Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Being dogmetic about things

No, no, not that dogme...
In the nineties in Athens I worked at a small, privately-owned centre for teacher training and business English. I stayed with teacher training, because business English holds little appeal for me – scares me a bit, actually. Colleagues used to try to tempt me over to the business side, and I was invited to observe some lessons at the Bank of Greece. Our business teachers’ house-style was to lead their classes from behind, allowing the students to dictate the pace of the lesson and the choice of subject matter, and as bankers, they had plenty to go at. (Probably even more nowadays.) The students carried the lesson for the most part, with the teacher on hand to supply vocabulary, correct impeding errors and occasionally intervene to give a brief grammar explanation or presentation. Everything came from the students: they asked for the language they needed at the moment they needed it, they asked for grammar rules occasionally, but mostly they talked, debated, agreed, disagreed, misunderstood, requested clarification, paraphrased and recapped, all in English. There would be some discussion of the interaction and some analysis and correction of errors at the end. This leading from behind, or something like it, has more recently been called ‘teaching unplugged’ or ‘dogme’ after the approach to film-making advocated by Lars Von Trier, et al., an approach you might term ‘materials light’, focussing on narrative and character rather than special effects and the emotional manipulation provided by music and carefully contrived lighting. In teaching terms, it means using the learners themselves as a resource instead of commercially produced coursebooks, skills books, grammar books and all the CDs and software that compete for your students' money these days. As with any other approach to teaching, you can adopt dogme whole-heartedly and ditch your coursebooks and materials completely, or you can just take from it what you want and apply its principles some of the time. The only criterion for your decision will be the students' response to the way you teach them.

In the EFL teacher's box of tricks, there isn't a single foolproof method, approach, technique, text, task or game, and the possibility of muffing it is always with us. Teachers’ reactions to screwing up a lesson or part of a lesson while I was observing have varied from dropping the lesson like a hot brick, bursting into tears, losing their rag with the students or worse, ploughing on oblivious. What is more useful than any of these is sitting down after the students have left (unscathed and usually unaware of the agonies of self-reproach their teacher is now enduring) and reflecting on the proceedings in tranquillity. Gradually teachers learn to pinpoint errors of judgement and consider how a different decision at that point might have rescued things. They develop intuitions about how the students felt in the lesson and why, based on their personality, language level and cultural background. They realise that any approach must be adapted to fit specific students in a specific class, and if any method, technique or task died horribly, it was not appropriate at that time or was in some way misapplied.

In the light of these rather obvious considerations, it was something of a surprise to read here a hatchet job by Luan Hanratty on the dogme approach, denouncing it as ‘a vacuous, anti-educational and bourgeois approach to language teaching’. I say, steady on, old boy. All those adult learners at the Bank of Greece in the nineties might disagree there: bourgeois they might have been, but a vacuous and anti-educational approach would not have brought them to the levels of confidence and fluency they routinely attained. ‘The amount of thinking on your feet makes it just too difficult for most people to do well without any direction or structure.’ Well, this might be true, but there need not be a lack of direction or structure – if you think there is none, make one: was dogme made for students or students for dogme? What teacher applies a technique in its most purist form if it’s obviously not working for her class? Only an insensitive, insecure or inexperienced one. And how is it a valid criticism of any approach to say that it is difficult? Teaching effectively is always demanding and requires a lot of practice and reflection. Luan goes on:

‘Dogme classes inevitably descend into a lame string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&As and a lot of awkward silences, resulting in an unsure performance by the teacher and sheer boredom on the part of the students.’

My problem is with the use of inevitably here. If we replace it with can:

‘Dogme classes can descend into a lame string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&As and a lot of awkward silences, resulting in an unsure performance by the teacher.

...I’d agree. I’ve seen loads of classes where this has happened, taught by teachers who wouldn’t know dogme from dog meat. As I said earlier, the possibility of muffing it is always with us. I put in my two cents' worth on the blog:

If students are not stretched and don’t participate, whose fault is that? I’ve been teaching and observing trainee teachers for 30 years and believe me, you can underchallenge and bore the pants off students with PPP, Silent Way, Suggestopedia, CLL, take your pick. Success depends on the teacher’s sensitivity to what’s going on in the students’ minds.

Now, the reference to my thirty years experience was intended to imply how often I have fucked up and observed others fuck up, but it was interpreted as something along the lines of ‘I've-been-sniffing-board-markers-since-before-you-was-thought-of-sonny’, and an appeal to authority:

It seems the main opposition to this is coming in the form of ad hominem and appeal to age fallacies. Sorry Steve, but as much as your experience matters to you, it doesn’t have any relevance in this discussion. In fact, you could say that experience is a hindrance because it makes you hidebound and closed to new ways of doing things.

Now, to construe mention of someone's experience as an ad hominem attack, and later term it 'bragging' is, umm, ...slightly touchy, I think. It's odd that Luan takes as another ad hominem Dale Coulter's quite reasonable request that evidence be adduced for his claims, and blusters that he is under no obligation to provide any. What is really quite extraordinary from a teacher, though, is the suggestion that anyone’s experience of classroom teaching, whether it be of thirty years or thirty minutes, is ‘irrelevant’ to a discussion of teaching methodology. It's extraordinary that he should dismiss my own and others' experience as irrelevant whilst implying throughout the article and responses to comments that his own is entirely germane. It’s extraordinary because there is nothing other than reflection on direct teacher-to-student experience that will develop your skill as a teacher, and no evidence outside the interaction of teachers and students. This is why, after your first ever teaching practice, the trainer’s first question after 'are you still standing?' is ‘how do you feel about the lesson?’ She hopes you will start to ask this of yourself after all your lessons from then on. That last sentence of Luan’s, by the way, is something of a landmark in my life, rather like the first DRE for the prostate. It’s the first time to my knowledge that someone younger than me has patronised me as an old dog no longer receptive to new tricks.

To the objection that dogme is elitist because it might prove too challenging to non-native speaker teachers, I would say that this is to underestimate many non-native speaker teachers. If someone's level of English is such that he has not the confidence to use dogme, there are plenty of other ways to approach teaching, and he needn't feel disadvantaged. I have never been able to make effective use of the Silent Way, but I do not imagine that because it didn't work for me with my students, it is therefore not really working for anyone else's, whatever they might believe about what goes on in their own classes, which I've never seen, in parts of the world I've never visited. Actually, I've known teachers who are brilliant at Silent Way teaching. I doubt if they consider themselves a snotty elite who wouldn't let me into their classrooms to hoover the carpet.

For dogme, I’m neither a passionate advocate nor a detractor. I don’t use it exclusively. I don’t use any approach exclusively, but teaching ‘unplugged’ is definitely a part of how I do things. I resent the few occasions when I have to produce a lesson plan of the kind favoured by the British Council, which details procedure and rationale for every stage of the lesson:

Teacher activity: Teacher inhales.
Aim: To draw oxygen into the alveoli.To stay alive.
Timing: 7-10 seconds
Materials: Ambient air, lungs, intercostal muscles.

I think these are good for trainee teachers, like practising scales on the piano. Having that degree of preparedness can boost your confidence hugely, but you must learn to sit light to lesson plans eventually. The British Council recognition scheme requires teachers where I work to be observed periodically and so I bash out such plans on those occasions, then usually ignore them in practice. I tell the trainee teachers I observe that although they are required to produce a plan, they are free to deviate from it if they see good reason, and we will discuss how good the reasons were after the lesson, in the light of experience - there's that word again.

When I watch a class descend into a string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&A, I usually get the teacher to conclude that she could have put the students in groups to discuss the topic instead of attempting to drag it out of them herself. She could have listened to what they came up with, noted a few ideas that could be used to extend the discussion and then held a plenary. During this she could note errors in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation, listen for ways in which students interrupted one another or prevented interruptions, noted how they dealt with misunderstandings and changes of subject, and worked on these afterwards. Is this dogme in its purest form? I don’t care. The subject matter and the language work would have come from the people involved and therefore been directly relevant to them, and provided the teacher with data she could use for remedial work, revision and extension. It certainly would have gone beyond a pleasant but aimless hour of Kaffeeklatsch, another charge often brought against dogme.

So there you go. Treat dogme as you would any other approach. Experiment with it. Adopt it wholeheartedly and make it your own. Use it occasionally. Combine it with other approaches. Ignore it completely. But don’t imply that teachers who use it and defend it are just well-heeled dilettantes who merely fool themselves that their teaching is effective whilst ripping off students who have more money than discernment. That ain't nice to your fellow teachers, nor is it particularly intelligent.


Anonymous said...

The voice of reason - thank you. I don't know if you have had the pleasure of watching Judge Judy? Her decisions are made purely on the basis of whether what she has heard makes sense or not. "That, madame, " she says, "doesn't make sense. I'm ruling against you." And at the end of a long day, that is the only thing that needs to guide us as teachers. What makes sense for the indivduals in this class on this day End of...
Thank you for this and all the other posts of support.

Vilges Suola said...

My mum's a great fan of Judge Judy, can't say I am - I'm too much of a bleeding heart.

How was your day of chattering aimlessly to privileged punters who are too dumb to know you are ripping them off, you bourgeois lackey of the system?

Jemma Gardner said...

Thanks for this! A well written and justified post that deals with the issues in Luan's post in a balanced and sensible way.

Just what was needed!


Marisa Constantinides said...

Hey, Steven,

Brilliant retort to a rather limited and biased critique of dogme.

The implications of that post boggle the mind but the dogmatism of the comments you have responded to methodically, ruthlessly, and totally correctly, are rather worrying.

However, I am ever so pleased they got you to produce this wonderful post.


Vilges Suola said...

@Jemma Thanks for the encouragement!

@Marisa καλώς την! Thanks a lot. He keeps on about my 'experience', as if it were something I am bragging about, when all I am doing is pointing out that it's all ANY of us has to reflεct on. Ε, τι να κάνουμε, κάποια στιγμή θα καταλάβει, όλοι θα γεράσουμε...

Anonymous said...

Oh indeed the coffee morning banter included the best way of setting up an NGO (terribly bourgeois, I know, why the German economy is surviving (now THERE'S elitist) and obviously, because it is anti-educational, we did a marathon pron workshop, heaps pf vocab and collocation work and a bit of chit-chat about modality. Just your average string of lame stilted repetitive stuff really.

Vilges Suola said...

No beer or tapas, then?

Anonymous said...

I must say I felt tempted to comment on his thread, but if all the level-headed responses didn't help Luan see that all comments could have led to a nice debate on the topic, I just thought it'd all be useless.

However, I must say there's one book whose lessons he may be taking to the letters: How to win every argument, by Schopenhauer ( http://www.amazon.com/How-Win-Every-Argument-Controversy/dp/1440442282/ref=sr_1_46?ie=UTF8&qid=1321550099&sr=8-46 ). In the Portuguese translation, they have added to the title: How to win every argument without the need to be right.

Thanks for such a balanced post! :)

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks for stopping by. I've given up looking at the thread - not good for the blood pressure and too tempting to lay some real ad hominem on him!

Oli said...

A great post, well done!

After reading Luan's original post I felt inclined to comment, but the sheer number of contradictory statements and poorly conceived ideas made me think twice about engaging with someone who clearly has no interest in pursuing intelligent and informed debate:

"But I don’t see why I need to justify my argument with specific cases when I have articulated my thoughts and reasons for this clearly enough."

How anyone can even begin to respond to this is beyond me, but you did a good job here!

Vilges Suola said...

@Oli: Thanks for the kind remarks. Yes, it was a very odd post, arrogant and ill-conceived, and the respose to comments almost paranoid in the readiness to see personal attack.

Mediterranean kiwi said...

i've been using this approach for the last two years - at MAICh where i work, students from middle east, east europe, turkey, come to study scientific subjects in english, but they ahve to pass an institutional paper-based toefl test: i let them guide me as to what they want to study exactly (waht would you like me to bring along to the next lesson - a paper grammar test, an online listening test, etc)

last year, i had a very good pass rate (half the group passed the first time round with 550 or more), and i also half the remaining half to pass the exam in the retake (no cheating - we get the exam sent to us and open the packet the moment we hand out the test); i am hoping the same for this year (the exam is in 3 weeks)

Fifth Business said...

Hello Steven,

I am not going to write anything else over there, because I really think the whole post is either a joke or a pilot for an ELT reality show.

@hoprea +1 for the art of being right! I completely think that there is an intention to experiment with it, and dogme people would be a great choice to try it on. For anyone else looking for the book, there is a summary (not as good as the book) here: http://www.forevergeek.com/2005/05/38_ways_to_win_an_argument/

Vilges Suola said...

I don't know about a joke - any sense of humour seems to be lacking there.


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