W is for ‘wabi-sabi’

26 09 2010

In Ryōan-ji Temple, Kyoto

I’m in Japan at the moment, and I brought with me a copy of a book that made a profound impression on me when I was 16 or so (when I guess everyone is profoundly impressionable!). It’s called The World of Zen: an East-West Anthology, edited by Nancy Wilson Ross (Vintage Books, 1960).

In an extract called ‘Zen and the Art of Painting’, the great Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki identifies the concept of wabi as being a key component of the Japanese, and specifically Zen, aesthetic. “Wabi really means ‘poverty,’ or, negatively, ‘not to be in the fashionable society of the time.’ To be poor, that is not to be dependent on things worldly — wealth, power, and reputation — and yet to feel inwardly the presence of something of the highest value, above time and social position: this is what essentially constitutes wabi” (p. 92). Wabi often combines with the related concept, sabi, which “consists in rustic unpretentiousness or archaic imperfection, apparent simplicity or effortlessness in execution, and richness in historical associations… The utensils used in the tearoom are mostly of this nature” (p. 94).

Tea ceremony utensils used on my last trip to Japan

A few months ago, in a posting on the Dogme discussion list, I invoked the principle of wabi-sabi as a counterbalance to the distracting clutter and noise associated with materials overload and unnecessary technology. I wrote: “Put another way, it is what we have been calling ‘a poor pedagogy’”. And I added: “I have absolutely no evidence that a pared-down, minimalist pedagogy is any better than an abundantly-resourced and hyperactive one. I just have a hunch. This kind of simplicity is a value I aspire to, both in education and in the way I live my life. At the same time, I readily admit that I am far from achieving it, both in education and in life”.

In a witty and well-argued response, Darren Elliot took issue with what he considered to be an unsavoury blend of orientalism and an overly-romanticized cult of poverty. He commented: “I love an analogy as much as the next man, and I can see the appeal of wabi-sabi. But as I live in ‘the orient’ I’m cautious about co-opting cultural concepts of the East… you can end up one step away from Madonna in a sari”.

Interestingly, Diarmuid Fogarty (not normally one to suffer posturing gladly) came to my defense: “Rather than glamourising poverty, I think dogme is about unglamourising wealth. At the heart of it is an ideological belief that stripping away the consumerism from language teaching enables more effective and more efficient teaching. It brings it back to individuals using their own language to mediate the world rather than relying upon the prefabricated language of others to help them mediate their world. Perhaps this is something that the Web 2.0 fans would like to pick up on?”

In eschewing consumerism and aspiring to a Zen-like simplicity, does Dogme glamourise poverty? More importantly, perhaps: is this Zen-like simplicity compatible with Web 2.0? (A kind of ‘webby-sabi’ perhaps?)



20 responses

26 09 2010
Josh Lange

D.T. Suzuki is an excellent example of the opposite of what you’re saying (ironically Zen). As the most well-known scholar and translator of Zen into English, Suzuki shows through his expertise that exposure to a rich diversity of vocabulary and structure improves one’s foreign language ability, especially in translating complex chinese symbols. The more materials (broad sense) to draw upon, the more exposure to the language.

And regarding EFL books, is not your ‘Dogme’ idea yet another prima materia for a new array of commercial products?

Josh Lange

26 09 2010

There is nothing contradictory about Dogma being all in favour of ‘commercial’ products which, like ‘Teaching Unplugged’, can help those teachers who wish to unclutter their classrooms and who are lucky enough to have the option to do so.

26 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Josh, for starting the conversation. I’m not sure that “exposure to a rich diversity of vocabulary and structure” is incompatible, either with the idea of wabi-sabi, or with dogme, neither of which necessarily promotes ‘poverty’ of exposure, only a rejection of superfluity and excess. In fact, it was in order to enrich the learners’ exposure to, and use of, (real) language, that dogme was first proposed in the first place, on the principal of ‘minimal means, maximum effects’.

As for ‘dogme’-branded commercial products, if you have any suggestions along these lines, I’d be most keen to hear of them. 😉

26 09 2010

Fresh from a wonderful weekend with my own teacher (Tibetan Lama) it’s interesting to read this post.

From what I understand outer simplicity definitely promotes inner clarity. The qualities of awareness and mindfulness central to Buddhist meditation are initially easier to cultivate in an atmosphere of outer simplicity – hence sitting practice, minimal external distraction.

But in the Dharma the main point is actually an inner simplicity, in terms of not getting stuck in thoughts/concepts/emotions, which promotes qualities of clarity, wisdom and mindfulness.

There is a point sometimes misunderstood, I’ll highlight it with the word “renunciation”

While many people imagine renunciation they might imagine it means you have to go away from the world and live in a cave. But that’s only outer renunciation. If the mind is still chasing after its desires, being in a cave is useless.

So external conditions promote internal clarity – but are not evidence that it is happening.

In terms of dogme or materials light. I would say, yes, it can encapsulate simplicity, honesty and in that sense be powerful in the classroom. But, like the yogi in the cave, if dogme is misused, or used without understanding of the principles and foundations of language – it can perhaps be a smoke screen.

Similarly – lots of materials and the net – are not in themselves synonymous with being mentally scattered, superficial etc. When language learning aims and objectives are very clear, they can be well used. Problems only arise when they are blindly relied upon or used without much reflection.

This links slightly to a very profound school of Buddhism called Dzogchen where one “takes life as the path” and nothing at all is rejected. Of course to do this requires a very trained mind.

Hope my ramblings made some sense!

26 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Coincidentally (but nothing is coincidental!) I went to a very entertaining presentation here in Sapporo yesterday, in which the presenter (Keith Barrs) was explaining how he never goes into any class without a small tupperware container in which there are just six things. And this reminded me that there is one school of Buddhism (in Thailand) that allows its monks only eight possessions (including the clothes they stand up in), and that these eight things include an umbrella, a begging bowl, and a tea strainer (so as to avoid the inadvertent swallowing of an insect in your tea).

If you could reduce your (classroom) possessions to just eight, what would they be, I wonder?

Well, you can read more about Keith’s six here:

(And it was interesting that he also cares about the design of the items – as with ‘wabi-sabi’, aesthetics matter.)

26 09 2010

Hmmm. Would Suzuki have any vested interest in highlighting the intellectual rigours that one must subject oneself to in order to translate from Chinese to English? And is he actually saying anything that goes against dogme’s principles? The argument that learners benefit from a broad range of texts etc would certainly seem to favour dogme when matched against those learners who are force fed on the predigested crap that most coursebooks are made of.

Similarly, I suspect that any Buddhist teacher has a vested interest in selling the idea that to ataain enlightenment, one needs a teacher to train the mind. This idea appears to be predicated upon the belief that there is/are (a) fixed way(s) to your goal, when Machado put it much better writing that the steps of the walkers are instrumental in shaping the path.

Which is not to say that I disagree entirely with Steph. Dogme can indeed be a smokescreen if it is seen as Materials Lite Teaching and that’s all. It’s clear from so many postings to dogme that it attracted many people who were already teaching materials lite and it provided a context within which they were able to explore their reasons for so doing. In my case, it was because I felt that learners needed to be empowered to learn more effectively and I found that centring them at the heart of the learning experience provided much richer pickings than Page 42 of Any Coursebook. It was with the intention of helping them realise that language learning is not dependent upon the teacher, but upon the learner. For me Dogme is rooted in my ideological stance that authorities are not necessary to achieve the goals we set out to achieve.

The idea of researching dogme is one that appeals to me. All I need is for a more scientific mind that me to tell me how to go about it. If anyone would care to rise to the challenge, I might actually enjoy concluding my MA (five years after I commenced it).

27 09 2010

The best thing that a teacher can do in class is make the most of the least. What ‘the least’ refers to depends on the particular teaching situation, but could be things such as time and materials. In the presentation referred to above my aim was to show how I make the most of the least technology in class. I feel that this connects with dogme, ‘materials lite’, wabi-sabi and any other ‘stripping-down’ concepts.

All classes should begin with a focus on the students and then extend to the incorporation of materials to enhance this focus and I love the idea, raised above, of people thinking about what materials they would have to enhance their classes.

My 6 ideas (mobile phone with camera, video camera, bell, paper scraps, timer and dice) relate to the following thinking by Kevin Kelly:

“The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful. Find the minimum amount of technology that will maximize your options.”

What would other people include in their list?

I also love the idea that we are all fighting hard in the modern world to ‘strip-down’ and simplify the complexity and confusion around us. Seth Godin gives a fantastic and hugely enjoyable talk (http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/seth_godin_this_is_broken_1.html) about how things around us are ‘broken’. I feels it fits in very well with the ideas raised in this wabi-sabi entry and comments.

27 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for posting, Keith (and that was a great session you did yesterday – I’m definitely goin g to get one of those hotel reception bells!)

Coincidentally (but nothing is coincidence!) I was reading a Spanish newspaper on the plane, and there was a piece on the visionary engineer/designer/architect Buckminster Fuller (there’s an exhibition about his life and work opening in Madrid shortly).

The bit that caught my eye roughly translates like this:

“For Fuller, the ‘less is more’ of Mies van der Rohe wasn’t just an aesthetic question, but a profound moral imperative. The more one does with less, the better life will be for everyone in a world unbalanced by the paradox of superfluity and want …”

And, just today i got a request to speak (via Skype) at a conference that IH Kiev is running next month, the title of which is – wait for it – “More from less”.

27 09 2010

Nabokov once said that all you should have to read were quiet, the book in question, a good dictionary and a pencil (don’t ask me where he said it, I can’t remember, he may even not have said it, I may have made it up, but anyway…). The idea of the minimalist aesthetic is certainly appealing and for me goes a long way to creating the space (mentally and physically) that I need to learn something. But that is just me and I know plenty of people who thrive in a hectic cluttered environment with stimuli all over the place, and I think this for me is the point. The search for one learning/teaching style or aesthetic is largely pointless – people being individual constructs of their own past, environment, socio-economic state, character etc. they will all respond differently to different methods and ideas – perhaps more so in language learning which is a very organic process. I like dogme, I like its simplicity its counter culture stance on commercial material (methodology texts aside ;-)), but that is just me. I also like technology because Ilike shiny new things but I would like to see more acknowledgement in teaching that they are simply tools – they won’t suddenly motivate learners or turn out grade A students.

The dichotomy that emerges often is one of an increasingly individualistic age confronted with increasing didactic homogenity. Tech is the answer. No tech is the answer. Coursebooks is the answer. No coursebooks is the answer. Perhaps, instead, we need to start streaming students not by ability but by the way they learn best?

As for materials-lite, I feel more research is needed on the value of extensive versus intensive exploration of authentic texts, (someone once told me that Lenin learnt English by translating War and Peace into English and then back into Russian during one of his long stints being detained at someone’s pleasure). Is there more to be gained for some students by spending a long time on one or two texts rather than short periods on many texts?

As I said, for me a text, a dictionary and a pencil work best for others they need to be plugged in to more sources/resources – a more taylored approach would probably benefit everyone.

Finally, Nabokov also said that ‘there is nothing in the world that I loathe more than group activity, that communal bath where the hairy and slippery mix in a multiplication of mediocrity’. So what did he know!

28 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Andrew, for that thoughtful post. Something you said about “creating the space” made me think of the theatre director Peter Brook’s 1968 book The Empty Space, in which he invokes a pared-down theatre, where the audience are both emotionally and spiritually engaged in the experience of watching a person simply walking across an empty space. (Brook was also an admirer of Jerzy Grotowski, who coined the term ‘a poor theatre’).

As I wrote in a previous post (A is for Attention) the more factors competing for the learner’s attention, the more dispersed it is likely to be, and the less amenable to the kind of mental and affective state most conducive to learning. (Even as I write this I’m being driven mad by the BBC3 announcer’s perky comments!) so I responded very positively to your image of Nabokov, alone in his empty space, his pipe and his dictionary at the ready.

27 09 2010
Klaus Beutelspacher

This really is a topic I should comment on from the PDL perspective, one of radical material-light practice. I don’t think that “material” played an important part in Bernard Dufeu’s initial ideas when he first conceived PDL in the 1970, nor did Eastern philosophies. But it’s interesting to look at these aspects. In hindsight, there are analogies.

Our question on material could be something like this: If a bunch of people come together with their minds and bodies, their senses and voices, with a certain will to learn (language), and if they have a facilitator or guide at their disposal who knows something about the possible learning paths and who is ready to help them along whenever it is adequate – what else do they need? Very little indeed.

Consequently the PDL classroom is literally empty. Except…
– there are mats and cushions to make sitting or lying on the floor more comfy. I have floor chairs which are much appreciated.
– a special blanket, a portable spot which centres the attention of the group when this is needed – the “magic carpet”
– some small gadgets to ease interaction in some individual or group exercises: juggling balls, magic cards, initially neutral masks that you hide behind, later props for specific, more elaborate exercises.
– After a few days, paper comes in, A4 clipboards for pairs and flip chart size for sub-groups, felt pens to draw and write with.
– Some colleagues are very skilful at decorating the room with flowers. Or maybe according to feng shui principles. (Here’s something far eastern)

Nothing else. Are these more than eight things?

Ordinary seminar rooms are not suitable for teaching, the tables and chairs are in the way. Also, they suggest that the teacher stands or sits on a podium in front of a class, and we have no such notion. Yoga rooms are nice for PDL. Another Eastern analogy.

Technologies and media are fantastic and they change everything for the learner. Maybe people need to learn more about how to make use of the of the media around them, but that’s not FLT. It’s the opposite: If you know enough about this, you need no more language courses.

In PDL, we practice a “hyperactive” pedagogy where the person – myself, the other, the group – is the prime resource. Or: We enjoy the luxury of focussing entirely on the abundant resource of human interaction. This is all but poor. From this pov, everything that distracts from the person is likely to waste precious time and energy, by diffusing or diluting each person’s learning experience.

28 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Klaus, for that generously detailed post — I’m getting a much clearer idea of how a PDL class functions. The following is such an important insight that I’m going to cut and paste it in its entirety:

If a bunch of people come together with their minds and bodies, their senses and voices, with a certain will to learn (language), and if they have a facilitator or guide at their disposal who knows something about the possible learning paths and who is ready to help them along whenever it is adequate – what else do they need?

My sentiments exactly! (For a start, they certainly don’t need a coursebook…)

1 02 2013
Mike O Grady

Textbooks! Don’t get me started…Ex student of yours here Scott from way back in 1996- IH Barcelona Dip. Just returned from 7 years of coursebook free EAP in China ( not material free of course) and the horror of 2 coursebooks in 2 semesters to teach in UK uni…Impossible, useless, identikit publisher product….they are still churning this rubbish out and places are still buying them by the boxload..Now EAP coursebooks coming out too, probably equally constricting…..all language learning books should be reference books or practice books…the concept of a coursebook should be put to eternal sleep…

Un saludo

28 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

For the record – because it’s both relevant but also because the work of Sylvia Ashton-Warner is still so little known – here is how she describes the moment when she, too, enacts her own ‘poor pedagogy’:

I burnt most of my infant room material on Friday. I say that the more material there is for a child, the less pull there is on his own resources. Other children coming to me from other schools are most annoyingly helpless. They want the teacher to do everything for them like a mother. I don’t believe in shiny polished blocks. The shine and the colour should be supplied by the child’s own imagination. … I speak of blocks as an example but only symbolically. I mean all the other contraptions. Mrs. S for example was given the job of preparing mountains of reading cards to supplement the new reading books. Pictures for every word. Pictures illustrating, believe it or not, words like “up,” “to,” “my”… over and above the nouns. It’s terribly hard to believe that modern teachers can do this and modern inspectors instigate it. Can’t a child picture his own nouns when he hears them? Do we have pictures of prepostions and conjunctions? And beyond all this, think of the time it takes to care for all this stuff. Only infant teachers know the time it takes to keep this stuff in order and in repair. Time that could be used in precious conversation with them. I burnt all the work of my youth. Dozens of cards made of three-ply, and hand-printed and illustrated. Boxes of them. There will be only the following list in my infant room:

Chalk Books
Blackboards Charts
Paper Paints
Pencils Clay
Guitar Piano

And when a child wants to read he can pick up a book with his own hands and struggle through it. The removal of effort and denying to the child of its right to call on its own resources . . . .

(I was sad, though, seeing it all go up in smoke.)

But teaching is so much simpler and clearer as a result. There’s much more time for conversation . . . communication. (You should have heard the roaring in the chimney!)

(pp. 118-119 Teacher 1963, 1980 London: Virago)

PS: This should not be read (as some have) as an incitement to burn coursebooks!

28 09 2010

I can’t help but worry that you’re all over-thinking this issue. ı don’t imagine that those who espouse such ways don’t consider themselves impoverished.

28 09 2010
Scott Thornbury

Fair point, Adam — perhaps it is an inherent pitfall in blogging, to overthink issues. At the same time, I find that in my teacher training and conferencing, making as many links as possible, including interdisciplinary ones, and using analogies and metaphors, is a great way of communicating ideas that, on paper, might seem either obscure or irrelevant. And, of course, there’s a certain intellectual pleasure in making connections just for the sake of it!

1 10 2010

Generally, minimalism is synonymous to quietude and peace – which leads to believe that the outer simplicity does lead to an inner calm and perhaps harmony which in turn may contribute to a better learning disposition.
Wabi-Sabi reminds me of the Zuhd found in Islaam which is a state of inner peace only acquired through abstinence of worldly material things but also idle talk, excessive food and fruitless companionship. The Zaahids (people who adhere to Zuhd) I know have always displayed a clear depth in their knowledge as well as a sharp and profound understanding of the matters we’ve discussed.
When I first read about Dogme, it appealed to me as I’d not long before, read about Scandinavian schools where primary colours no longer form the palette of the décor, furniture is kept to a minimum and the philosophy is that learning should be done with as little distraction as possible. A Swedish school even banned teachers and students from wearing stripes and dots to prevent migraines!
The world of education seems to be in real need of Dogme so rather than it being glamourised, I’d say more research needs to be dedicated to the ‘approach’ – then at least the choice would be there. It may be that rather than a textbook, what Dogme needs is a suitable programme which would prevent the risk of the static element associated to textbooks. So rather than just being compatible, Dogme and Web 2.0 may be the perfect match!

1 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Hada, for that interesting ‘take’ on the idea of minimalist learning environments. To my shame, I hadn’t heard of ‘Zuhd’ before, but what you wrote about it suggested to me that it might be associated with Sufism – which was in fact confirmed by a quick Google search. There seems to be a common element in all these different manifestations of ‘withdrawl from worldly things’, and that is to heighten (rather than to dull) consciousness, which, as you say, is a condition that is totally consistent with what we know about optimal learning states.

8 10 2010
Darren Elliott

Thanks Scott – a comment that you reminded me of when we first met. Glad to have made an impression! I suppose it is not the idea of wabi-sabi itself to which I object, nor it’s possible application to teaching (a valid and concise analogy). I think I was just being a horrible old cynic sitting in the middle of the hideous but loveable urban sprawl of central Japan. There is increasing wabi but very little sabi on view when I look out the window!

But aside from anything else, thank you for directing us to Keith’s blog and ideas. One might argue, of course, that an internet enabled mobile phone is bringing the entire world into a classroom and not strictly minimal… not all ‘items’ are created equal. Nonetheless, there is much to be said for the techbox.

8 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Darren. I thought your original comment was a well-judged corrective to my own tendency to romanticise Japan, and, besides, it’s not often I am compared to Madonna in a sari! (More’s the pity).

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