Teaching Unplugged (Or That's Dogme with an E)
Ever see a Danish film called The Idiots? Or one called Celebration? Or Mifune? If so, then you may have heard of Dogme 95. In 1995 a group of Danish film-makers signed a "vow of chastity". Their intention was to rid cinema of an obsessive concern for technique and rehabilitate a cinema which foregrounded the story, and the inner life of the characters. They rejected the superficiality and "trickery" of mainstream film-making. Dogme 95's first "commandment", for example, is that :
Shooting should be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where the prop is to be found)
Films made according to Dogme 95 prescriptions (such as Lars von Trier's The Idiots) typically have a rough, gritty, even raw, quality and are certainly a far remove from the slick artifice and technical virtuosity of Hollywood. You may not like Dogme films, but they are not easy to forget.
It has been my belief that it's time to apply similar, Dogme-like, principles to the language classroom. The wealth of materials now available for the teaching of English, coupled with the wide range of classroom techniques and procedures recommended on training courses, may have blinded us to "the story" - that is, the essential conditions for language learning. Where, for example, is real communication? More often as not, it is buried under a weight of photocopies, visual aids, OHP transparencies, MTV video clips, board games, and what have you. Somewhere in there we may have lost the plot.
Think about it: how many of your best lessons just happened? For example, a really good discussion cropped up, and you let it run. And run. Or something that had happened to a student in the weekend became the basis of the whole lesson. Or, because you missed the bus, or because the photocopier wasn't working, you had to go in unprepared. But the lesson really took off.
On the other hand, how many really memorable and engaging lessons have you given that were based on slavishly following the coursebook? And how many times have you spent hours preparing material for a lesson, only to see it fizz and splutter, like a damp sky rocket?
In her inspirational book, Teacher, the New Zealand primary school teacher, Sylvia Ashton-Warner records a similar frustration with materials:
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 (…) 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!)
If time for conversation and communication was considered so important in a primary school class, how much more important must it be in a language class. Language, after all, is communication. So here is the first "commandment" for a "Dogme of ELT":
Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom - i.e. themselves - and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students' club…)
(See below for the full Dogme ELT "Vow of Chastity")
It was with the intention of exploring the implications of a pedagogy based on this and related principles that a small but growing group of teachers around the world set up an internet discussion group called dogme ELT, (www.egroups.com/group/dogme) with the by-line: For a pedagogy of bare essentials. By this means we were able to share our beliefs and practices, and at the same time broadcast them to a wider audience. A lively - and often heated - discussion developed, and a number of common themes started to emerge. Concepts that cropped up again and again included such things as engagement, relevance, interaction, talk, voice, dialogue, emergence, classroom dynamic, autonomy, empowerment and liberation.
Here, for example, is Graham (in Newcastle), describing an experience in which he found himself liberated from the materials:
I was teaching on an Cambridge First Certificate course (in which, by chance, about half the class worked in the health sector) in Hungary, where the exam took place a couple of weeks before the end of the paid-up semester meant we had a few lessons in which we were free from the pressure of the exam, its syllabus, and related coursebook. What subsequently emerged was a period of time in which the learners explored (among other things) more intricate/intimate vocabulary for parts of the body; the connotations of vocabulary previously heard but not fully understood; the workings, advantage and disadvantages of the British medical system compared to the Hungarian; discussion of whether they would like to work abroad (related to Eastern European salaries)etc. The discussions of their work (and, for the non-health professionals, the use of these services) was relevant well-beyond the classroom. Not too much grammar emerged, but after a semester of First Certificate practice, the learners seemed to welcome the chance to exchange relevant stories and opinions, and the vocabulary generated was their main aim and outcome (one of the most memorable vocabulary sessions I, and hopefully the learners, can remember). It was perhaps the first time I stepped away from text-books/materials for any length of time. I'm not medical expert and learned a lot from the students. The point, it seems to me, is that really, it was the learners who generated these 2 or 3 lessons and the learning opportunites within them, talking about themselves, their lives, and as a result, finding the English language necessary to achieve this.
Another teacher, Kevin, in Barcelona, discovered his teenagers really wanted just to talk:
We have done three more classes consisting of everyone sitting in a circle and "just talking". I have been surprised how many really interesting things we've discussed and how well the students have reacted to these lessons. I certainly get the feeling that the students can learn a lot in these type of lessons, one reason being that they are so interested in what's being said.
A teacher in Romania (Carmen) commented that many of her colleagues confess to the fact that the teaching they enjoy most takes place in the two months at the beginning of the school year - before the coursebooks have arrived!
And a teacher in Scotland (Olwyn) described a writing class in which the content of the class came from the "people in the room" :
My writing class wrote about the conference I had just attended. I gave them the first sentence and said they could ask me any questions they liked so long as they were a) written down and b) grammatically correct. I handed back any incorrect questions for reformulation. After an initial uncertainty, questions flew thick and fast from the writing groups. After half an hour they had to organise the material they had collected into an essay and had an opportunity at the end to fill in any gaps. The students commented that the questions helped them to write a lot more than they normally would and they felt supported in the writing task by the error correction of their questions. Next week we'll look a little bit more at how they organised the mass of answers into a coherent text.
The implications for teacher training have also been explored. Neil, a teacher trainer in Barcelona, noted a mismatch between trainee teachers' attitudes and students' expectations:
I have recently started a CELTA (Certificate) course and I set my 12 trainees the task of deciding which of the three teacher roles was the most important - the social, the educational, or the organisational. The final result was that they could not decide whether educational was more important then organisational and vice versa, but they were unanimous that the social role was the least important. With my Advanced A group of students I did the same task. Again they were undecided about organisational vs educational and unanimous about the social - but that this was the most important.
What, then, makes a Dogme lesson? A Dogme lesson is one that is grounded in the experience, beliefs, desires and knowledge of the people in the room. It is a lesson that is language-rich but where language is not used for display but for meaningful exchange. It is a lesson where the learners are motivated not by the need to pass a test or to earn a tick, but by the commonly felt need to express their membership of a small and interdependent culture. It is a lesson where the teacher is simply another member of the group - somewhat more knowledgeable when it comes to the target language - but who asserts her authority only in order to facilitate the group's common purpose - to extend the frontier of the second language, to turn learners into users.
Is Dogme a dogma? No, I hope not. I think, rather, that Dogme is more like a state of mind, a stance, that inevitably permeates all of one's classroom practice and one which will (must) adapt to local conditions. In that sense it is not a dogma. It may even be compatible with a coursebook. But the principle - or belief - that must hold true is the foregrounding of the "inner life" of the learner - and teacher for that matter. And if there are rules, they are not so much prescriptive as facilitative: as Lars von Trier said in an interview: "That's the whole point of these rules - they are a tool to be used freely".
1. Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom - i.e. themselves - and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students' club…)
2. No recorded listening material should be introduced into the classroom: the source of all "listening" activities should be the students and teacher themselves. The only recorded material that is used should be that made in the classroom itself, e.g. recording students in pair or group work for later re-play and analysis.
3. The teacher must sit down at all times that the students are seated, except when monitoring group or pair work (and even then it may be best to pull up a chair). In small classes, teaching should take place around a single table.
4. All the teacher's questions must be "real" questions (such as "Do you like oysters?" Or "What did you do on Saturday?"), not "display" questions (such as "What's the past of the verb to go?" or "Is there a clock on the wall?")
5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as audiolingualism, Silent Way, TPR, task-based learning, suggestopedia) is unacceptable.
6. A pre-planned syllabus of pre-selected and graded grammar items is forbidden. Any grammar that is the focus of instruction should emerge from the lesson content, not dictate it.
7. Topics that are generated by the students themselves must be given priority over any other input.
8. Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.
9. The criteria and adminstration of any testing procedures must be negotiated with the learners.
10. Teachers themselves will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not boring.
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