If it’s Working you don’t need to Give it a Label

The debate about Unplugged teaching or technology rages on

over the blogosphere and I was just feeling rather confused. I strongly believe that the learners should be at the centre of the process and I agree that lessons determined purely by materials (which is often the case, when, for whatever reason, teachers have to follow a coursebook) are not necessarily relevant to the learners and may lead to misuse. On the other hand there are some excellent materials around and it would be a shame to reinvent the wheel. I use technology (as you probably know) all the time and yet I think that this very technology leads to a more learner centred classroom, or learning experience beyond the classroom, so where do I stand on the Dogme vs. Technology debate. Well, as I said I was feeling a bit confused and I said so on Twitter, and then Andrea Wade made a comment which made everything fit into place again and the comment was this:

“If it’s working, I don’t think you need to give it a label.” A simple comment but, you know, she’s absolutely right. I simply don’t think there needs to be a debate at all. If I want my teaching to revolve around my learners, to help them in the best way I can then I can use all the tools I know about to do so. In fact, I don’t think teaching unplugged means that you can’t use materials either; that would be far too simplistic.

One example of learner centred teaching without coursebook materials

What attracts me to Dogme is the idea that the materials should be relevant to the learner. Why use photos of places the learners are not interested in and will never visit, on a lesson about writing descriptions of places ( a common activity which s useful for learners who need to do this type of descriptive writing in exams, for instance), when you can:

1)  brainstorm a list of the cities they have visited,

2) ask them to post photos of those cities on your blog or wiki;

3) then set up a discussion thread on a blog or wiki where they write short paragraphs describing one of those cities;

4) we all guess which ones they are describing in the next lesson;

5) we analyse the language and develop or extend areas that need to be worked on.

This is what I think of as learner-centred teaching using technology. In our case, where there are very large classes in the university the wiki actually brings us all closer to each other, but even in other teaching situations using a blog or wiki like this means effectively extending the learning process beyond the four walls of the classroom transforming it into something intangible that is akin to communication within a community rather than mechanical exercises in a foreign language.

All that glitters is not good for learning

There is, in fact, a very real danger for all of us to be attracted by the glitter of the coursebook and the Web 2.0 tools, and we have to go beyond that to be sure that when we use these tools we are really using them for a purpose, and that they really are relevant both to us as teachers professionally as well as to our learners. Twitter, for example, has proved to be an invaluable resource for me in my professional development because I have learned so much from other educators by following them and by participating in groups like #eltchat. There are so many generous people on Twitter, who are enthusiastic enough to share their findings with everyone else that there is almost always something connected to just what you were looking for when you go online. It is a phenomenon which is close to synchronicity, I think. One instance of precisely this is a blog post by Sue Lyon-Jones which was retweeted by so many people who found it useful. It is a sort of guide, or checklist,  about when to use technology. This is a useful list for all of us whether we are new teachers who have just qualified or whether we have been around for a bit longer than that. It shows how useful Twitter proved for me and underlines the idea that whatever we are using in the classroom we should be using it for a reason.

What are we arguing about?

So basically we seem to be saying the same things and teaching unplugged does not mean going back to Prehistory, but as Anthony Gaughan said in his Iatefl Interview (well worth watching for an interesting discussion of what Teaching Unplugged means) a pedagogical diet can be a good thing and he is right. If we stop eating all that rich food for a while it will taste even better when we return to it. It is not a matter of not using technology at all, but of using the learner’s technology or the teacher’s so that what is in the classroom is relevant. So, I still don’t know what label I should put on my teaching but my learners are flocking to my wiki to add their posts, Wordles and photos so surely that’s the best of all worlds….


12 thoughts on “If it’s Working you don’t need to Give it a Label

  1. Hi Sharon,
    This is an excellent post, and sums up the way that I feel about these things too!
    It’s one of the reasons I’m having a bit of trouble with the methodology course I’m studying at the moment, because I have to experiment with different methods of teaching. I know that as a teacher I need to be aware of these things, but at the same time I always try to make my students as much the centre of the learning as possible, so squeezing lessons into boxes just because I need to for an assignment is very difficult!
    Thank you for sharing,

  2. This is what I really appreciate about your posts, Sharon – you succeed in making a committed and judicious case without slipping into rhetoric or bombast. I can heartily agree with all that you say about seeking the good in both old school and new school approaches, because, at bottom, it’s all the same school.

    Or at least, it should be. Which is where I need to take slight issue with your title and with your statement that its sentiment is “absolutely right”. It isn’t “absolutely right”; it is “conditionally right”. There is an if at its head and it is a very bit if. The statement is only right if the condition is met.

    Part of the debate, I think, is about working out whether this if is being fulfilled by the it in question, and so I think the discussion has value insofar as it promotes thinking about this. We as teachers do need to think about the conditions which promote our learners’ learning, and this (for me) includes not taking condition(al)s like the one in your title for granted 😉

    So the discussion needs to continue, and to facilitate that, some labelling will be beneficial (for brevity’s sake, if nothing else, but for that we need clear definitions – see Diarmuid Fogerty’s series of posts and comments on this absence of such definitions: http://managementspique.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/questions-which-dog-me/#comments ) What we need to do, I think, is to shift our way of thinking away from diametric oppositions: dogme/edtech are not actually diametric opposites; they are simply different perspectives on the actual issue, which is how best to help people learn (in our case, language).

    But now that I’ve got that off my chest (and revealed myself to be a true language pedant!), thank you for this well-argued and (extremely valuable for me) example-based case for learner-interest driven decision-making.

    PS: and thanks for the comment on the interview and glad you liked it (it was nerve-wracking!)

    1. The interview was great Anthony, very interesting and clear too.

      I liked the part where you said why use CB photos that are not relevant to learners when they can take them with their own phones etc. which is really bringing mlearning into the classroom in a motivating way.

      You’re right, of course, that some labelling is helpful but being too dogmatic is not, and when I talk about “it”, of course, I know what I’m refering to and to some extent (through feedback, exam results, general participation etc. and comments sometimes even on Facebook) I can see that it’s working most of the time.

      As you say, the key is not to become too partisan splitting up into camps and, to keep the learner at the centre of it all.

  3. Hi Sharon,

    I’m glad that my comment was the catalyst for such an interesting post!

    Like you & Sandy, I try to take the best of what’s out there & use it in my class to the benefit of my students. I’m not immediately dismissive of any methodology, nor am I evangelical about any either.

    As for labelling, I agree with Anthony that the use of labels is beneficial in discussion and in a teacher training situation, in the same way that we need to attach labels when we are explaining grammatical structures to students. However, I’m not an educator of educators and made my comment from a personal standpoint. As an experienced EFL teacher doing my job, I don’t feel the need to label what I do, just as students don’t need to recall the labels we give to grammatical structures once they are able to use them effectively.

    1. Absolutely, I agree with Anthony too on this.
      I remember the idea of flying in a plane when you start learning a language or anything else for that matter (including learning to teach) . You are up in the sky and everything is down there for you to discover so you see outlines, lakes, mountains, long coastlines (or labels) but the more you progress in your learning process the closer to the ground you come and the more detailed everything becomes. You want to see more than the outlines or labels.

      The mjore you acquire whether this is language skills or teaching techniques, the more the outlines disappear and everything becomes a part of your world and your way of using the language or teaching it. That is when the labels tend to merge. It’s all very exciting though and I think it’s good to keep the sense of discovery.

  4. Hi there,

    Great post! I enjoyed reading it very much. Dogme isn’t necessarily anti-technology. Have you seen this post (or series actually):
    Dogme Blog Challenge #7 Myth 2, Dogme ELT = No Technology..? | Kalinago English http://bit.ly/mQfKjR


    1. Thanks for the support and “Yes, that’s a great link.” Karenne has some great ideas, doesn’t she. In fact the whole idea of a blog challenge is really motivating too. 🙂

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