Intentional Serendipity – Unpacked!

PART 1 – Intentional serendipity ≠ engineered serendipity :-)


I am giggling at the interest in the term Intentional Serendipity. I even tried to get it included in my job title – Manager of Intentional Serendipity.  I have used it for several conferences as the tagline on my nametag! That sure started many a conversation.

However, as with any term tossed out there without due diligence of explanation and context as in a previous post, the meaning will be constructed by the perspectives of the reader! “The reader writes the story,” as they say.

Dean Shareski, in “Pursuing Intentional Serendipity,” gives some insightful examples that are relatively consistent with my perspectives on this seemingly conflicted construct. Alan Levine, in “There is No Such Thing As Serendipity,” takes a close look at ‘serendipity’ and provides some excellent thoughts and references about its nature.

Alan suggests that “It can’t be serendipity and intentional, because serendipity is accidental…  serendipity is not intentional, nor is it a thing we can pursue– it is a force generated as a secondary (or many-ary) results of our actions of sharing, helping, contributing. It is when we create a potential opportunity for the unexpected to happen…”

…Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner…

Strangely enough, I never considered ‘intentional serendipity’ to be the same as ‘engineered serendipity.’  So I am glad this discussion has erupted because it affords some unpacking of the term!  For me, it is not about the ‘intention’ to create serendipity.  I am not speaking of constructing ‘chance’ events or encounters.  I have been thinking more of a learner’s stance – one with an ‘intention’ to learn.  If you hold an attuned intention to learn, then you will have sentinels at the watch for all that goes by. You will be ‘at the ready’ to opportunistically grasp anything that is useful to your learning. So you are not constructing events. Rather you are vigilant so that you do not miss events relevant to your intention. Intentional serendipity relies on the vigilance of the learner within the learning space.  The intentional learner may set the conditions of that learning space to optimize opportunities – opportunities conducive to the task at hand. It may be by turning on all the knowledge flows – twitter, text, skype, etc. Or it may be by selecting a place of silence for reflection and inner workings of the mind and heart.

Of course, this requires some skill and attention. :-)

PART 11 – The relationship of ‘intentional serendipity’ to ‘intentional learning’ theory

Learning to be intentional…

The notion of ‘intentional serendipity’ arose out of my studies with Marlene Scardamalia and Carl Bereiter who developed ‘intentional learning’ theory.  They briefly describe Intentional Learning as the voluntary direction of mental effort, or, the wilful allocation of spare mental capacity. That is, cognitive capacity that is not already engaged by the ongoing task may be turned back into the task. This is characterized by activities, behaviours and displays of skills many of which may be described as metacognitive. Metacognition is usually considered to consist of both knowledge about cognition and regulation of cognition.  Intentional Learners are assertive in their approach to learning. They set goals – both task and cognitive goals.  They choose to, and are able to, apply any unused mental effort to increase their proficiency on the task or to generalize that which is being learned to other tasks or other domains. They consider, not only the task at hand, but also the larger spectrum in which such learning is embedded. The student considers the knowledge explicitly and separate from the present task. There is consideration for when and where that knowledge can be used in the future. They negotiate meaning with their peers. They ask questions. They seek answers and construct solutions.

…become expert at being expert

Intentional learners are learning to become expert at becoming expert. That is to say, not only are they learning declarative, subject matter and procedural functionality, they are acquiring valuable metacognitive knowledge as well.

Intentional learning differs from metacognition

Intentional Learning theory differs from metacognitive theory in that there is an explicit recognition of other aspects of self.  Intentional Learners are developing, not only well-developed metacognitive skills, but also attitudes (an affective stance), motivations, and social behaviours that are focused on, and conducive to, advancing one’s own knowledge and the knowledge of others. Bereiter & Scardamalia suggest that to generate a useful educational theory one cannot concentrate solely on the knowledge aspect  of intentional cognition, but must also come to understand and include other aspects as well. These include motivation, affect, allocation-of-resources, and ecology.

Intentional learners and the ZPD

Intentional Learning is a frame of mind that is characterized by a student’s ability to be in control of their own Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This is central to being in charge of one’s own learning. The ZPD may be defined as the zone in which we can accomplish a task with the assistance, or accompaniment, of a more knowledgeable other – a task that we could not handle alone. (ZPD – Who’s In Charge Here?)

“…learning is a process of enculturation…”

IL is a frame of mind that thrives in a classroom culture focused on students’ taking charge of their own learning. Many agree that the cultural surround affects learning.  Newman et al say, “In the Vygotskian approach to instruction, changes in the whole interactional system, not just in the student, are thus considered in the analysis of cognitive change.” John Seely Brown et al suggest that “learning is … a process of enculturation.” What people learn is often “a product of the ambient culture rather than of explicit teaching.” This implies that the belief structures, the personal interactivity, the nature of the activities and the atmosphere of a learning community are critical determinants of what is learned. This is not to say that explicit teaching is not an appropriate technique. Rather, it is but one of the components of a culture conducive to the development and support of IL.

…student in control…

If we want students to be in charge of their own learning, then it necessitates that we create environments where this is most likely to occur.  Any tools and techniques, therefore, that are to be used within an environment designed to promote and support ‘mindfulness’ or IL should be considered within this context of shifting the control of the learning over to the student.


…it is not the serendipity that is intentional, it is the learner’s frame of mind.

So I am not speaking of constructing serendipity. I mean that we need to empower learners to be intentional and to create a cultural surround that is conducive to supporting those intentions. It is not the serendipity that is intentional. It is the learner’s frame of mind.


Cross posted from The Construction Zone

About Peter Skillen

I am a learner and I am a teacher. Simple. The two, for me, are inseparable and part of the whole. After 4 decades in the K-12 field, I am now Manager of Professional Learning with the YMCA of Greater Toronto. However, I am still deeply involved in educational practice through the Powerful Learning Practice (PLP), the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), the Ontario Teachers’ Federation (OTF), the Educational Computing Organization of Ontario (ECOO), Minds On Media, and, of course, in online learning spaces. :-)


  1. Michelle Stasiuk /

    An interesting theory and one I had not heard of before. I have witnessed students who are stumped by a problem and engage more so because of the hurdle. I have seen them hunker down, focus, grab manipulatives, put on earphones to block out noise to help them concentrate. I’ve seen them quickly Google something to gain more immediate expertise, underline important parts of a problem, looks something up in a dictionary, seek clarification, ask for the real-life application or context of a problem.

    I feel that all of these are actions which self-advocate for more effective learning. I have also seen student experts emerge and relish in their “expert” status among their peers, they are happy to help explain and coach others along the learning journey – to a point – until it becomes “their job” to do so.

    I am interested to learn more about how to harness the intentional learning theory and have it “dance” with the multiple intelligences theory which is, quite frankly, all I ever heard about during my year attaining my Bachelor of Education.

    The Intentional Learning frame of mind sounds aces for students who have no learning difficulties or special education needs. I feel that this sort of self-actualization and learning mastery could be more of a focus for those who are not so bogged down by content. Or perhaps if integrated properly could be an effective mindset tool to work through the challenges.

    • Hi Michelle,

      You say, “I am interested to learn more about how to harness the intentional learning theory and have it “dance” with the multiple intelligences theory”. This is an interesting thought. Not sure that I have ever explicitly thought about these two dancing – although I am a fan of Gardner’s work to be sure.

      Here is an example that comes to the top of my head. Tell me if it fits with what you are thinking. Let’s say I am great in music and love to play an instrument. At first, most of my mental energy (which might be considered a finite amount) might go into the mechanics of playing. I can be helped to understand this. As I gain more expertise in a particular piece of music, it may not require all my mental effort to play it. So the question becomes, what do I do with the spare mental capacity? Do I let it just wander and be caught by things going on around me? Do I choose to think about an upcoming event on the weekend? Or do I choose to reinvest it back into the task at hand? “How can I improve my performance?” “What nuances might I add?” “What am I learning now that I can use in future performances?” Things like that to me indicate ‘intentional learning’. This could be the case in sports, hobbies, etc.

      See here —

      You also say, “The Intentional Learning frame of mind sounds aces for students who have no learning difficulties or special education needs. I feel that this sort of self-actualization and learning mastery could be more of a focus for those who are not so bogged down by content. Or perhaps if integrated properly could be an effective mindset tool to work through the challenges.”

      I love your last sentence. This is my belief. There is some common wisdom that kids with learning difficulties can’t ‘manage higher level thinking’ or ‘executive functions’. Although I understand this to some degree, I just can’t globally accept it. (Even though I may be wrong! LOL)

      I question a lot of stuff in this series on Learning Disabilities — Humankind is Both Art & Science


      • Michelle Stasiuk /

        I love your anecdote, Peter, about music. It helps me to see the “dance” between the two theories. I agree that for some, once expertise is gained in the playing of the instrument, other mental capacity can choose to be directed and reinvested into more nuances of the music, its history, its meaning, its role in the life of the student, to buttress the musicianship and art that instruments inspire.

        The idea of self-improvement and taking ownership of one’s commitment to learning, destiny as a life long learner, contributing member of society, future Nobel peace prize winner, etc. is something I have a very strong interest in. Inspiring students to see their limitless potential and to activate it.

        Storytelling has, for me, been a very evocative way to engage students as is providing choice and making the assignment meaningful to them (in any way possible – somehow Justin Bieber pops up a lot!)

        As an educator, being accountable for delivering every expectation within the curriculum and assessing that the students have learned it all is something that I’ve seen overtake many teachers (including myself during my practicum) so that any possible capacity for “intentional teaching” serendipity can get snuffed out. For example, I’ve witnessed, in many classrooms, EQAO frenzy. There seems to be a pacing issue – or is there just too much to teach that we never get a chance to really go deep? Where is there time to slowdown to rewind, revisit and refocus attention on nuance?

        • Hi Michelle,

          I love and respect your passion and mission – “Inspiring students to see their limitless potential and to activate it.”

          And you say, “As an educator, being accountable for delivering every expectation within the curriculum and assessing that the students have learned it all is something that I’ve seen overtake many teachers …. Where is there time to slowdown to rewind, revisit and refocus attention on nuance?”

          Here is my take on that. I get criticized for this by many colleagues – always have – and that’s ok. It brings conversation.

          First of all, I ask myself, ‘why does the Ministry lay out all those expectations in such a reductionist manner’? I think it is because they want the best for all kids and not all teachers, regrettably, are able to do a great job without guidance and accountability provided by such deliberate, detailed documents. :-(

          Having said that, I think that this is where ‘intentional serendipity’ REALLY comes into play!

          You know when you are learning to drive a car first? You aer paying so much attention to learning the mechanics of car operation that it is hard to attend to the bigger picture — the patterning of traffic flows, anticipating driver behaviour, etc.?

          After a while, you automatize the mechanics and even some of the anticipatory patterns. This comes with expertise. Novices are not able to do this.

          In the same way, I believe, expert teachers know the curriculum inside out; know students; know all the dynamics of the classroom – classroom management, activities to toss in like Think, Pair, Share, etc. Once you have gained this expertise, then you are freed up – you have the mental and emotional capacity to spare and devote to the ‘dance of teaching’ – to be opportunistic when you see a student needing this or that. You can weave a project based learning initiative into the class and engage student passion and hit the curriculum expectations holistically and meaningfully without devoting the huge amounts of energy to the minutiae of checklists and tracking etc.

          Yep. I am an idealist. lol

          Become an expert in teaching/learning. Know the curriculum. Know about learning. Stay the course. Do not get swallowed up by the minutiae.

          Imagine if a centipede had to think about where it moves each leg as it walks. It would be falling down all the time. :-)

          Thoughts? LOL

  2. “It is when we create a potential opportunity for the unexpected to happen…a classroom culture focused on students’ taking charge of their own learning…”

    Completely agree and attempt to create an “intentional serendipitous” classroom. I find that road blocks get in the way when others, generally a large population from my experience, still do not see the usefulness and potential of this type of learning environment.

    At times, following the status quo or just deciding to teach with these methods…..yet quietly, seem to stir very little upheaval. However, the later seems to bring out the non believers who seem to be determined to prove me wrong.

    How can we help others see the potential of this type of environment and the impact it has on the development of life long learners that are interested and curious to learn independently.

    I find myself to be highly excited about student outcomes but no colleagues to share in all the fun and learning…. what to do, what to do…..

  3. Hi Sarah,

    “How can we help others see the potential of this type of environment and the impact it has on the development of life long learners that are interested and curious to learn independently.”

    This has been my life-long challenge and continues to be. I am sure it is the same for many others.

    I have been working harder these past few years to work differently with “the non believers who seem to be determined to prove me wrong”. :-)

    I used to go on the defensive, get more assertive or indeed angry, and push and push my points and perspective in a more dogmatic way. It has been my experience that this, by and large, doesn’t work.

    More recently, I have tried to be more accommodating of their points of view. There are several philosophies and approaches I have encountered that have been useful:

    – harm reduction
    – evocative coaching
    – appreciative inquiry

    The first, harm reduction, approaches things – as the name suggests – in a way that will ‘reduce harm’ to the students in the teacher’s care. So, rather than trying to make a complete shift in their philosophy and practice, I would work with them to change specifics that I feel might be most harmful to students.

    Evocative coaching and appreciative inquiry are well described here in this book:

    or these videos;

    Another GREAT way to learn more about it is through Powerful Learning Practice’s (PLP) Connected Coaching course.

    (I work also with PLP as a community leader, so I am a little biased! :-) However, this course really has helped me not to alienate people when I get pushback and want people to ‘get it right’! ;-)

    Does that make some sense? I’d love to hear what you think about it all.


  4. Peter,

    I think it makes a lot of sense. For some teachers, it would be a whole transformation of their learning environment which is indeed difficult with any individual who is set within their ways. I like the idea of “chunking” (harm reduction). A slow integration and introduction to new practices. Slow and steady wins the race!

    I am a firm believer in PLP’s and feel that we learn best from our colleagues in guided communities. More emphasis on teacher collaboration and PD that supports and role models inquiry based learning is needed. The need for a transformed model of professional development for educators has never been greater. The world we live in is one of instant accessibility—through texts, email, cell phones, web cams and a myriad of other means. It follows, then, that teaching
    also looks different than it did a generation ago, though professional development
    opportunities have not changed at the same pace.

    • So there are PLCs and COPs… I think, Sarah, that is what you are thinking of. Check out PLP — Powerful Learning Practice. It blends these and other models. I think you’d love it!

      Check it out and let me know what you think! I’d be interested in your thoughts.


  5. mharding /

    The experiences of the 70’s for those of us who lived the “Living and Learning” years support everything that you are saying. The more posts I read about children being given the freedom and the encouragement to “self-actualize” reaffirms for me that what we were doing was good. Somehow, in a very short trial period, our vision was dismissed as “pie in the sky.” “The learning environment was unstructured to the point of chaos”. The naysayers were focused on the openness of the space instead of what was happening within the space. I guess it is too late to go back and build on the successes that were achieved. No! That would be admitting to an unfortunate “rush to judgement”.

    • Ah yes. Most certainly. The number of times I heard, “Peter, get your head out of the clouds and stop being such an idealist” — wild.

      You say, “The learning environment was unstructured to the point of chaos”. Sure enough…that is what people considered my classrooms to be — chaotic!

      Here is a wee description from another post related to that issue!
      “I had always had what was perceived to be a laissez-faire classroom…. but it wasn’t laissez-faire at all! In fact, it was quite the opposite. It might have appeared ‘chaotic’ and ‘unstructured’ but if you had taken time to look ‘beneath the surface’, you would have seen even higher expectations and outcomes than most classes. I expected kids not just to learn the content at hand, but indeed I expected them to manage the learning of that content as well. This is, of course, what metacognition is all about.”

      Read the whole post here if it tweaks your interest: The ‘Drip Effects’ of Technology

      As you say, it was dismissed as ‘pie in the sky’ – and now, don’t you find that it is being discovered again as if it is brand new? ;-) I am sure Dewey would have said the same about us in the 70s – LOL

      I believe it is important for us to know what has gone before and to build on it. What do you think?

  6. mharding /

    Peter, I couldn’t agree more. This is why I have been posting about my early years in teaching. In spite of what people think we really were trying to discover new and challenging ways for children to learn. We wanted them to have ownership over what they learned and how. Unfortunately Hall and Dennis were dismissed as dreamers because they were advocates for the very things we are talking about today. Yes indeed, these concepts are not new. They have been given shiny new names and others are taking the credit for creating them. It’s as though the 60’s and 70’s never happened. I think you are so right when you suggest that we build on what happened before, not pretend it didn’t exist. I only wish I knew how to do this. In my role as an author at VoicEd I see myself as the link to the past. Those years were precious to me and I consider myself so fortunate to have experienced the transitions from the rote mode, totally teacher directed environment, through the open concept years of allowing children to be involved in what they learn. I will continue to remind people that the torch was passed by those who went before so that the path would be made brighter for those who follow. Thanks for your comments.

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