the way in which learners begin to make use of areas that would traditionally have belonged to teachers) and they’re also listening carefully to how what the students say changes over time. Specifically, they’re interested in how the learners narrate their own experience as ‘actors’.

I won’t try to summarise the whole paper, but, as an example, we see from the analysis how some learners have to struggle with the process of learning over time – some resolutely draw on (and defend) what they’ve learnt in the past, some are conflicted over the tension of ‘what-is-known’ and new ideas that are emerging in the present – which conflict with the past. In addition, some learners become confident enough to express ideas which they can’t yet fully express – these are ‘heroes’ who defend the groups’ new ideas (even when the teacher contests them), as they can sense that new ‘future-knowledge’ is emerging, but of which they’re only vaguely aware.

For those of us who frequently watch student-teachers trying to respond to learners on CELTA and Delta courses, this idea of following emergence in different ways is probably both familiar and compelling.


Overall, I feel that Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope isn’t really new to us – we’re already vaguely familiar with the idea that time and space are not fixed and linear, but are constantly reimagined and negotiated, both within ourselves and with those around us. However, it’s probably also true that, despite knowing this deep down, we often forget about it when faced with the demands of the day-to-day. Taking a little time to ‘make sense’ with others about how we are all ‘actors’ living in chronotopes may help us better manage the situations where we suddenly realise that we’re each telling different versions of the same stories.

If in doubt, just imagine … what would Oliver Twist do?


[1] Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) Forms of time and of the Chronotope in the Novel in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Austin, USA: University of Texas Press pp. 84-258

[2] Aaltonen, M. (2007) The Third Lens: multi-ontology sense-making and strategic decision-making. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing

[3] Cox, S.J. (2017) Making sense of it all: educational management. English Teaching Professional 109

[4] Burke, R. (2010 ) Sustainability & Executive Education: A Call for a New Model. Journal of Future Studies 15 (1) (accessed 11 April 2020)

[5] Brown, R. & P. Renshaw (2006) Positioning Students as Actors and Authors: A Chronotopic Analysis of Learning Activities. Mind, Culture & Activity 13 (3) (accessed 11 April 2020)

Author's bio: Simon is a teacher-trainer & assessor (DELTA, CELTA, etc.) and is also the Academic Director of GPIH Shanghai. Both at work and in his free time he likes to try to make sense of what that means. Over the last 25 years, he’s worked in a lot of places around the world, but most of them are in Asia. Nowadays, he spends a lot more time at home in the North of England.