Solutionism in ELT: magic bullet or malady?

One of the books that made the biggest impression on me last year was Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist. In it, he describes the rise of tech companies into all-pervasive areas of life, their inherent solutionism, and the threats this process poses to society as a whole.

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So what exactly is solutionism? Well, in its simplest terms, it’s the belief that pretty much everything we face in live can be cast as a simple problem + solution. The job of tech companies and the collection of big data is therefore to find out as much as possible about a situation in order to pose it as a problem in simple, quantifiable terms, thus paving the way for the inevitable solution . In Morozov’s own words:

Recasting all complex social situations either as neatly defined problems with definite, computable solutions or as transparent and self-evident processes that can be easily optimized.

For example, one area where big data and solutionism has grown to play a huge role is that of health and fitness tracking. There are myriad apps and even wearable technology that allows you to track how many steps you take, calories you consume and even how well you sleep. This is then fed into complex algorithms which provide ‘solutions’ in the way of rewards for taking more exercise, or eating more sensibly, such as choosing an apple over chocolate ice cream for dessert. And it’s not just health and fitness. There are apps and hardware which can track the rubbish you throw out, facial expressions when you look in a mirror, power usage in the home, and even a smart teapot!

But what about ELT and language learning in general? This is an area where in recent years we have seen a huge entry into the industry of big data firms such as Knewton and gamified apps such as Duolingo. These aim to apply the principles of big data and solutionism to language learning, in order to provide personalised solutions the the ‘problem’ of language learning.

I for one find this a little disturbing, and not in an apocalyptic, anti-corporate way. What worries me is the over-simplification of something I love and have devoted my life working towards. If you ask a sample of language learners from different levels and backgrounds why there are learning English, of course some of them will say ‘to pass an exam’ or ‘to get by in an English-speaking country’. But others will say ‘because I like learning languages’ ‘I want to speak fluently’ ‘I like playing with language’. These aims are just as commendable and worth pursuing, and yet have no simple solutions.

In fact, to describe language learning as a ‘problem’ which needs to ‘solved’ seems to take the fun out of it for me. It’s like saying food only exists to provide fuel, books only exist to inform, wine only exists to get you drunk.

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Delicious.

Old Petrol Pump by Tim Green CC BY 2.0

I didn’t just start teaching because I wanted to provide ‘solutions’, but also because I love language, I find it fascinating, and I feel lucky to be able to work with it every day. Language is a complex entity, one to which there often aren’t any clear-cut answers, one which oozes chaos from its every pore. And that’s why it’s beautiful. Any attempt to make it less so is just dumbing down, in my opinion. As Morozov goes on to say:

Solutionsim … is not just a fancy way of saying that for some with a hammer, everything looks like a nail … It’s not only that many problems are not suited to the quick-and-easy solutionist tool kit. It’s also that what many solutionists presume to be ‘problems’ … are not in any sense problematic. Quite the opposite: these vices are often virtues in disguise.

Further reading

I highly recommend looking at Philip Kerr’s blog on Adaptive Learning – the most comprehensive source of debate on the subject I’ve seen.

Also well worth watching is Gavin Dudeney’s talk on big data – highly informed and well-presented.

Finlay, S. 2014 Predictive Analytics, Data Mining and Big Data: Myths, Misconceptions and Methods Palgrave Macmillan

Morozov, E. 2013 To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist Penguin

Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - https://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B00EG71K1Q). I'm also a member of the committee for the IATEFL Materials Writers Special Interest Group (MaWSIG). After living and working in Brazil for ten years, I'm now based in London.

6 Comments
  • Luiz Otávio Barros
    Luiz Otávio Barros
    Posted at 19:32h, 14 janeiro Responder

    Hi, Damian
    Thanks for posting this. You always write with so much truth that it feels as if we’re actually talking to each other, face to face, over a beer or something.
    The “What worries me is the over-simplification of something I love and have devoted my life working towards” part really struck a chord with me, as it must have done with 101% of your readers out there.
    But, having said that, I’ve been trying to face the fact that English is nothing more than merely a problem-solving activity to many of our adult learners, especially those whose jobs depend on English. I live for English. They don’t.
    So: Problem = Keeping my job.
    Solution = Learn this bloody language.
    Even their choice of words sometimes reveals their underlying attitude:
    “Eu não fui promovido porque eu não TENHO inglês.”
    So the verb have there maybe signals that English is something you acquire and own, just like a new car. And this flies in the face of everything we stand for, everything we believe in, I know. But still… We’re often compelled to find solutions that will keep those students from dropping out or giving up on English altogether.
    So I don’t think we can do away with solutionism (love the word) altogether. What we can do, though, is to ensure that our solutions are both realistic, pragmatic AND academically responsible. Not an easy task, of course, but one that we must try to achive, I think. Otherwise, miracle solutions of the “learn English in X months, grammar-free” type are bound to keep resurfacing from time to time…

    • Damian Williams
      Damian Williams
      Posted at 21:13h, 15 janeiro Responder

      Thanks for taking the time to drop by and leave such a carefully considered, intelligent comment, Luiz. I can only reiterate your kind words and say what a pleasure it is to share the profession with professionals like you.
      You raise a very valid point here, that a lot of learners have very clearly-defined goals, and teaching is always a delicate balancing act between keeping them happy, interested and motivated and helping them achieve those goals.
      My main worries about the proliferation of solutionism, however, are twofold. Firstly, for all the bells and whistles surrounding the technology they employ, I don’t honestly believe the big tech firms really care that much about learners. They care about quantifiable results, that can be turned into profits for shareholders. Learning becomes incidental, second-place.
      This may sound cynical, but the proof lies in my second major concern, in that the ‘quick-fixes’ offered by big data firms involved in ELT mainly involve gap-fills and workbook-type activities. Of course, these have their use, but they’re not the be-all-and-end-all of language learning. My biggest concern as an author and writer of ELT materials (and being one yourself I’m sure you can understand this too) is that we’re seeing a major slip in the standard of the quality of materials offered. Major coursebooks are being shunned as they’re mistakenly seen as ‘old hat’ (despite the time, expertise and creativity that goes into the material), in favour of agile, online material. Such material is customisable and quick to respond to changes in the market, yet it does it with the same, tired, old exercises. If you’ve ever used a very popular language learning app (I’m thinking of a specific one here), you you’ll know what I mean. It’s fun, interactive and personalised, but it’s Grammar-Translation and Direct Method – methodology from the 19th Century. Coursebooks take a lot of flack these days, but in terms of quality material they’re unrivalled.
      Sorry, I’ve gone off on a bit of a rant here, but as you can no doubt see it’s something that concerns me deeply. Next month’s post, perhaps…

      • Neil McMahon
        Posted at 00:10h, 17 janeiro Responder

        Thanks for introducing me to Solutionism, Damian!
        And just to further your thought, while course books get a lot of flack these days, it’ll be teachers getting a lot of flack tomorrow, while technology ironically takes us back a century. And while I don’t agree that course books are unrivalled (my students get a lot more out of authentic materials, unlike solutionists) I do agree that good teachers are and always will be.

      • Luiz Otávio Barros
        Luiz Otávio Barros
        Posted at 01:33h, 31 janeiro Responder

        “Major coursebooks are being shunned as they’re mistakenly seen as ‘old hat’ (despite the time, expertise and creativity that goes into the material), in favour of agile, online material. Such material is customisable and quick to respond to changes in the market, yet it does it with the same, tired, old exercises.”
        I’ve heard that from a lot of people and, from that perspective, solutionism is probably something even neaerer and deraer to to your heart – as it would not doubt be to mine. Richmond, praise the Lord, still belives in the power of a well-crafted, well-researched, meticulously-edited paper-bound textbook – ALONG with all the digital components they’re exploring of coures. So I’m in luck in that sense.

  • Teresa Carvalho
    Teresa Carvalho
    Posted at 12:37h, 20 janeiro Responder

    Hi Damian,

    What a fascinating topic! I love languages and one of my previous posts is precisely about it: the beauty of languages and my experience using Duolingo to learn French. I agree with you when you say language learning shouldn’t be a ‘quick fix’ even though this is what much of the mainstream industry sells. People buy it because they think they are saving time, and as we all know, time is money!

    I’m myself using Duolingo to learn French and I’m having loads of fun. Firstly, because I’m not pressed for time; secondly, because I’m discovering how the language works; and this is what fascinates me. It’s true that we can make the most of an apparently ‘solutionism’ tool depending on the way we use it. However, I agree with you on the fact that language schools are being turned into major ‘solutionists’ for students. By that I mean that classes, materials, and language learning programs must meet people’s urgent needs rather than give teach them how languages work.

    Luiz touches on an important issue, too. “Não fui promovido porque não TENHO inglês.” The very verb choice depicts what most students expect from their language classes. My teenage students and their parents aim at the Certificate at the end of the course as if HAVING a certificate were their ticket to fluent English. It’s sad to realize that it’s not about learning a language, but acquiring a language as if the whole learning process were a lesser step.

    For this reason, students don’t see the point of practicing or doing homework. Materials are focusing less and less on how language works and are spoon-feeding learners in order for them to ‘learn quickly.’ As teachers, we know it’s’ baloney.’ Some students will get there; others won’t despite the beautiflly wrapped ‘quick-fix’ package they’ve purchased.

    Technology has surfaced as the ultimate solutionism tool. Duolingo, for examples, attracts users with the promise of quick, easy learning as if such things were possible. It is practical in terms of accessibility, but this does not mean ‘easy.’ Tech learning tools are springing up all over the web. They surely make learning more fun, more accessible, more interactive, and more dynamic, but the question is whether they offer real quick solutions regarding language learning and I wonder if they should.

    Thanks for sharing such thought-provoking posts.

  • Damian Williams
    Damian Williams
    Posted at 11:27h, 27 janeiro Responder

    Thanks for the comment, Teresa, and apologies for taking so long to reply to it. I’m afraid I don’t really have a lot to add here other than what I said above. I’m glad to hear that you also think language learning is worthy of more than just a ‘quick fix’ though. It’s great to know there are professionals like you out there!

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