The Dogme Debate and Teacher Training

20110430-124532.jpgThere has been a lot of talk about Dogme or Teaching Unplugged recently, as a follow up to the Dogme Symposium at the Brighton Iatefl 2011 Conference. I was unable to attend this myself and heard contrasting comments about Dogme afterwards but I took part in the ELTchat group on the subject on Twitter last week, and that gave me quite a lot of food for thought.

WHAT IS IT ALL ABOUT?

If you look at Dogme ELT on Wikipedia you will read a summary of the main ideas: basically Scott Thornbury took the name Dogme from the Dogme95 film making movement, which was an attempt to get away from the trappings of Hollywood etc. and to return to simplicity in filmmaking rather that the the side issues of big bucks and special effects, which distract some and mean that others simply cannot compete. This can be trasferred to the ELT context if we think of the wealth of tools and materials that are available these days. Scott Thornbury provides an excellent list of sources at this link: http://www.thornburyscott.com/tu/sources.htm, including some well expressed reservations voiced by Simon Gill.

For those setting out on the journey of EFL teaching it may all prove to be overpowering, there is so much choice, where should you begin?

TEFL IN THE EIGHTIES

In the eighties, when I trained, doing what was then the Certificate (Now known as the Celta), there simply was not the same range of materials available for communicative language teaching, although it was beginning even then. I can remember the advent of Buidling Stratiegies by Brian Abbs and Ingrid Freebairn, which today may well seem very dated. At the time I was very excited about it because it was the first time I had seen structured listening activities, and learner centred quizzes as part of a coursebook. It was groundbreaking in a way that is hard to appreciate perhaos nowadays. Because of the lack of materials at that time, then we spent a lot of time on my training course learning how to make our own activities, and develop our own materials. This was extremely useful for me when I first started working in the private language school sector as I could use materials, but I also knew how to make my own. Nowadays the focus on Celta courses tends to be more “how to exploit the materials” as this is what teachers generally need to do when they start work in a school that sets a coursebook for them to use etc.

If you bring technology into the equation and all the other things on offer in what has become a carnival of special effects and big business, then you can see where the parallels can be drawn between tefl and the film industry.

THE APPEAL OF TEACHING UNPLUGGED

The appea of teaching unplugged, is that you can ” get back to basics”. No one is suggesting, I think, that we should abandon all the materials but rather that we should approach them more critically. Are these materials suitable for my learners? Am I using this activity simply because it is there? If I have to use materials because of school policy etc. can I adapt them to make them more relevant to my learners or better still, can they adapt them themselves or can we adapt them together?

Of course, you may say, it is easy to say tgat when you already have a lot of experience and you alrey know how to use materials, and you would be quite right. You need to know how to use materials and tools before you can decide if they are right or not for you and your learners, and we all work in different ways, which also needs to be taken into consideration.

I am lucky in that I work in a university that provides classrooms with Internet access and projectors and I am free to use them or not, as I choose. I personally choose to use them a lot, because that is what has proved best for my learners. I have large classes ( sometimes more than a hundred students) and by providing blended learning (f2f and wiki support my wiki) If you look at the feedback page you’ll see that my learners like them too, ut not all of the students use the online component, and not all of my colleagues work in the same way. This does not mean that some are better than others, it simply means that we are different and we learn and teach in different ways.

I’m still not sure whether I understand what Dogme really is but it seems to me to reflect the way my leanguage teaching has grown over the years. To me it means listening to my learners and helping them to develop the language they need to express themselves in the way they want and need to as well as helping them to prepare for the high stakes exams they need to take.

SPEAKING AS A CELTA TRAINER

Speaking as a Celta trainer, though, I have to add that I have some concerns too. I can see only too often how trainees become over reliant on their lesson plans, but this is natural since learning how to plan a lesson is actually quite a complex thing. I remember one Celta trainer who said to me in an aside one day “Well it’s hardly rocket science, is it?” This may have been a throw away comment uttered in a moment of irritation, but it made me think that actually no it is not rocket science. In a way it is even more complex.

LESSON PLANNING AND ROCKET SCIENCE

When we plan lessons we need to keep so many variables in mind, learning strategies, anticipated problems, things we assume learners have already learned, learner needs, lesson pace etc. etc. the list goes on and on, so it is no surprise then that trainees find it hard to juggle all these things (which are often new to them as well) whilst also needing to have the expertise and knowledge to be able to answer the off the cuff questions that arise in the course of any lesson, whilst, of course giving clear instructions and checking comprehension… Oh yes, and they need to listen to the learners as well! In may experience ehen trainee teachers run out of time they scrap their fluency activities, which is a reflection of what in sime way must be communicating to them: fluency is not as important as “language presentation or skills work”. The conversation focused approach advocated by Dogme then is very appealing and I for one try to communicate the importance of fluency work to my trainees, suggesting that they plan it in as a major component of the lesson, not just an added on time filler at the end of the “real exercises”.

To be able to simply go into a classroom and help learners to develop their language competence in a way which is relevant to them, and which is also scaffolded and helpful is actually quite a complex thing too. My concern is that I have often seen trainees with little experience who are bombarded by questions from motivated learners. The teacher tries to answer all e questions, sometimes efficiently and sometimes not so, and occasionally gets sidètracked into his or her own memories or concerns ” telling tthem all a little story or anecdote”. The lesson loses any real direction and the time is not being optimised for the learners’ benefit.

To be able to decidee which questions to answer and how to develop the work in such a way as to make it useful and intersting for everyone needs experience. You as a teacher need to know what type of activities are available for you an how to help your learners with the areas they are having difficulty with. So, I would say yes, then, I am all in favour of traching unplugged…if you know how to do it, and to do that first of all you need to know how.

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About hartle

Although I am originally from Yorkshire, UK, I live in Verona and work at the universities of Verona and Bolzano, where I teach general English at all levels and some ESP too. My interests include technology in learning, e-learning and autonomous learning.
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12 Responses to The Dogme Debate and Teacher Training

  1. To what extent do you think the teacher needs to be language aware to a high degree for the lesson not to collapse into the notorious and unstructured ‘conversation lesson’?

    The strengths of Dogme are that it’s needs based and language-centred. If there are other routes to the same destination for those teachers who are developing their own understanding of how the language works might we not talk of deep and shallow end Dogme?

    Novice teachers can get good guidance at the beginning of their careers from the teacher’s book-providing it’s a good one!

    • hartle says:

      I think that if you need a teacher’s book, it can only help you so far, as one book cannot cater for all the individual learner needs. New teachers need to do many things including 1) building the confidence they need to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out for you or next lesson” if they don’t know the answer to a question. 2) They need to have the confidence to recognise an area that is causing trouble for several learners. For instance, if you are doing an activity where learners make a questionnaire and interrview each other about the Easter holidays, the tewcher needs to be able to monitor this, helping them with language they may need to do the task, intervening with micro teaching slots if an area is causing problems for several learners, and then maybe taking note of this area and doing a further activity at the end to help them. If there is a lot of confusion, for instancd, about trip, journey and travel as nouns, verbs etc. The teacher needs to know how to analyse the differences and then how to implement activites to check learners comprehensn and extend the area. All this means reading, finding out what materials are available and then being able to apply them when necessary. This is true learner centred work which combines the teacher’s expertise with the learner’s needs

  2. Anthony Gaughan says:

    Thank you for this post, which is a useful summary of unplugged teaching and several debates surrounding it. I especially like your balance of appreciation and critical concern.

    I am a teacher trainer working mostly on Celta courses, so please forgive me for riffing off some of your comments on that topic. Also apologies for the length of this comment, but it’s a topic close to my professional heart. I’ve made a kind of conversation with you – hope you don’t mind! If my online voice is a bit rowdy and not the kind you’d feel comfy with at a party, just tell me to get back in my box :-)

    Because of the lack of materials at that time, then we spent a lot of time on my training course learning how to make our own activities, and develop our own materials. This was extremely useful for me when I first started working in the private language school sector as I could use materials, but I also knew how to make my own.

    I’ve heard this a lot from teachers who – like you and me – took their initial training “back in the day”. when coursebooks played less of a role in such courses.

    I’m sure the great benefit of the experience isn’t lost on you because you single it out it here: the opportunity to work out from your own experience from day one worked. You could try to design tasks and learn about principles of effective task design at the same time and this DIY approach worked perfectly well.

    Better than that, you had the bonus at the end of not needing a coursebook to operate, though you could get to grips with one if you needed to. Today’s trainees are perhaps not so fortunate, on the whole, and I think something should and can be done about that.

    You need to know how to use materials and tools before you can decide if they are right or not for you and your learners, and we all work in different ways, which also needs to be taken into consideration.

    From what you just wrote about your learning by doing in task design, I am a bit surprised you say this. Often, we are only able to evaluate fitness for purpose during use, and this is unsurprising – where else as learning teachers can we get reliable feedback from? Expert opinions have a role in shaping novice beliefs, but live experience in a supportive cycle of reflection is, in my view, a better way of learning. And how can learning teachers know how to use activities before they have tried them out? This is, after all, what Teaching Practice is for, I thought :-)

    Speaking as a Celta trainer, though, I have to add that I have some concerns too. I can see only too often how trainees become over reliant on their lesson plans, but this is natural since learning how to plan a lesson is actually quite a complex thing.

    I wonder how natural it is. It is certainly a function of the amount of detail that formal lesson plan templates common on Celta courses require, and if this is expected substantially or entirely to be provided by the learning teacher from very early on in the course, then it is unsurprising that they may obsess about the mechanics and miss the essentials of teaching.

    But we can do something against that, for example, by not requiring formal documentation (or so much of it) at the outset; by staging introduction of parts of the plan over the first 3-5 TPs, by assessing different parts of plans at different stages of the course for different lesson types… there is still plenty of time to gather evidence for their grade in all that. This may alleviate some of the external pressure leading to the phenomenon you identify.

    When we plan lessons we need to keep so many variables in mind, learning strategies, anticipated problems, things we assume learners have already learned, learner needs, lesson pace etc. etc. the list goes on and on, so it is no surprise then that trainees find it hard to juggle all these things

    True, if we require them to do so all at once, from the start, in a way that they know is part of formal assessment – there are alternatives: see above :-)

    To be able to simply go into a classroom and help learners to develop their language competence in a way which is relevant to them, and which is also scaffolded and helpful is actually quite a complex thing too. My concern is that I have often seen trainees with little experience who are bombarded by questions from motivated learners. The teacher tries to answer all e questions, sometimes efficiently and sometimes not so, and occasionally gets sidètracked …

    Ultimately, complex language matters and approaches may be used to do this, but at root it is actually a very simple process for starters: get learners talking; listen; take notes of things you would say differently; talk to learners about these differences by saying things like “Jose, look at this (write Jose’s sentence up), that’s good but say it like this instead” or “(underlines dodgy tense choice in sentence) Jose, you mean yesterday or today? Oh, for today, change this word (point to verb). Good, Jose, thanks”

    Some might say “you can’t expect trainee teachers to do this” – and I say “yes, I can”, because I have seen them do it. It is what we ask them to do in their first TP with us, for example (and in unassessed TP you can see it going on too, when the weight of formal assessment is lifted.) Some do it better than others, but they all give it a shot and they usually don’t get swamped with questions because the learners see that the teacher has made a selection and they go with that. This is entirely possible in TP 1 – the trick is enabling them to keep this emergent focus up while the rest of the lesson planning apparatus starts ramping up! That’s the challenge I am wrestling with at the moment…

    To be able to decide which questions to answer and how to develop the work in such a way as to make it useful and interesting for everyone needs experience. You as a teacher need to know what type of activities are available for you an how to help your learners with the areas they are having difficulty with. So, I would say yes, then, I am all in favour of teaching unplugged…if you know how to do it, and to do that first of all you need to know how.

    Going back to the start, you learnt to design tasks by designing tasks; I think teachers learn to teach unplugged by teaching unplugged. I also think that the sooner you start, the better, and that this is possible on initial training courses, which is why I re-geared our Celta course to allow for this. If you haven’t been there already, and if you are interested, I’d love to see you over at and hear what you think!

    All the best, and thanks once again for a very thought-provoking post (as well as your other one on Tech!)

    • Anthony Gaughan says:

      PS: sorry about the weird links in the last couple of sentences – #whenhtmlgoesbad :-(

    • hartle says:

      Thank you Anthony. I’m really happy when someone comments and builds a conversation like this. It is the true spirit of blogging. :-)

      Your comments certainly gave me quite a lot of food for thought ( and your site is impressive too). You are quite right I think that materials design was an invaluable tool for me which I’ve been lucky enough to be able to develop, and I know it sounds a bit of a contradiction, then, to say that trainees need to be aware of existing materials. I think what I mean is that good teaching should be materials light certainly but not to the extent of excluding materilas all together. I taught a very effective lesson yesterday ( I think) by using material from the Insidee Out Upper Itermediate Coursebook which fitted in exactly with my learnerrs needs and was also related to travel etc. Which is fairly topical etc. etc. So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that I think teaching shouod be learner centred but teachers should be able to take advantage of all the good materials that there are. Of course, there are a lot of mind blowingly boring materials too, and as with the technology debate it is important to remember what you are using something for, keeping the learner at the centre of the process.
      The second question was the one of expertise. Again I think you’re right that Celta trainees are perfectly capable of listening to learners and identifying errors ( most of the time ) although correction is a whole different area, which does seem to challenge quite a lot of trainees. I wasn’t really thinking of monitoring fluency activities when I said that they need the expertise to answer questions. I was referring to the type of questioon about language which comes up all the time when teachers try to clarify something new, and which are often challenging for ainees if they have not alady thought about them. You could, of course, say that this is part of the learning process for trainees and that they should say “i don’t know” “I’ll find out for you later.” but in my experience trainees can easily get sidetracked, and get “thrown off” which is why some kind of plan is a must for them. Of course, they aren’t expected to everything straighgt away and you are quite right that the Celta admin is a nightmare….

      I’m still not sure what I think teaching unplugged really is. I’ll hae to look in more detail at your impressive site. How about teacher training unplugged? Any thoughts? I do know however that one of my beliefs is that the learner should be at the centre of the process and not the teachers or the materials or the tools, but all of these can be used skillfully to help the learner on their journey of language discovery.

      • Anthony Gaughan says:

        Thank you for the positive feedback :-) And thank you for your response…

        I absolutely agree that teachers need to learn to select and exploit materials in a principled manner. That’s why, when I noticed that trainees on courses we ran seemed to be getting overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff” in coursebooks etc, I decided to experiment in getting rid of it all and working with them on building things from scratch. Of course, part of this involved referring to stuff already out there, but as this was an option and not a requirement, there seemed to be less problem with doing so. So by the time we started saying “look at this material and decide who it’s good for, what it’s good for and where its limitations are, and create some original exploitations for it” (in our skills assignment, for example), they were all able to do it very well. So I think starting materials light on initial TT courses can achieve what you (and I feel is important as an end-state: materials literacy, if you will.

        I also agree that teachers need a sense of where the lesson may go and of the choices they are likely to need to make (we certainly don’t encourage our trainees to “just walk in and see what happens”, unless they have shown themselves very likely to be able to “surf this wave”.) However, I’m often impressed by trainees’ capacity to handle questions from learners on the fly when they feel they have the time, space and approval to do so – and this requires that they are not trying to implement a plan which makes this impossible.

        So for me the trick I’m trying to master is helping trainees start to think of “plans” early on as open spaces rather than blueprints or instructions – as these latter metaphors can prohibit or discourage engaging with an issue that you may not be 100% confident of having the answer to (but you may in fact have).

        As for teacher training unplugged and “any thoughts?” I might have – the early postings on my blog and the video of our session from IATEFL 2010 are our attempt to describe what we think of it as. Maybe you can find time sometime to look it over and comment :-)

        Thanks for the conversation!

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