Discussion: Dogme, part 1

In 2000, Scott Thornbury wrote an article for the IATEFL magazine on how he thought there was an over-reliance on course books in ELT – and materials in general – and how we had somehow lost touch with what students really expected from us and needed to learn in English courses, and how we therefore should strip ELT back to basics, to “restore teaching to its pre-method “state of grace” – when all there was was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher and some students, and where learning was jointly constructed out of the talk that evolved in that simplest, and most prototypical of situations.” You can read Thornbury’s original article on Dogme here.

What I wrote then below was having this original article by Scott Thornbury in mind. There will be (a lot) more on Dogme in the future.

I take issue with many of the ideas in Thornbury’s original article about Dogme:

- “…we are copiously resourced. (…) there is an embarrassment of complementary riches in the form of videos, CD-ROMs, photocopiable resource packs…” – This article was, if I’m not mistaken, written in 2000. 13 years later I believe it’s safe to say the ‘embarrassment’ would be even more overwhelming, and if we consider the Internet alone the amount of materials – both made for ELT and especially what is not – is extravagant, so much so that I believe Scott must cringe every time he goes online. (lol). Well, I can’t agree in any way that any of this is an ‘embarrassment’ at all! Having an almost limitless array of materials to choose from is something to be thankful for, and I think it actually makes for classes which are (or potentially can be) richer, more varied, more interesting and more successful. The issue here, in my opinion, is that of teacher development. Teachers (and therefore teacher educators) have to understand, I think, that it is not only because something is available that it should be used, but that the opposite is no more true. Instead of banning photocopies (which is ludicrous), limiting deductive grammar explanation to 5 minutes (arbitrary) and having teachers make do with “the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom” and so on, I believe what we have to worry about as teachers (and as teacher educators make clear for trainee teachers) is (among others) making sure we understand our objective should be to help learners achieve whatever aims they have with language learning, respecting their learning preferences and trying to – as much as possible – help them become more autonomous; if (when!) a video, Twitter discussion, Jing recording, Facebook group discussion, PowerPoint presentation, OHP, realia, song and the like will help, then we should obviously use them!

- “No recorded listening material should be introduced into the classroom: the source of all ‘listening’ activities should be the students and teacher themselves…” – David Crystal says here that “if the aim of ELT is to produce students who are able to encounter the English-speaking world with confidence, then you can’t avoid bringing global English into the classroom”. I agree with Crystal. According to Dogme, however, students should only be exposed in the classroom to the teacher’s accent and those of his peers. How about – as it’s sometimes the case in Brazil and I’m sure in many other places – students whose only contact with English is with the very inaccurate interlanguage of his non-native teacher? But even when the teacher in question is a highly-educated, Diploma-certified, experienced New Zealander native speaker, how about doing a listening activity where teenaged students have to answer questions while watching an interview with the band One Direction? Is that to be avoided? Won’t students enjoy that? Isn’t enjoying tasks important? How about music? Can anyone say music does not (have the potential to) promote learning and acquisition? Should the teacher, God forbid in my case, sing?

- “The point is to restore teaching to its pre-method ‘state of grace’, when all there was was a room with a few chairs, a blackboard, a teacher and some students…” – Honestly? Why? What does this ‘state of grace’ even mean? Pre grammar-translation? What was there? Is Dogme chatting only? Or is it basically rehashing Community Language Learning?

Despite all that, I like some things about Dogme a lot. I think it has helped teachers in general understand that there’s more to teaching than blindly following course books, and that doing a gap-fill activity with a song every class might not actually be accomplishing much, if anything. It has steered ELT’s focus – partly at least – towards what makes language programs work, and towards learners and their needs, from, I think, an excessive focus on flashy course books and materials (not that there’s anything wrong with ‘flashy’), methods and recipes. While doing all that, however, I believe Dogme has not only thrown the baby out with the bathwater, but went on to drown the poor baby afterwards. Scott says in the video that Dogme had a minor importance in the history of cinema, and I think it won’t be very different in the world of ELT.

Finally, I have used many of the activities suggested in ‘Teaching Unplugged’ in class, some very successfully. Most proved useful and memorable, effective and motivating. But so is using music and videos, PowerPoint and (though I don’t care for them much myself) interactive whiteboards. In the same way I would never teach a course by using only drilling, or only PPP, or by teaching only what’s in the course book, I would never teach a course based 100% on Dogme, and I think, for example, courses such as a CPE preparation are simply impossible with Dogme.

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts and impressions!

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7 thoughts on “Discussion: Dogme, part 1

  1. Hi Higor,

    I think that going to any extreme is a bad idea. Why not pick and choose? There will always be a big song and dance about the best way of doing something, but at the end of the day most will end up choosing what works for their students from different methodologies/approaches depending on how strict the school is.

    Thanks for another interesting post:)

    • I agree with you, Em, of course.The thing is that, even though I believe Dogme’s ideas seem to be of a milder variety nowadays, they still are too dogmatic – perhaps obviously – for my taste. I still like some of the ‘unplugged’ ideas, as it were, but I can’t say Dogme-oriented ideas are in my teaching any more than tools, much like the technology and the songs they’re so quick to dismiss.

  2. Hi, Igor
    It’s hard to disagree with most of what you say, of course, but, over the past few years, I guess I have taken a slightly more generous stance towards Dogme. To organize my thoughts, I’ve sort of come up with two reasons to like it and one not to. First, the good.
    One, intrinsic coherence. Unlike its rich cousin, task-based learning, I don’t think Dogme has ever attempted to be what it is not. TBL has always hungered for mainstream acceptance, I think, and in so doing it must’ve driven a number of teachers, teacher educators and writers worldwide crazy.
    I for one spent most of the 90s trying to find a way to teach a pre-defined grammar syllabus through TBL just to retrospectively discover that I’d actually been bashing PPP but doing 50 different shades of PPP. TBL, just like Dogme, seems to lend itself much better to emergent language, but the latter – to its credit – has always been more overt about it, I think.
    Two, long-term impact. Just like you, I believe that non-orthodox models of unplugged teaching (Dogme’s watered-down cousins) have a lot to be said in their favor. Actually, how can we not support a teaching model that encourages teachers to talk to students, listen carefully (one ear for meaning, one ear for form), spot learnable moments within students’ ZPD and intervene at the right time. More experienced teachers can even “doctor” their questions / tasks so as to create the need for the new language and therefore make it emerge somehow (i.e., create an “artificial” point of need). This sort of unplugged movement seems to be gaining some momentum in ELT and I can’t help but wonder if all of this would be happening if it weren’t for an initially more orthodox, more radical Dogme era. So maybe – and I say maybe – to reach a healthy mid-ground position, we need to be confronted with a more contentious, orthodox model first? Think of Krashen’s input hypothesis and all the passions it stirred in the late 80s. Has it gained mainstream acceptance in ELT? No, not at all, but maybe, in hindsight, it helped the profession shed new light on the input vs. output continuum. So, who knows, maybe we’ll only be able to assess Dogme’s sheer impact on ELT a few years from now.
    Three, applicability – and that’s the stuff I can’t really defend. Let’s assume – and I say a s s u m e – that it’d be desirable to do away with books, handouts, PowerPoints, CDs. Would it be possible? How would language institutes around the globe survive? How would they place and assess students? How would they cater to inexperienced teachers (and I’m assuming here that it takes a good amount of experience to go unplugged AND help students’ interlanguage develop)? How would publishing houses (the revenue of which helps to fund a good number of training conferences and other worthy causes anyway) keep afloat? The list goes on and on – and this is the thrust of your post anyway. Again, we can’t argue with that.
    But when all is said and done, I suspect we’re all going to be grateful Scott ever wrote that article so long ago.

    • Thanks, Luiz!

      I’ll start from the end of you comment and say I’m already thankful ‘that Scott ever wrote that article so long ago’, even though it was only thirteen years ago. :) I believe teacher training programs in general have become less book and materials-oriented and a lot more student-centered than when I did the CELTA, for example. Getting teachers and courses to think of giving students more agency and helping them to achieve their goals with language learning (as opposed to having the covering of pre-determined syllabi only as a goal) is something to be very thankful for.

      However, I don’t know if I agree with the first point you made, and I think Dogme – regardless of how often Thornbury, Luke Meddings, Anthony Gaughan etc may deny it – has always had mainstream aspirations, and has actually become mainstream, especially in Europe. Not, however, as a full-fledged method perhaps, but certainly as one of the pillars of what is nowadays referred to as ‘principled eclecticism’. In his pursue of mainstream, Thornbury manages to squeeze a mention to unplugging teaching everywhere, even in the (brilliant) Pecha Kucha talk I’ve posted on the blog today on the history of SLA theories.

      A friend on the DipTESOL course with me said last week that Dogme is the luxury of experienced teachers, and you also mentioned experienced teachers’ ability to ‘doctor’ questions to make sure a specific item of language emerges, to create an artificial point of need. I agree, and I find it commendable. But how about inexperienced teachers? When Thornbury says for example he has proscribed the use of photocopies in his teacher education programs, I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t doing a disservice to new teachers rather than making them focus on students more, talk to them more. Enabling new teachers to sift through the plethora of (potential) materials available for us – and whose use is expected from us by students, parents, sponsors, schools etc – and deciding what may actually aid students in achieving their goals and make classes more interesting seems to me to be a very important goal of a pre-service teacher training program.

      Again I say, however, I like many of the Dogme ideas a lot; I just think it’s a tool for experienced teachers. Dogme is “CPE-level” teaching, “C2-level” stuff, and can not reasonably be expected from all teachers, and not from any teacher all the time.

      • Hi, Higor.
        The issue of whether DOGME lends itself at all to novice teachers is a thorny one, I think, and, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure where I stand on it. Four hypotheses here: 1. Less experienced teachers need to go through a less spontaneous, more materials-driven phrase so as to automatize a good number of basic classroom procedures. Over time, this would, in turn, free up enough attentional resources to allow them to think on their feet and be prepared to identify points of need etc. 2. This sort of thinking on one’s feet and intervening accordingly is not inherently difficult and can and should be part of pre-service and early inservice training. 3. Teachers tend to teach as they were taught as learners – at least initially. So maybe the more popular this sort of materials-light approach becomes, the more likely future generations of teachers are to pull it off more effortlessly, as if it were second nature. 4. This ability to think on one’s feet, listen to BOTH meaning and form and intervene in a timely fashion, building up the syllabus organically as the course unfolds is not for everyone – relatively few teachers – regardless of experience – can pull this off.
        I’m sort of leaning towards 1 and 3 right now, but I could be persuaded otherwise.
        Thank you for this entry.

    • I forgot one thing… LOL.

      I think a healthy mid-ground, as you said, is what we should be aiming at, and I would be super fine with that. It’s been thirteen years, though, and I think the ideas are still as dogmatic – no pun intended – as they were in the beginning, and this is my problem with the whole thing. It seems very anachronistic to me to propose a tech-free, book-free, extra materials-free classroom in 2013, when everything else is going in the opposite direction. I think many teachers exaggerate and end up using all these extra things to entertain students only, as though that were the objective, but as Emma above said, going to any extreme is a bad idea.

  3. Hi guys, interesting posts!

    After reading what Luiz had to say and Higor’s replies, it got me thinking that although we may not all agree on some points when it comes to favouring a specific teaching style, the fact that there are approaches/methods to be discussed in itself should be beneficial to teachers.

    I am no fan of DOGME, as I might have mentioned before in other posts, but I think that having discussion about/experimenting with mainstream/not so main stream ideas on teaching is what teachers should be doing in order to develop their TP.

    When I started teaching, the school’s method was a shady version of DOGME which left inexperienced teachers in the deep end without hope of being rescued…at least until the bell rang! What helped me was having had formal training, so I used that as a crutch.

    I’ll have to agree with Luiz on his 1st and 3rd hypothesis. Easing a new teacher into a different situation, which many think of as being slightly extreme, yields more positive results. On the 2nd point, I had pre-service training and in-service training which helped a little- I say a little because we mostly covered typical situations, less common ones were not dealt with much and it was an area we had to get used to and decide on what to do when the situation arose. This left some of us frustrated, and more so for those without having gone through formal certification. The result was a lot of “winging it” that made me wonder what kind of quality was being offered to learners.

    Regarding exam classes, I cannot quite grasp how using DOGME on its own would help students attain their goals. Perhaps it would assist in building fluency? However, speaking skills needed for exams tend to be more specific than DOGME allows. I am not sure about this last point.

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