Dissing Dogme: Part One

In the greater scheme of things, there are obviously many many things about ELT that annoy me way more than Dogme does – or should! There’s the continuing dominance of the atomistic structure-by-structure building block approach to syllabus design that dominates (the great irony being, of course, that Dogme is born out of an antagonism to many of these coursebooks in much the same way as my own career as a writer was!); there’s the tech evangelists for whom technology in the classroom is the magic bullet that will heal all ills . . . and don’t even get me started on the NLP snake oil salesmen, whole brain training charlatans and multiple intelligence madness! I’ve always enjoyed watching Scott Thornbury talk, and would like to say I regard him as a kind of friend, on the TEFL conference circuit at least, and have good relations with many of the other folk involved in spreading the Dogme dogma. I think anything that encourages teachers to listen more to their students, to treat them first and foremost as people rather than language-producing machines, and to use student output as the basis for reformulated whole-class input is essentially a power for good and should be encouraged, as there’s still way too many teachers unable – or unwilling – to do such fundamentals in class. And yet somehow the way in which Dogme has become such a noisy sub-culture and so prone to self-aggrandizing claims (or boasts, if you prefer) gets my back up. Since unleashing the crude attack dog approach of Simon Kent on Dogme the other day, I’ve been trying to articulate to myself exactly what it was that was bugging me about something that in so many ways I’m in broad agreement with.

What I aim to do over the next couple of weeks is to go through a kind of blow-by-blow account of my grievances, and to see how (or, indeed, IF!) folk out there respond.

My first gripe could perhaps cynically be seen as the sour grapes of a materials writer in desperate need of more love and affection, I suppose, but one thing that particularly annoys me is the way much of the debate has become framed around coursebooks versus non-coursebooks. Dogme has always had a ‘vow of chastity’ element that forswears coursebooks or, indeed, originally, any materials, and recent blog phenomena such as Chia Suan Chong’s ongoing ‘teach off‘, whereby a Dogme teacher takes on a coursebook-driven teacher drive this angle home with a vengeance.

The root of my anger here is that such rhetoric reduces all coursebooks to a homogenous whole, all are seen as equally bad, and as a result teachers are essentially encouraged to disengage from learning how to ‘read’ coursebooks and to assess and discuss the differences between them, the agendas that drive each one, the angles they have, and the reasons why they are the way they are. It seems blindingly obvious to me that a good teacher can manage a good lesson with even poor classroom material, and can do great things with better materials, whilst a less experienced or competent teacher can barely scrape by even if supported by great materials – and would surely struggle to do anything of any value in a Dogme-style lesson. Part of the problem is that Dogme is founded on a kind of cult of the individual, a belief deeply rooted in both British ELT and, as I argued earlier on this blog, the 60s and 70s counter-culture. There’s a feeling that material is there to be messed with: and in this age of Web 2.0 and all the interactivity it offers, this has become the general modus operandi of many younger teachers in their life at large as well. This is all well and good, and obviously all good teachers mediate material for their learners. One of my fears is that actually the twin rhetoric of the individual over all else and of anti-coursebooks actually inadvertently influences the way teachers think about materials, and leads to desperate attempts to reinvent wheels that have not even been fully understood as such! It’s depressing to count the number of times I’ve observed teachers using coursebooks in weird ways – starting with exercise five, say, then doing the final practice before finally going back to exercise 1 – and, on asking why, I’m usually told something along the lines of ‘Well, you can’t just teach it as it is, can you? You have to interpret it and do it the way that suits you best’.

This is born out of a materials illiteracy – a failure to grasp why things are structured in the way they are – as much as a desire to break free of perceived shackles. For me, mediating materials is far more about teaching what’s there, but exploiting the LANGUAGE that comes up – both within the materials themselves AND as part of the students’ own output / speaking in response to questions in the book. For my own teaching, in many ways I could be accused of being stuck in that I generally just pick a book up (and, admittedly, I am frequently in the rather singular position of those books being things I’ve co-authored myself!) and start with exercise 1 and move on to 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, regardless of the class. Where the tailoring to class needs and interests and desires comes in is through their responses to questions, through the way they respond and the anecdotes that emerge as a result of this interaction.

I recently observed a class where the teacher was doing a double-page spread based on injuries and illness. It began with some speaking, which asked students to discuss a few questions related to the topic. The teacher I saw began with a complicated running dictation which resulted in students writing down questions – and then discussing them – before starting the book. When we were discussing the lesson afterwards, I asked what the point of the intro had been only to be told it was a warmer, to help generate interest in the topic. When I asked what the teacher thought the point of the speaking in the book was, the teacher looked nonplussed before the penny finally dropped!

Now, obviously, this isn’t Dogme’s fault and many Dogmeticians would just say the fault is relying on coursebooks and that it would’ve been better if the teacher had gone materials-free. However, by refusing to engage with published materials, you close off a large part of teachers’ potential learning and development. Whether you like it or not, most teachers around the world use and rely on coursebooks in class. Dogme is but a tiny drop in a much bigger ocean in this respect, and as long as it sticks to such rigid ‘rules’ as materials-free has little to say about the realities of these teachers. One great irony is that there are countless teachers out there who would kill for books and classroom materials. A mate of mine is running an incredible project across two schools in the tiny blighted West African nation of Guinea Bissau, and I recently shipped over a container full of ancient EFL and French teaching books, which have been received by teachers living on five dollars a day as if they were manna from heaven. Presumably, though, they’d all be better, more committed teachers if they just burned the lot and made do on the resources they have?

Coursebooks are a lifeline for many teachers: they provide structure, content, language, pacing, support. To deny this is to dismiss the realities of these teachers’ lives and realities. This isn’t to say that helping teachers learn to improvise and riff off students is bad. Far from it. It’s just saying that is is not – and cannot ever be – the be all and end all.  The pursuit of good teaching would be better served by trainers also thinking about how to make teachers more aware of what’s happening with materials – and why and how best to exploit the material – and of course this must include leaving space for students.

Another issue, as mentioned above, is the assumption that all coursebooks are equally bad and all equally ill-suited to tackle students’ needs and desires in anything other than a crass and superficial way. Ask anyone who writes published ELT materials seriously, as opposed to mainly for money, and they’ll tell you they’re driven by agendas not dissimilar to those the Dogme folk are interested in. For me personally, much of my early writing was driven by the conviction that coursebooks failed to represent language – and particularly spoken language – as it was truly was: lexico-grammatical. More recently, whilst sticking with this theme, I’ve also become much more interested in cultural issues, representation and so on. Ben Goldstein, with things like Framework and The Big Picture, is exploring issues around representation, imagery and taboos; Lindsay Clandfield is interested in bringing literature to the fore, fronting serious issues over pop trivia and so on. All of us, in our ways, have tried to challenge the status quo brought about by the huge success of Headway, though I’m sure all of us would also be honest enough to recognise the craft and skill that’s gone into the creation of successive generations of Headway as well, and to accept that, on its own terms, it’s  a very well-written book. It’s just one whose key ethos I don’t buy into. My point here is, I guess, that OTHER key driving forces and beliefs are available!

Finally, there’s a failure to recognise that coursebooks act as agents of change. There was a great article on this subject many moons ago in the ELTJ that I’d recommend you all read. The gist, though, is that coursebooks are ways of presenting change by numbers, of reducing the fear the majority of teachers have of change and making slow shifts of focus in the broader field accessible. To give just one example of how this works, think of the fact that Outcomes, Global and Framework all feature plenty of non-native speaker accents, a phenomenon that was inconceivable just twenty years ago. Through such publications, these issues move from the leftfield and the avant garde into the mainstream in a way that would be nigh-on impossible otherwise.

To live in a world in which coursebooks are the devil is to deny all of the above.

I defy any of you to justify the existence of such a world!


11 responses

  1. Hi Hugh,
    At first I thought you were just cruisin’ for a bruisin’ on your own (and I kind of admire a masochist for his bravery and independence) but then you present a call to arms at the end there by bringing in the likes of Ben and Lindsay in to the fray ;o) I wonder if they’ll answer the call.
    I suspect they won’t, though, and it may not be because they don’t share similar views to you about dogme. Perhaps, like me, they’re slightly irritated by the attention dogme gets for the reasons you set out above but choose not to say anything because they know that any reaction like this only serves to fuel the hype.
    And let’s face it – it is hype. Dogme has an extreme anti-coursebook stance, but very few of it’s prononents themselves do, or I bet they don’t practise it. Dogme is useful, in so much as all valid methodological ‘twists’ are useful to thoughtful teachers, in encouraging us to ask questions of the teaching-learning process and in reminding us that it pays not to let the materials do the thinking. But that’s it. In the wrong hands, I suppose, it could cause some damage, but that’s true of coursebooks too, isn’t it?
    You identified the tech evangelists (nice) as a source of irritation. When I see my local education authority spend millions of euros they haven’t got on laptops for every 10 and 11 year old, I think the assumption that tech can do the teaching is likely to cost learning a great deal more.
    Maybe dogme isn’t worth the fight.

    1. Hi Dan –
      Thanks for the thoughtful and perceptive post. You may, of course, be right and I may simply be getting myself all hot and bothered about the extremist wing of the ‘movement’. Also, it may well be that my time and energies could be better spent fighting bigger monsters, but one fight at a time, eh! There’s plenty of time to get onto other scraps as we go on. Of course I agree with you that in wrong hands, both coursebooks and Dogme can cause damage. That’s a no brainer. My point here was really just that the anti-coursebook pose deprives teachers of a space (or option) to develop better reflective skills about teaching materials that are out there.

      1. You’re right. Teachers in their professional development need to ensure it promotes two things relevant in this argument:
        1) critical skills / evaluative tools for choosing and using materials such as coursebooks, and
        2) critical skills / evaluative tools for choosing and using methods such as dogme

        I don’t know what you think about the ‘eclectic approach’. The word suggests ‘just doing any old thing from wherever’, but I’ve always taken it to mean ‘using your brain to work out what works and what doesn’t from selected methods and materials’ and I think it’s served me OK over the years. The eclectic approach refuses to chuck the baby out with the bath water. It accepts that both sides have their merits and it refuses to argue in simplistic black and white terms.

      2. Hi again –
        Totally agree with your point about the tools teachers need to develop, though could probably think of a fair few other things that I might want included in the list as well, if I had to! Within the context of this particular discussion though, yes. Spot on.

        I’m also very sceptical about so-called ‘eclectic approaches’ and feel that often it’s simply a cover-all to mean ‘I don’t really know what I’m doing apart from nicking a bit of this and a bit of that because it seems to blend together well’. In terms of both sides having merits and refusing to see things in black and white, though, I’m with you through all those shades of gray. I just wish that such a calm and measured approach was taken by everyone on the inside of the debate!

        Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to post.

  2. Dear Hugh and Dan,

    I think the point you make about the ‘realities’ of teachers is spot on. Often teachers here in Chile are learning with their students, maybe a unit ahead in the course book. Should we then remove the course book? Also, a native-speaker fresh off the plane from Chicago with a 40 hour online TEFL certificate will probably get a job somewhere within a week of being here in Santiago. The chances are the teacher’s book will be more of a help than anything else. Should we take that away too?

    I suppose the ‘eclectic’ approach depends on whether or not it is some kind of principled eclecticism but, as you said, does have the benefit of at least being inclusive (if it includes the voodoo of NLP though it’s a no-go!).

    By the way Hugh, the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano here in Stgo went bankrupt last December after 70 years in business.


    1. Hi Kevin –
      Great to see you here, though very sad to hear about the Instituto Chileno Norteamericano! How on earth did that come to pass, given how well the economy in Chile is supposedly doing? Send my best to anyone you see from there. Really hope all the good people I met there land on their feet OK.

      What you say about Chilean teachers and their survival strategies basically sounds like my first couple of years of teaching, to be honest. The coursebooks were what kept me afloat and what I learned a lot of my early knowledge from.

      As for principled eclecticism, well I guess as you say it depends, but for me, I’d much rather just see thoroughly principled pedagogy! By which I mean an approach to teaching that, rather than stealing from everywhere, magpie-like, is consistent, thought-out and REASONABLE, whilst being rooted in strong beliefs about learning and teaching.

      Oh, and always good to have another Gooner on board.

  3. […] If you were expecting what I expect you were expecting, you may be more interested in clicking here – then come back, of […]

    1. My God! It feels slightly inappropriate to comment on that publicly, but I had never encountered that material before and was rather stunned by it. Is there a Dogme connection? Wasn’t clear to me.

      As if imagining what a day in the life of a dog might be and how you’d describe it wasn’t suitably weird, there’s then the dog breed vocabulary overload to sift through. I can only assume it’s from some kind of English for Canine Purposes course.

  4. […] notwithstanding, what I aim to do in this post, is not so much to pick holes in Dogme – that’s something I’ve already done in some detail earlier on this blog, after all – but rather to explore ways in which the main principles behind Dogme can actually inform both […]

  5. Wahey! That was a great read.

    A couple of thoughts:

    I’d say this isn’t so much a criticism of Dogme, per se, but more a defense of coursebooks and a criticism of the Dogme anti-coursebook-no-matter-what hardliners (not many of them about these days, but justified objects of your wrath!)

    I think there’s a bit of a false dichotomy with the whole Dogme thing in general, from both sides of the debate: there’s an assumption that course books and dogme are incompatible. Like you said, it seems that both you and Scott come from the same premise — that coursebooks aren’t catering realistically to the needs of our students.

    You dealt with it by creating more relevant coursebooks.

    Scott dealt with it by establishing Dogme.

    Teaching Unplugged really provided a fresh way of looking at things and I’ve found myself using the cues and approaches in that book in my coursebook-based lessons. We can have our cake, eat it and teach effective English at the same time!

    Shame about those hardliners, though. No cake for them.

  6. I think you may be right Gabriel. The hardliners, though, have been given plenty of encouragement by Scott himself, as he’s made ridiculous statements like this one:

    “If it’s syllabuses that teachers want, these can be fabricated out of existing coursebook syllabuses and printed on a sheet of A4. No violation of copyright is involved since all coursebook syllabuses are clones of one another anyway.

    If it’s a semantic or functional or task-based syllabus they want, they will have to design it themselves anyway (but the exercise could do wonders for in-service development and staff morale).

    If it’s texts that teachers want, they need only do what coursebooks writers do anyway: trawl the Internet. At least the texts that they plunder themselves are likely to be more up-to-date than those in even a recently-published coursebook, and can be selected to match their learners’ needs and interests.

    If it’s activities the teachers want, there are any number of excellent resource books available, and a school’s materials budget might be better spent on the complete Cambridge Handbooks series (I declare an interest) than on a truckload of Headway.

    Syllabus. Texts. Activities. Is there anything else a coursebook offers?

    Comfort. Complacency. Conformity. Professional atrophy. Institutional malaise. Student boredom. Slow death by McNuggets.”

    As long as he’s going to walk around saying things like this, which essentially denigrate 95% of all teachers out there in the world, I’ll keep kicking back.

    I’m more than happy to acknowledge than many of the basic principles of Dogme are useful and can inform both classroom practice AND materials design, but I find the whole Scott / Geoff Jordan hardline stance tiring and a bit sad.

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