Home > Commentaries on TTC > 80 – The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

80 – The Pareto principle states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Once again, Lao produces a turn of phrase that I can only envy. Chapter 80 calls for a pre-method “state of grace” – when all there was was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher and some students, and where learning was jointly constructed out of the talk that evolved in that simplest, and most prototypical of situations. OK, that was Thornbury Tzu. Lao Tzu called for a society where technological tools exist but grow dusty through disuse. People are happy with what they have and don’t feel the need to add to it. Even writing is left in favour of the use of knotted ropes (not some sort of flagellant society, but a precursor to writing in ancient China). Oh lawks! I can hear you thinking, He was some sort of mad anarcho-primitivist. Another Unabomber. But this is to miss the point.

Lao doesn’t advocate a return to the Stone Age just because he thinks technology is bad. He wants a life where people are happy, contented, and able to rediscover the pleasure in the simplest things that their worlds have to offer. Why? Well in a verse that I am going to quote in full because I think it’s so damned beautiful, he explains that if we obsess with the need to fill our life with ephemeral junk

The next little country might be so close

the people could hear cocks crowing

and dogs barking there,

but they’d get old and die

without ever having been there.

Phew! I’ve referenced Tolstoy’s view that the kingdom of God is within you and here we have the same. If we divorce ourselves from the simplest delights and experiences of this world, we will be oblivious to the fact that the promises of Paradise are already with us. This is all there is. So, for language teachers, we can extrapolate, Lao is telling us once again that all we need to do a grand job can be found in the room that we teach in. Teachers’ books, DVD guides, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wordles, Word Magnets, Hot Potatoes, talking avatars – all may carry the echo of dogs barking and cocks crowing, but if we rely only on tracing the echo to find the real thing, we will grow old and die without ever finding our goal. A chair, a blackboard, some students and a teacher.

I am reminded of a poem when I read Scott’s “some chairs, a blackboard, some students and a teacher.” The poem was written by Yannis Ritsos and goes, “A man, before going to bed, put his watch under his pillow./Then he went to sleep. Outside the wind was blowing. You who know/the miraculous continuity of little motions, understand./ A man, his watch, the wind. Nothing else.”

  1. April 5, 2011 at 19:21

    So . . . how do you respond to this ideology if all of your students are given technology . . . and EXTREMELY reluctant to put it away? I think I’m with you on enjoying the class with a board, teacher, some chairs, some students, but I’ve jumped on the technology bandwagon, simply because I can’t get my students off of it!

  2. dfogarty
    April 6, 2011 at 05:21

    It’s a good question, Liz. I suspect that Lao would say that you shouldn’t be fighting anything – the best way is always to absorb the blows until the opponent tires himself out. I don’t know if you’re a Simpsons fan, but this would pretty much count Homer as a Taoist par excellence.

    I’m not sure what kind of technology you students are hooked on. My students are hooked on electronic dictionaries and, increasingly, mDictionaries (have I just coined a new word? No? Oh well). I try to get round this with humour and with an explanation that whilst the dictionaries offer reassurance and the illusion of 100% accuracy, it is precisely this which militates against their language learning. Good language learners need to be able to tolerate ambiguity.

    Then I try to strike a balance with them: in class they should make the most of the opportunity to speak and ask questions. Therefore, the dictionaries have no place. I try to get across the concept of Slow Language Learning to them (akin, in my mind, to the Slow Food Movement). It may take longer, but it’s more effective and ultimately more efficient. However, once they leave the sacred portals of Class 324, they are more than welcome to tap away into whatever technology tickles their fancy. The rationale is that this is exactly what I would do if I were in their situation; the most committed students will do this; this increases their exposure to the target language; and it never hurts to revisit old vocabulary.

    I’ve never had a student demand to use the publisher’s IWB software, nor ask why more of this stuff isn’t available on CD-ROM. I’ve always had a relatively poor uptake on class blogs, and technology that I put at their fingertips – lextutor, Macmillan Online Dictionary, UEFAP website, English Central etc- often grows dusty through disuse. I can only conclude that whilst my students adore mobile phones and gaming, they are less enamoured with the need to technologify (I’ll coin a new word if it’s the last thing I do, damn it!) their learning experience.

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