Four Japanese words, Minimalism, and Innovation: What about ELT?

Komorebi (木漏れ日)

Imagine getting out ot bed, putting on a hoodie – because it’s a little chilly – and walking out the door. You can hear all types of birds chirping, insects singing their melodic tunes, the wind gently blowing the bushes. You’re in a hilly area surrounded by plants and the early morning dew is dropping from the leaves right in front of you. You look up and you see the sunlight through the trees forming different shapes on the grass. This actually has a name in Japanese. It’s komorebi. It’s so important to the Japanese culture that they thought it deserved its own word.

Did you like the scenery I described? Well, I write this blog post from one of my favorite retreats: my mom’s house in São Roque, my hometown. A little piece of heaven on earth protected by huge pine trees to the east, a wall to the west where a small creek runs, and what remained of Mata Atlântica to the south (check out pictures below)

This is my first visit since the pandemic started. We’re all fully vaccinated now and I finally felt safe enough to come. I took two weeks off work and decided to spend a week here. I’ve also decided to reconnect with my roots. So this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go back to basics and simply enjoy the birds singing, the early morning chill, the trees, the wild animals that abound here, and my family. I’m also off Instagram and Facebook now to see how it feels.

I’ve come to realize that, like most people I know, I’m addicted to social media. It’s not really a fair fight, though. They’re designed to get our attention by showing us exactly what gets our attention. But that’s not even the biggest problem. What may be even more worrisome is that I feel like nothing is ever good enough since we’re either always behind on things we must do or always looking for the latest/next thing. Sometimes it feels like we can’t even rest because we’re constantly reminded that we should be working. We’ve really bought the idea that we need to keep producing and innovating to feel accomplished and, quite frankly, that’s exhausting.

Now if you’re wondering the purpose of this post, I suppose it’s only a reflection on how this feeling of always trying to be productive and innovative may do harm, especially when it drives you away from the essence of teaching, increasing your workload and heightening the sensation of “it’s not enough”, and when it makes you believe that there are revolutionary or magical shortcuts out there waiting to be found.

From VUCA to BANI

A few years ago many professionals who dealt with innovation and futurism started to talk about VUCA. Our world was suddenly:

  • Volatile
  • Uncertain
  • Complex
  • Ambiguous

In such a world, it feels natural that we need to keep up as things change quite fast and some – if not all – of the work we do might become obsolete quite quickly. Think of whole industries that virtually disappeared because something else took their place: streaming services taking over blockbuster; flash drives and the cloud over CD-Roms. In such a world, if you want to survive, you have to stay relevant and that means to continually invest in your professional development.

Then 2020 happened. Covid-19 struck the world and Jamais Cascio came up with another acronym:

  • Brittle
  • Anxious
  • Nonlinear
  • Incomprehensible

We moved from VUCA to BANI and the latter emphasizes how things might be even more chaotic. In a BANI world, the possibility of world catastrophe seems more tangible and that causes anxiety. In such a world, rigidity and tradition should be avoided. The pot of gold of innovation has never been more important. But wait! Remember that it won’t last. Things can change dramatically overnight.

How does this scenario affect English classes?

A fast-paced world needs quick and effective solutions but that doesn’t mean that any quick fix will do. That message, sadly, seems to fall on deaf ears. To me, and many well-known and respected colleagues in the field would agree, it feels like more and more people are looking for English solutions that promise the earth. As a matter of fact, working closely with the marketing department of my company has given me lots of insight into what people want to “consume”. Things need to be “instagrammable”. Tips, drops, word of the day, the difference between make and do, how to pronounce this or that, 5 ways to organize your study routine, etc.

The idea this new world, whether you prefer VUCA or BANI, is selling is that things can be easily learned nowadays. It sells you the idea that things can – and worse, need to – be effortless otherwise they might be old-fashioned, ineffective, inadequate, not good enough.

Think of how the commercial department of many companies sells their solutions. They probably don’t have some of the solutions yet because they need to be created by the design team – but that doesn’t stop them from promising to deliver. And since the client is always right, they’ll very likely fit the solution to the demands of the client, even if that means it won’t be good enough.

How does this affect English classes? There is an enormous pressure on schools, and private teachers to offer solutions that are “instagrammable”. Become fluent in 18 months, We use a brand new method, Learn faster through NLP, Get access to an exclusive platform, Have lessons with native speakers, Receive daily tips on your phone, etc. Even more traditional schools, and teachers might feel compelled to put on a show to seduce new “clients”.

I used to believe that things like neuroscience could revolutionize how we learn – just check out my first posts on this blog to see for yourself. But as I mentioned in one of my latest posts:

Based on the body of work from Mind, Brain, and Education, I can honestly say that I do not consider it as revolutionary as I used to think. People sometimes fall for buzzwords and “revolutionary” claims (especially when they have the terms brain-based, brain-friendly or neuro attached to them). A word of advice: be careful. Using neurojargon and promising “you’ll be able to learn anything with five easy-to-follow steps” is probably a hoax. It generally disregards years of research conducted by several peers from around the world by claiming that someone made an incredible discovery and found a secret formula to maximize learning like never before!

Me

However, one thing we know about learning for sure and it’s that it requires effort and commitment. Depending on how fluent you want to become, how much available time you have, your background, your purpose, and if you already know a second language or not, it will certainly take a while, not just a few weeks or months. What can ELT tell us?

KonMari – Decluttering ELT: Is that good enough?

I remember watching Marie Kondo on Netflix. It was certainly something that caught my attention. Her philosophy had to do with keeping stuff that gave us joy and getting rid of things that didn’t – not before thanking them for their service in our lives. The method is known as KonMari. Her show led me to other shows, articles, and books on a trendy new word to me: minimalism. This word refers to focusing on the things you need and that are useful rather than the things that basically clutter your house and life. It’s really the idea of keeping it simple and going back to basics.

Even though KonMari’s website says it’s not about minimalism, despite Netflix’ algorithm leading me to a bunch of things on minimalism, I think we can all agree that it is about decluttering. Coincidentally, a few weeks ago I had the opportunity to moderate a very interesting session for Gallery Teachers delivered by Steve Hirschhorn, who not only proposed that we’re cluttering ELT with stuff from other areas, but also that we should go back to basics and use Second Language Acquisition as a guide.

Among some of the things Steve mentioned that don’t seem to do ELT any good are:

Despite disagreeing with Steve on a few things (such as the role of Critical Thinking, Flipped Classroom, Mindfulness, and Brain-friendly learning – even though I don’t like this name anymore), overall, I found myself nodding along as he presented his case. He did mention that most of the evidence was either showing that these “fads” don’t add anything or was inconclusive. I won’t get into the details of why he might be right about some of his claims and why I’m quite confident he’s wrong about others (I can do this some other time).

What I want to share here is his final message, which certainly struck a chord with me. He said we needed to go back to basics and master the essence first before going after the next “pot of gold”. And most importantly, he said that we should remain skeptical when the next trend pops up (but that doesn’t mean we can’t give it a shot and see how it goes)

After 40 years, my conclusion is that I’m a slow learner

Steve Hirschhorn

This quote made me reflect on the role of the teacher in the classroom and how it has changed. Steve was a slow learner – so was I when I learned English as it took me several years – and it seems to me that because of VUCA and BANI, people feel that they don’t have time to go through the whole process and simply transfer lots of responsibility to the teacher to make them learn as quickly as possible. And, as I mentioned before, because of how things are advertised and how chaotic their lives are, they:

  1. Believe there are quick fixes and will find professionals to offer them that;
  2. Can’t commit to anything that actually takes longer;
  3. Can’t find the right fit as they are not interested in taking a proficiency exam, they just want to be functional at work;

There’s definitely a gap that needs addressing and serious and competent professionals need to find a way to reach these people. What I disagree about Steve’s thought-provoking session is other areas may have little to offer ELT or SLA. I believe some, like the Science of Learning, can lead to interesting reflections. Learning might not speed up as promised by charlatans, but it may certainly expand to other people who might have felt like they could not do it well.

Something I wholeheartedly agree with Steve is that what matters really is the essence. Anyone trying to learn something new needs exposure, practice, and feedback. Over a long period of time and in an incremental way. Give me a stick and I’ll use the sand on the beach as my black board. I also agree that students’ role as active agents of their learning is vital. You can pay whoever you want to teach you English, but if you don’t hold your part of the deal, it won’t work well. We need to make sure we remind students of that.

The corporate spirit of measuring

Another issue many of us deal with nowadays is performance measurement. For those in the corporate world, it is no surprise that there are questionnaires everywhere about nearly everything anyone can think of. Service, politeness, mood, quickness, product quality, packaging, tone of voice, eye contact. In a world of Uber, Amazon, and food delivery apps, getting 5 stars might be the difference between selling or not. It creeps me out to think we’re headed to what Black Mirror’s Nosedive episode depicts so intelligently.

In this world that also relies in word of mouth, having a positive reputation and “pleasing the customer” is certainly l’ordre du jour. The issue here is:

  • Can everything be measured?
  • Can everything be measured as fast as possible and show effective change?
  • Can the customer wait to see the change?
  • Can the customer understand when change happened and what it means?

KonMari, Karoshi (過労死), and Kintsugi (金継ぎ)

If you got this far, I promise it’s coming to a wrap soon. This is perhaps the most important part. Besides Komorebi (sunlight through trees), Japanese offers us other interesting words that begin with K.

The first, which has already been mentioned, is actually the method (trademark) used by Marie Kondo to bring joy into people’s lives by helping them to declutter. And as beautiful or magical as it may have seemed to me at first, like a philosophy we should live by, now I wonder how it turned into an extremely profitable business that has its own shop of household products you can buy – feel the irony? – and a certification course to make you a consultant. Wasn’t ” less is more” the most important point of it? Maybe it had to fit the market.

My question here is: must we always succumb to VUCA and BANI demands and market everything we do in a way that meets the customer’s needs? Must everyone make their work instagrammable to survive? Should we work overtime to learn digital marketing skills and be online all the time on social media to post tips, drops, stories, Tik Toks? Where is this leading us?

Karoshi is what happens to people who work to death. That’s right. It’s a real problem and it affects hundreds of thousands of Japanese people (and people elsewhere even though they might not have a word for it) annually who literally work themselves to their grave because of social demands and long work hours, all of which lead to exhaustion.

You should think that the culture that gave us such a beatiful word like Komorebi would at least take the time to appreciate nature. What we see in Japanese TV news and newspapers is actually quite the opposite. People dozing off in subway stations, many sleeping on their own shoulder up on their feet. As innovative as the Japanese are in many areas, they couldn’t figure out a way out of this loop.

What then? Can we break this vicious cycle, this never-ending loop of working too much, getting too exhausted, and looking for quick fixes? Perhaps another Japanese word might offer us an insight.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with gold. It sends out a beautiful message. Just because it’s broken, it doesn’t mean it’s useless. Actually, by restoring these flawed pots and embracing imperfections with such a noble material as gold, these items become more expensive and are viewed as more beautiful than the original. When you look at them, you can see exactly where the pot cracked. But you can also be sure that that area is stronger than ever now.

What am I trying to say after all?

I’m not sure I got lost along the way in this text. Maybe it makes little sense to you. Maybe it’s crystal clear. My time at my mom’s house allowed me to reflect on such things and I suppose I have more questions than answers. I would like to end this by sharing these questions with you and then telling you what I feel about this whole discussion:

  1. Do you have time to connect with yourself and with nature with the current job you have?
  2. Do you feel overwhelmed with the things you “should learn” in order to sell your services?
  3. Do you sometimes have excellent ideas/projects that you know would work but can’t really do them because results wouldn’t show for a while?
  4. Are you always looking for tips, courses, lives, lectures, webinars because you feel you can’t stop?
  5. Do you have to keep producing content and be active on social media to feel you’re connected?
  6. Are you searching for techniques, strategies, and routines to accelerate your students’ learning even though you know it takes longer than what they’d like?
  7. Do you feel like you’re not doing enough or that you’re always behind schedule?
  8. Would you like to disagree with your client (student) or boss but fear you’ll get some sort of retaliation?
  9. Are you always trying everything you can to make sure all students are learning at all times?
  10. Are you happy? Are you OK? Are you healthy?

I guess my message here is the following: we need balance. We need to find balance between our time in nature and our time on social media. Social media are addictive and that’s bad for us. We must unplug now and then, step back and take a deep breath.

We also need to balance how much we give in when it’s about the work we do. Sadly, and I wish this weren’t true, we live in a society that emphasizes something that “looks good” over something that actually “is good”. But we don’t have to compromise and sell our soul to the devil of quick fixes and magic formulas so that we can get more people to hire us. I think it’s quite the opposite. We need to be good at what we do – and qualified – and be vocal about scams and incompetent professionals. People need educating on these matters.

As for innovating, again, balance is key. Keeping up with the latest tech and trends can take too much time. Time we’re not necessarily getting paid for and that will take our leisure away from us. Learn the basics, stick to things that work and make you feel safer, focus on the content, not the appearance.

I enjoyed being away from social media for a while. I can’t say I truly relaxed as I kept thinking of the many projects I have to accomplish and how on earth I’d be able to. But I also read a book I wanted for a long time, I spent hours simply walking around and watching the birds, I had wonderful conversations with my family.

This connection with the land and the folk reignited my desire to be more rather than to appear more. At least that’s what I hope. I wish we can all witness more Komorebi in our days, and embrace our flaws and repair them with gold as in Kintsugi, always remembering how these imperfections tell our stories and how we learned from them. I also think we need to focus on the essence and get rid of the clutter. We may even be inspired by KonMari and start giving away things that don’t make a difference in our lives. Let’s admit we need some time off now and again, as to avoid Karoshi, and, above all else, we must find balance. I will certainly go back to social media. Nevertheless, I’ll try to reduce how much time I spend scrolling and will focus on time spent admiring the sunlight, the animals, the land, and the folk.

Maybe what we can do is what Steve is told us: to slow down

Care to share what you would like to do?

Published by

André Hedlund

André Hedlund is a Chevening Scholar from Brazil, MSc in Psychology of Education from the University of Bristol in the UK, and a pedagogical consultant for National Geographic Learning. He has been an EFL teacher for over 15 years and has worked both as an academic coordinator and a CamLa (Cambridge and Michigan Language Assessments) examiner at a Brazilian Binational Center. Currently, he is the president of an ONG called Partners of the Americas Goiás and the representative of the Brazilian TESOL's Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group in the Midwest.

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