D is for Dogme

28 02 2010

Hey David, Richard, Luke – I did it! We now have our own discussion group!
Let me know if you have any trouble getting in. Invite other members on board.


Scott Thornbury
For a pedagogy of bare essentials

The above message was posted  ten years ago next week (March 9th, 2000),  thereby inaugurating the Dogme ELT discussion list, and, by extension, the Dogme ELT “movement”. Prior to that date, an article I’d written for the IATEFL newsletter (which you can read here) attracted the attention of a handul of like-minded teachers (of whom Luke Meddings was one) and we started exchanging e-mails. It was David French’s idea to start up an online discussion group. The rest, as they say, is history. In ten years, the list has never been dormant for more than a few days, clocking up over 15,000 postings from  several hundred members (although the number of regular posters is considerably fewer),  all more or less dedicated to the topic of “materials-light” teaching. In the words of the discussion list masthead:

We are a mix of teachers, trainers and writers working in a wide range of contexts, who are committed to a belief that language learning is both socially motivated and socially constructed, and to this end we are seeking alternatives to models of instruction that are mediated primarily through materials and whose objective is the delivery of “grammar mcnuggets”. We are looking for ways of exploiting the learning opportunities offered by the raw material of the classroom, that is the language that emerges from the needs, interests, concerns and desires of the people in the room.

As evidence of the way that “dogme” has pervaded current thinking about ELT methodology, you only have to see how the term itself is used without, apparently, the need for any explanation or definition. As an example, I was at a conference presentation recently, in which the speaker made constant reference to dogme without any of the 30 or so participants at any time asking what he was talking about! And in a recent blog post, Nick Jaworski, a teacher in Turkey, describes how he has introduced dogme principles into his school, as if they were a valid curricular option. Dogme now has a wikipedia entry, an archive of early postings, and, of course, a book.

All of which suggests that now might be as good a time as any to draw a line in the sand, and put the discussion list to rest. Apart from anything, the exponential growth in educational technologies since 2000 represents a challenge to dogme that might be best met in new venues and with a different audience. And, in line with developments in technology, the dogme community itself has begun to migrate away from its original ‘home’, and its concerns are now more actively debated elsewhere, on other discussion forums and websites, and on a number of institutional and personal blogs (such as this recent posting by Mark Andrews), as well as in the more conventional print media.  As dogme disperses, the home site has become a platform for agendas that sit uncomfortably with the core dogme principles, and the sense of a collaborative project has been side-lined.  As one disaffected member recently commented before unsubscribing: “I just don’t feel like the discussions are leading anywhere these days.”

Accordingly, I have posted a message on the Dogme discussion group website, announcing its imminent demise as a discussion, although it will continue to remain available as an archive.  The fact that the site is closing as a discussion group does not, of course, betoken the end of dogme. Rather, the fact that it no longer needs a home  is testimony to its vigour. Nevertheless, this hasn’t been an easy decision,  and I am grateful to Luke Meddings and Rob Haines for their support. The dogme site for a long time was one of the most lively forums for teacher development on offer, and I am enormously grateful to all who contributed so generously to helping make it so. But it’s time to move on.

A is for Authenticity

21 02 2010

The internet never forgets! Curious how something that you wrote years ago can come back to haunt you.  In the latest issue of Applied Linguistics (December 2009) Alan Waters, of Lancaster University, takes me to task over something I wrote on a discussion list in 2004 (!).  Talking about ways of checking learners’ comprehension, this is what I said:

“Do you understand?”  is the most direct and honest way we check understanding in real life, so — if the same conditions of authenticity and sincerity are operating in the classroom (which I argue they should be) — then it may make a lot of sense if, when in doubt, teachers simply stop and ask, hand on heart, “Do you understand?”.  The reasons such direct questions were proscribed in the past is that the classroom was never considered to be a place where communication could be authentic, hence students were not trusted to give honest answers, especially when questions were motivated by fear rather than a sincere desire to register the current state of your interlocutor’s understanding.

Waters goes on to comment: “Unfortunately, such reasoning fails to take into account the typical psychology of classroom relations.  It assumes that simply because the teacher asks a group of students to do so, they will automatically begin to operate on the basis of trust and openness.  But as Prabhu (1992), Allwright (1996), and Allwright (1998) show, lessons are made up of complex patterns of interpersonal dynamics, causing learners to frequently behave in ‘dishonest’ and distrustful ways….  From the pedagogical point of view, therefore, it will usually make greater sense to check understanding via questions which ask students to display their knowledge directly, however ‘inauthentic’ in terms of everyday language use. ”

Do I recant?  Not really.  Of course, I am well aware that there are many different ways of checking understanding and that a competent teacher should be able to deploy these as required.  At the same time, I believe that, as teachers, we should always be aiming to create a classroom dynamic where to ask the question “Do you understand?” need not — indeed, should not — elicit a dishonest and distrustful response. In short, I believe authenticity — that is to say classroom language that reflects “real-life” language use — is achievable in the language classroom, and, that, as teachers of language use, and as educators, such authenticity should be our goal.

Am I mistaken?

E is for Ecology

14 02 2010

… or Ecological Linguistics, or even Ecolinguistics. There’s no entry for any of these in An A-Z of ELT, but I think there ought to be. (There are entries for the related concepts affordance and emergence, however).

Why ecology? Since its first application to linguistics, two decades ago, the ecological perspective has offered an alternative to the somewhat mechanistic and de-contextualised ‘computing’ metaphor for language learning, with its inputs, outputs and feedback. The ecological perspective situates language and language learning, not in the head, but in its social and cultural contexts – the linguistic ecosystem, if you like.  Just as organisms adapt to their environments, and in so doing shape their environments, so to do speakers use language both to integrate into, and to influence, their discourse communities.  Through this reciprocal process of interaction and mutual adaptation, the linguistic system (both the individual’s and the community’s) evolves.

This, at least, is the view propounded in a number of recent publications, including Leo van Lier’s The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning (2004) and Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics (2008).

Van Lier, for example, identifies the following concepts that underpin an ecological approach to language and language learning:

1. Relations: “If we see language as a system of relations, rather than a collection of objects, a number of consequences follow in terms of… how we conceptualize learning” (p. 5) e.g. that it involves acquiring the capacity to relate more effectively to people in the world.

2. Context: Ecological linguistics (EL) “regards context as not just something that surrounds language, but that in fact defines language, while at the same time being defined by it” (ibid.).

3. Patterns, systems: “EL sees language as patterns of patterns, and systems of systems” (ibid.)

4. Emergence: “EL regards language learning not as gradual, linear acquisition, but as emergence. Emergence happens when relatively simple elements combine together to form a higher-order system” (ibid.)

5. Diversity:  “In biology, diversity is essential in an ecosystem” (p. 7) Van Lier argues for “the value of having different learners and teachers in a class (or school)” and that the target language should not be presented as “one monolithic standardized code, but a collection of dialects, genres and registers” (ibid.)

6. Activity: Language is activity, and emerges out of activity: “We visualize a community of practice in which learners go about the business of learning by carrying out activities of various kinds, working together, side by side, or on their own” (p. 8 )

Van Lier uses, as an analogy, the self-organizing nature of learning how to play a game:

How do kids learn the rules of playing soccer?  Certainly not by being lectured on them for several years.  They learn by participating in certain practices.  Two pivotal practices in this respect are a) playing the game; and b) participating in stories and comments about the game perhaps combined with watching games.  When they start playing, children tend to run after the ball in a single swarm, kicking it around in seemingly random directions.  Then at some point a ‘feel for the game’  emerges.  The game reorganises itself (not for all players at once, but for some) from ‘running after the ball where ever it rolls’ to ‘moving the ball around collaboratively in strategic ways.’  At that point the rules of the game become learnable, in an interaction between bottom-up discovery, and top-down instruction, within the social context of playing the game (p.81).

Arguably this analogy applies as much to language learning as it does to soccer. (In fact, playing games using language may be the best of both worlds).  In short, an ecological perspective argues that learning involves “aligning one’s resources with situational demands and shaping the environment to match the language resources one brings. …  In sum, acquisition is social practice” (Canagarajah, 2007).

This is all very well – in the kinds of non-classroom situations in which becoming socialized is a strong motivating factor. But how do you turn the classroom into an eco-system where “relating in a second language” matters? How, in short, do you create the conditions where language emerges in the way that football emerges in the playground?

P is for Presence

6 02 2010

A great talk by an old friend of  mine, Luke Prodromou (pictured), at today’s ELT conference at International House, Barcelona, triggered a mental riff on the topic of presence. Through anecdote, reminiscence, and survey data, Luke was exploring perceptions of “good teacher-ness”, and came up with the neat acronym RAP, i.e. that a seemingly universal and enduring set of ‘good teacher’ qualities consisted of the holy trinity of Rapport, Attitude, and Presence.

But what is presence, exactly? How do you recognise it, and, more importantly, how do you nurture and develop it?

The question has been particularly acute in my own line of work – online teacher education – as we induct new instructors into our program at the New School. Presence – defined in its most rock-bottom sense of simply ‘being there’  – is critical. One of the qualities of their instructors that students consistently rate highly is their active participation in on-line discussions. For example:

  • “I appreciate that [the instructor is]  always involved in the class and that [he/she] reads everything”.
  • “This course’s success… is for me due to the way [the instructor]  involved and engaged us”.
  • “[The instructor’s] disciplined attention to all of us made a huge difference to the learning process”

By virtue of being physically remote and, effectively, invisible, the on-line instructor needs to make an extra effort to be present by being seen to post on the discussion boards. But, more than simply being present, presence seems to connote the capacity

  • to attend to individuals as well as to the group;
  • to respond rapidly and authoritatively in the event of problems or difficulties, even when these are simply of a technical nature; and
  • to engage and involve the students, challenging them and at the same time supporting them by the judicious use of such interactional moves as affirming/validating, probing/questioning, elaborating, clarifying, and even just simply answering the students’ questions.

In online discussion boards, it is relatively easy to track these moves (the interaction is recorded for all to see). Moreover, the fact that the interaction is not taking place in real time means that the instructor is perhaps in a better position to manage their presence than the teacher in the real-time, face-to-face class. In this sense, an on-line presence – while elusive by virtue of being removed in terms of both time and space – is easier to describe, and therefore (arguably) easier to train.

But what about presence in ‘real’ classes?  How do you characterise it? (How, for example, does it differ from rapport?) And how can you develop it, both in yourself, and (if you are a teacher trainer) in others?