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.


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.



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

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Damian Willians

I'm an ELT author/writer and have written several books and digital material for various publishers (Amazon author page - 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.

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