T is for Teacher development

27 05 2012

This is a summary of the keynote talk I gave yesterday at the IATEFL Learning Technologies and Teacher Development Joint SIG Conference, titled With or Without Technology, held at Yeditepe University, Istanbul this weekend.

Why Dogme is good for you.

Because the conference theme focuses on teacher development (TD), in both its ‘plugged’ and ‘unplugged’ manifestations, it’s perhaps timely to review the case for ‘teaching unplugged’, otherwise known as Dogme ELT (hereafter just Dogme), and try to situate it in relation to teacher development generally.

In its relatively long life (12 years and still counting) Dogme has generated a fair amount of heat – more, indeed, than its co-founders bargained for, and indicative, perhaps, of how surprisingly subversive it is. Formerly, this heat was confined mainly to the Dogme discussion list itself, but it has now migrated into the blogosphere at large, where, far from having been diffused, it seems to be burning more fiercely than ever. (I’m not the first to point out that you can increase the traffic to your blog exponentially by cocking a snook at Dogme!)

Among the criticisms that have been levelled at it these are some of the most frequent:

  • it doesn’t work for beginners
  • it doesn’t work with large groups
  • it doesn’t work with young learners
  • it doesn’t work with non-native speaker teachers
  • it’s not new
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no input
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no syllabus
  • it doesn’t work because there’s no attention to form
  • it doesn’t work in [insert name of the country where you work]
  • it doesn’t work with [insert any nationality] learners
  • it just doesn’t work, period.

Yeditepe University

Far from attempting to refute any of these claims, I would argue that they are in fact irrefutable. Method comparison, as a science, is dead in the water. There’s no controlling for all the variables, and sample sizes are usually too small to generalise from. And so on. So, for argument’s sake, I will simply accept that for some teachers these claims are plausible (just as for others the claims made for Dogme are equally plausible), and I will move on. (At the same time, whether or not the above claims are true, I don’t think Dogme has done anyone any harm. It’s not like HIV-denial or the anti-vaccine lobby. I don’t know of many students who have died because their teachers didn’t use coursebooks. But I may be wrong).

There is, however, one thing to be said about Dogme which is incontrovertibly true. And that is that – for a great number of teachers – Dogme has provided a framework for highly productive self-directed teacher development, involving cycles of experimentation and reflection, essential components for any developmental program. It has done this principally because it invites teachers to question some of the received wisdoms about language teaching, such as

  • that language learning is an incremental and linear process
  • that language learning is a purely cognitive process
  • that a grammar syllabus represents the best ‘route’ for language learning
  • that imported materials are better than learner-generated ones
  • that lessons have to be meticulously planned
  • that accuracy is a pre-condition for fluency
  • that teaching is better with technology

Dogme is by no means the first platform from which these claims have been challenged, but for reasons I still don’t entirely fathom, it seems to have been very successful at articulating its critique and broadcasting it to practising teachers. (The concurrent boom in online communication may have had something to do with it – an irony not lost on Dogme’s critics).

A glance through the quantity of postings on the list demonstrates the fact that many teachers have used one or more of the tenets of Dogme, either to initiate change in their own teaching, or to explain changes that they had already initiated – and often with spectacularly positive results, as this early post suggests:

…I’m buzzing at the moment ‘cos I’ve been lucky enough to hit on a couple of new groups who seem to have invented dogme themselves, and the things we’re coming up with together are stunning me into a state of ‘I’ve never loved teaching so much before – but is this really teaching?!’.

Well, it certainly seems to be learning – enthusiastically and really joyfully – for all of us.

And thanks to everyone in the group for helping me better appreciate what’s happening!

Some of the dogme blogs

Like the Dogme critics, the Dogme enthusiasts have also turned to blogging to get their teacher development message across. One notable instance of grassroots, collaborative Dogme-inspired teacher development was the ‘teach off’ that Chia Suan Chong initiated last month. Whatever doubts you might have about its scientific rigour, the buzz that it generated was truly remarkable.

Finally, and in advance of the conference, I did a little exercise in crowdsourcing, by tweeting the following question: ‘How has Dogme helped you develop as a teacher?’ Here is a small selection of the many replies I got:

@michaelegriffin: #Dogme helped me c that I wasn’t crazy to think that books weren’t a curriculum and that the people in the room are the key

@AnthonyGaughan: it encourages confidence in exploring my teaching self #DogmeTD

@dalecoulter: playing with variables in the lesson and reflecting on the results #DogmeTD

@kevchanwow: watching lively exchange within Dogme community makes me more comfortable trying new approaches in my own way & own classes

@kenwilsonlondon: #DogmeELT I couldn’t understand why my best lessons were when the class more/less forced me to abandon the plan. Now I know!

@esolamin; Haven’t followed Dogme as such, but ‘unplugged’/improvised activities produced more ss participation & interest, I found.

@englishraven It marked my progression into actually being a teacher- the whole deal, real thing. Not an instructional attendant #DogmeELT

@sx200i how has Dogme helped me. Pure enjoyment in my lessons. Confidence. Never bored! #DogmeTD

P is for Postmodern method

13 05 2012

This comes from the teacher’s guide to a  well-known coursebook series: “By the end of Level 1, students will have learnt to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”

And pigs will fly.

By the end of Level 1, any of the following might have happened: every Monday two or three new students of varying abilities will have been incorporated into the already diverse class; at least two students will have requested – and been refused – a level change; one student will transpire to be dyslexic and another will have hearing difficulties; three students will have dropped out;  eight students will have regularly used Google Translate to do their homework; two students will refuse to do pairwork together; one student (male) will always be the first to answer the teacher’s display questions; two of the students will have embarked on a torrid affair in which English is the lingua franca; one student will have memorised a 2000-item word list; another student will have attempted to read an abridged version of Sense and Sensibility; two students will be working illegally as kitchen staff where, again, the only common language is English; the teacher will have substituted several of the texts in the coursebook with photocopies of authentic material; one student will sit and pass her driving test in English; the teacher will have corrected the same errors a hundred times while completely ignoring others; during a flu epidemic a substitute teacher will teach the class nothing but phrasal verbs for a week…. And so on. You get the picture.

In short, whatever they have achieved, it will not be the ability “to express themselves simply but correctly in the present, past and future…”. Nor will the coursebook have had much to do with it.

Language learning, whether classroom-based or naturalistic, whether in an EFL or an ESL context, is capricious, opportunistic, idiosyncratic and seldom amenable to external manipulation.

Yet advocates of coursebooks and of syllabuses share a touching faith in their capacity to impose order on chaos, uniformity on complexity.  Predicated on a unitary view of language and of learning, the coursebook/syllabus is enlisted with the task of bulldozing a path through the diversity, spontaneity, unpredictability and general messiness of the classroom jungle.  In so doing, it will ride rough-shod over the delicate eco-systems that inhabit that jungle. It’s a bit like shooting an arrow into a flock of starlings. You’ll get one or two, but that’s all. And, in the end, there’ll be no noticeable effect on the flock as a whole.

In this sense the coursebook/syllabus is very much a modernist phenomenon. Just to remind you, the ‘modernist project’ holds that knowledge is unitary, stable, objective and disinterested, and that, by extension, learning  is ‘a one-way road from ignorance to knowledge’ (Felman, 1987, cited by Mann 1999: 38). As a tool designed to leverage uniform ‘improvement’ on systems that are inherently unstable, the coursebook/syllabus embodies a ‘grand narrative’ mentality, in which ‘development takes place through linear progression and contributes to the greater good, which is emancipatory in nature, and passed on from one generation to the next’ (Mann 1999:37 – 38).  You only have to look at the portentous titles in the publishers’ catalogues, with their promise of ultimate consummation, to see how the current paradigm is framed in ‘grand narrative’ terms: Headway, Success, Horizons, Solutions, Outcomes, Open Doors, Way Ahead, Achieve, and so on.

An alternative approach – one that aims at exploiting diversity rather than taming it – is proposed by Michael Breen (1999), in a paper which pre-dates Dogme, but which might well have inspired it.

In order to cope with the inherent diversity and particularity of classroom life, Breen argues that “the classroom group needs to be a dynamic self-organising learning community”.  He adds that “a postmodern pedagogy locates experience as a core starting point and constant focus of attention.  Classroom work builds directly upon learner and teacher experiences.  The focus is on doing things, upon action, and interpreting the experience of, and outcomes from action” (p.54).

Language, in this pluralistic, multi-vocal context, emerges out of communal activity, shaped by the need to render experience into words.  (In an earlier paper, Breen [1985] had written: “‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process”.)  Whereas, from a modernist perspective, education is all about the reproduction of existing practices (witness the supremacy of native speaker models), in a postmodern pedagogy, “a major objective for learners would be to acquire new voices and new ways of articulating experiences and ideas.  The culture of the classroom group would need to place high value on such diversity and multi-vocality and to assert it as a key attribute of the language class” (p.60. emphasis in original).

Way ahead of his time, Breen argues the case for the ‘porous classroom’, in which the boundaries between the classroom, the school, the society, and the world are weak and permeable: “In such a context, access to what counts as knowledge and its construction and reconstruction is likely to be rendered almost infinite because of the availability of technology.  The language classroom ceases to be the place where knowledge of language is made available by teacher and materials for learners and becomes the place from which knowledge of language and its use is sought by teacher and learners together; the classroom walls become its windows” (p.55).

Rather than being a transmitter of knowledge, either directly, or knowledge as commodified in the pages of the coursebook, the teacher is re-construed as a ‘cultural worker’, not only forming and maintaining the classroom culture, but also facilitating a research process “resembling that of linguistic and cultural anthropology” (p.57). Through engagement in language-based activity, the learners become researchers of the language themselves, propelled by their diverse (but not necessarily divergent) needs and interests, “and this process occurs largely independently of the intervention of explicit teaching, not least because different learners move at a different pace and have different preferences in how they go about the task. The essential ingredients, however, appear to be an input-rich environment, enthusiastic persistence, and the learner’s search for understanding and the wish to share more and more complex meanings with supportive others” (p. 60).

Teaching, in this paradigm, is less about navigating the container-ship of the class through the narrow canal of the coursebook/syllabus than about shepherding a motley flotilla of little boats, in all weathers, across the open sea, in whatever direction and at whatever speed they have elected to go.


Breen, M. (1985) ‘The social context for language learning – a neglected situation?’ Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Breen, M.P. (1999) ‘Teaching language in the postmodern classroom’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Mann, S. J. (1999) ‘A postmodern perspective on autonomy’, in Ribé, R. (ed.) Developng Learner Autonomy in Foreign Language Learning, Barcelona: University of Barcelona Press.

Illustrations from Hemming, J., and Gatenby, E.V. (1958) Absorbing English Book 1, London: Longman.

M is for Method

28 11 2010

I’m moderating a Diploma course discussion on methodology this week, so, for a change I thought I’d post a short video of me going on about it.

Seven key quotes on the subject of method, some of which I refer to in the video:

  1. “Methods are of little interest”  Kelly, L.G.  1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, p. 2.
  2. “The development of language-teaching methods … has in fact been empirical rather than theory-directed. […] The fact seems to be that teachers have ‘followed their noses’ and adopted a generally eclectic approach to teaching methods…” Corder, S. P. 1973. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 135-6.
  3. “During the sixties and seventies several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching.”  Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, p. 477.
  4. “The widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method has produced what I have called a postmethod condition.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 1994. The Postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, p. 43.
  5. “Methods, however the term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them.”  Bell, D. 2007. Do teachers think that methods are dead?  ELT Journal, 61, p. 143.
  6. “I consistently use method to refer to established methods conceptualised and constructed by experts in the field ….  I use the term, methodology, to refer to what practicing teachers actually do in the classroom in order to achieve their stated or unstated teaching objectives.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 2006. Understanding Languge Teaching: From Method to Postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 84.
  7. “The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach … are now determined by textbooks.”  Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4, p. 647.