A is for Approach

22 01 2012

A copious amount of blog ink (blink?) has been expended in the last week or so, arguing the toss as to whether – among other things – Dogme is an approach. In Neil McMahon’s blog, for example, he asks the question:

What is Dogme?  No one, even among the Dogme-gicians, seem to be able to agree on whether it’s an approach, a method, a technique, a tool, an attitude, a lesson type or an irrelevance.  And does it matter?  I think it matters if people are passing it off as something it’s not (e.g. an approach), at least to me.

At the risk of inducing another bout of blogorrhea, I thought I might try and rise to Neil’s challenge, and to do this by appealing to the literature on methods and approaches. I.e.

Approach refers to theories about the nature of language and language learning that serve as the source of practices and principles in language teaching.

(Richards and Rodgers 2001, p. 20).

In this sense, then, it seems to me that Dogme does qualify as a coherent approach, in that it is grounded in theories both of language and of learning – theories, what’s more, that have been widely broadcast and endlessly discussed.

In terms of its theory of language,  it takes the view, very simply, that language is functional, situated, and realised primarily as text, “hence, the capacity to understand and produce isolated sentences is of limited applicability to real-life language use” (Meddings & Thornbury, 2009, p. 9).

Its theory of learning is an experiential and holistic one, viewing language learning as an emergent, jointly-constructed and socially-constituted process, motivated both by communal and communicative imperatives (op.cit p. 18). Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006, p. 17) put it:

… learning an additional language is about enhancing one’s repertoire of fragments and patterns that enables participation in a wider array of communicative activities. It is not about building up a complete and perfect grammar in order to produce well-formed sentences.

Of course, these theories of language and of learning are not original: they are shared by other approaches, notably task-based and whole language learning. So Dogme’s claim to be an approach in its own right is justified only if there are in fact distinguishable (and even distinctive) practices that are derived from these theories (check the Richards & Rodgers definition again). Anyone, after all, can dream up a couple of theories, but if no one actually puts them to work, they are dead in the water.

Putting the theories to work means that (Richards & Rodgers again) “it is necessary to develop a design for an instructional system” (p. 24).

It was the lack of a ‘design’ as such, and even of ‘an instructional system’, that prompted me, a few years ago, to suggest that another self-styled approach, the Lexical Approach, was an approach in name only. In this sense, Neil McMahon’s critique of Dogme (and its ‘evangelists’) echoes my own critique of Lewis (and his acolytes). You can read it here.

My argument went like this: while it is clear that Lewis does have a well elaborated theory about the nature of language (“Language consists of grammaticalised lexis, not lexicalised grammar” [Lewis, 1993, p.vi]) it is less clear that he has a coherent theory of how languages are learned. Nor is it clear how the learning process, in a Lexical Approach, would be actualised, e.g. in terms of a syllabus and materials.

So, while Lewis insists that he is offering “a principled approach, much more than a random collection of ideas that work” (Lewis 1997, p. 205), it’s never been very clear to me how this would work in practice, or how it would not look like any other approach that just happens to have a few collocation activities grafted on.

Is Dogme any less squishy? Is there a Dogme praxis? I don’t know, but I do know that – in the last year or so – there has been a veritable eruption of blogs (too many to list here), workshops, YouTube videos, conference presentations – and even a dedicated conference – that claim allegiance to the founding Dogme principles. There are descriptions of single lessons, sequences of lessons, one-to-one lessons, computer-mediated lessons, and even whole courses. What’s more, these descriptions of Dogme practice emanate from a wide range of geographical contexts – Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea, Turkey, the US and the UK, to name but a few.

Of course, if you were to subject these descriptions to close scrutiny, you may find that there are as many differences between them as there are similarities. But that shouldn’t surprise you: the way that any approach is implemented –  whether task-based learning or CLIL or whole language learning   —  is likely to exhibit a similar diversity across different contexts. On the other hand, if there were no common core of praxis, then Dogme’s claim for ‘approach’ status would, I think, be seriously jeopardised.

I believe that there is a common core of Dogme practices, but I also suspect that it is still somewhat in flux. This fuzziness (that many deplore) is both a strength and a weakness. A strength because it invites continuous experimentation; a weakness because it discourages widespread adoption.  But the more that Dogme praxis is described, debated, and even debunked, the more likely it is that its soft centre will coalesce, amalgamate, stablise and – however diverse its outward appearance  – solidify into an approach.

References:

Lantolf, J., & Thorne, S. (eds.) (2006). Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lewis, M. (1993). The Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Lewis, M. (1997). Implementing the Lexical Approach. Hove: Language Teaching Publications.

Meddings, L., & Thornbury, S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake: Delta Publishing.

Richards, J., &  Rodgers, T. (2001). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching (2nd edition). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.