There 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.