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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And the dance swept on and on…Conferencing in a digital world

Tango on into the night
Tango on into the night

And they blogged and blogged and blogged…

I recently wrote about the way I felt empty after a conference… but I have to say that the Iatefl conference has by no means come to an end but dances on and on, round and round, as bloggers write their thoughts and give feedback in a natural, genuine way. Here are three great ones among many:
1) Brad Patterson’s great post using the poetic Language Garden tool:
2) Janet Bianchini’s meeting with “spiritis” at the Macmillan party (no pun intended)

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3) Tara Benwell’s great Wordle activity (more on this in a moment):
These are just three of many as I said but what all this means is that conferences are now reaching out into cyberspace and the idea sharing and growth can continue almost infinitely.

What about Twitter?

Last year I became a “Twitter Convert” after the Harrogate Iatefl Conference. I had been on the site for a while but had not really realised how I could use it. Then I started following a few

people from the tefl world, and soon I found how much I could learn from others who generously post their ideas and discoveries online. Even though I have my “unplugged periods” I have found so many sites, tools and articles from people posting on Twitter that I can safely say it is transforming my way of working.

#ELTchat

I only recently discovered the ELTchat ( follow the link for more info. at the site) which meets on Twitter on Wednesdays to discuss different teaching issues. I had already seen Edchat, which is similar but talks more widely about educational matters. Today I went to my first ELTchat meeting which was fast, furious interactive and informative. I found a whole

group of people debating Dogme and Unplugged teaching (You can read the summary later on the site) and there were so many enthusiastic teachers there as well as superstars like Jeremy Harmer and Luke Meddings. It takes a while to get into it but… you do, and if you miss something you can always read it later. It makes me think, and I can meet new people with interesting ideas that I can follow on Twitter. A win win situation. So those are just a few of the benefits of tweeting in the blogoshpere.

Back to the Blogs: Tara Benwell’s Wordle Activity

Activity on Brighton Iatefl 2011

I said I’d come back to Tara Benwell’s blog post later and here I am, or rather this is it. (See link above to go to full blog and see ss contributions too).

This activity inspired me straight away. It is simple but highly creative. Tara made a Wordle of her impressions etc. from the conference and then gave her learners a scaffolded framework to post their ideas about it. (You can see how this works in the image on the left) She told them that if they guessed something about her experience in Europe she would tell them a little story about it, and then they posted their ideas and she replied, which, I may add, the students really appreciated :-). I thought this was great so I shamelessly stole the idea and made my own Wordle and did the same activity with my learners in a f2f class, and then showed them photos that linked to the key words in my Wordle.

Extending the Idea in a spontaneous “unplugged” way

The next step was to ask them to make their own Wordles and repeat the activity with each other and below is one of my learner’s Wordle’s about Easter. Can anyone tell me what he did during the holiday?

Well, yes, “church” is a major feature of Easter for many when you live in Italy…

Anyway that’s it for today, and thank you Tara for a lovely activity 🙂

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Post Iatefl Blues

Gone fishing
Brighton Beach

Well, we all had a great time in Brighton at Iatefl and even if you didn’t get the chance to go you know that a lot of it is available in videos online so you still have the chance… But actually, after a conference, I always seem to suffer from an adrenalin dip, or… post conference blues. I supppose this is normal since you have to gear up to the sometimes daunting task of giving a presentation (if you are a speaker) and you take in a lot of information in a short time as well as, yes, well, as well as all the rest. Brighton, for instance was a wealth of what I can only call “life bytes” moments you experience as you walk round and see all kinds of things: a celebration of diversity, people doing yoga on the beach, a honky tonk piano in a pub or well, the list goes on and on. A conference, in short is a blend of professional development, networking and holiday: a heady mix. No wonder I look forward to it so much every year.

Sometimes people ask: why do you go to these conferences? After all, it takes quite a lot of organisation, lessons to reschedule, the home to organise during your absence, and they are not inexpensive either.

Why go to a Conference like Iatefl?

There are four main reasons, I think, why I go to conferences:

1) Learning:

You can learn so much from professionals in your field, and of course the TEFL superstars are there too. I always come home with a lot of new ideas, and some of the things I’ve been mulling over tend to crystalise (no pun intended) at these events. It is also an excellent place for finding out about new tools and books. It is hard in fact not to find something new, and a stroll round the exhibition area gives you the opportunity to take part in all kinds of fun activities like quizes etc. So, there’s really something for everyone.

2) Sharing your ideas and networking:

You can share your ideas, by speaking, doing a poster presentation or taking part in the Interactive Learning Fair… and not only by being a speaker yourself. There are debates like the ELTJournal Debate, or syposiums and workshops, which often provide some scope for discussion. You can talk with others by asking questions, on forums, or simply talking to people over coffee or at the parties etc.

3) Visibility:

I think it would be hypocritical to say that this one is not important too. The more you speak, share your ideas and network the more visible you yourself are too. This may not be the most altruistic of aims, but if people know who you are it can lead to all kinds of things professionally, and this is essential for all of us.

4) Fun:

As I said before, it is a mix of professional development and holiday and there is definitely a holiday feeling in the air. There are so many entertaining activities arranged by Iatefl such as the Pecha Kucha evening which has become a tradition over the past few years, where people give fun or thought provoking Powerpoint Presentations lasting 3 minutes or so where each speaker has to speak about each slide for 10 seconds and has no control over when the slide moves on…(This will probably soon be available on YouTube but if you want a taste of one here is Jamie Keddie from last year’s Pecha Kucha in Harrogate:

Simply being in Brighton, in fact was great fun in itself!

What did I bring home with me this time?

Deeper swimming rather than shallow surfing

When the conference is over, though, and I’m back home again it always takes me some time to elaborate it all but I need to focus on what I’ve borught back home with me. This year there were tow main areas. At such a big conference I find it helpful to choose carefully what I’m going to attend. Obviously you can’t see and do everything that you’d like to so I choose one or two areas I’m interested in. This year it was testing and technology. What I noticed, and a few others remarked on this as well, when it came to technology was that there was a lot of discussion of the effects of using technology (and not only in the classroom). I had been reading an article about The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, on my way to the conference; a book in which the well known writer and blogger talks about the way we use the Internet may well be rewiring our brains, but I was quite surprised to hear this book mentioned time and time again at the conference. The EFLJournal Debate, in fact, also reflected this as we debated how useful Twitter is in the classroom and outside of it as well. The fear is that the way we tap into information these days hopping from one link to another without taking time to stop and think may well be changing the way our brains work. This is provocative stuff and caused a lot of reactions, as you can imagine. My own stand on this is, as it was previously, that use of the Internet is something that needs to be monitored. As Gavin Dudeney pointed out in the Cardiff Iatefl (2009) today’s young learners may well be tech comfy but that does not mean that they are tech savvy. Our role is possibly to teach them how to process information in a meaningful way… but we all probably need to sit back and think about how we are using these tools ourselves. It is all too easy to go online with the idea of looking for something specific, as Jim Scrivener pointed out when describing how he researched Brighton before the conference, and to end up a million miles away from our point of departure if we can even remember what it was we were searching for. I am definitely in favour of technology, as you know, but I am in favour of a conscientious use of any technology whether it is a pen or an ipod.

The Storybird

Having said that, however, the other discovery I made was thanks to Russell Stannard, who always has such clear, simple, user friendly videos on his site, and who introduced us to Storybird, a site where there is the most gorgeous artwork that artists have posted for use as illustrations in books. So, you can unleash your creativity spurred on to do so by these lovely images, and then motivate your learners to do so as well. So, if you’d like to check it out, here is a little offering I whipped up on this site when I got back:

http://storybird.com/books/brighton-iatefl-2011/

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Aducating not educating: new ways of learning for a new world.

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Learners looking for information autonomously
Teach them to seek for themselves

Hi everyone,

Hope you’re doing well and enjoying the first days of spring which are emerging with sunlight and budding plants despite all the horror that seems to surround us, or bombard us constantly from the news. Anyway, the only answer, I think, is to carry on doing the best you can, little by little, in an attempt to do something worthwhile, so here are my thoughts on teaching and learning for this week. As you probably know I’ve launched out into distance learning and have been experimenting with online classes at WizIQ, an excellent site that I would wholeheartedly recommend to anyone interested in this field.

Aducating not educating

After doing a few lessons, and attending other lessons online, and in the light of Salman Kahn’s inspiring TED talk on Kahn Academy and what people are accomplishing as a result (see video link at the bottom of this post), I have begun to think that we are in the middle of the next revolution where we are no longer going to be educators but are becoming “aducators”. In the past educators aimed to help learners to “interiorise” information and skills, by memorising or by elaborating and exploring, but in our world memorising input which is provided for you by teachers is no longer necessary because we are surrounded by information sources. In an aducation system we would be leading learners to those information sources and helping them to learn how to use them, how to distinguish between what is banal or simply wrong, and what is enrichening and thought provoking, we, as aducators, would be using our skills and background knowledge to help a new generation of learners process, elaborate and explore information, in a fruitful positive way, so that they are empwered and can learn to think and draw conclusions for themselves, and, as a result… dare I say it, learn.

I had already begun to think along these lines after listening to Gavin Dudeney at the Iatefl Conference in Cardiff 2009, when he talked about Google and Wikipedia, and how we can teach learners to eplore these resources. His common sense ideas, to my surprise, were met with quite a lot of resistance from educators in the audience, and I have heard of people who ban the use of Wikipedia for research purposes. This, to my mind, is throwing the baby out with the bath water, as Wikipedia is an excellent starting point for learners to begin their searches.

In short, the world is changing and we can choose to change with it, and use our expertise to help our learners discover theirs. So, I will stop here and let you follow the links and form your own opinions.