Dissing Dogme: Part Six – the mystery of the missing syllabus

Many moons ago, when I was first trying to get a foothold in the publishing game, I sent off a series of lessons I’d co-written with a friend I made on my DELTA course, Darryl Hocking. We felt that coursebooks didn’t begin to do enough to teach natural spoken English and had spent the best part of a year recording endless conversations, transcribing them, and analysing them searching for common themes, patterns and chunks. What we ended up with were a series of lessons with titles like TALKING ABOUT YOUR VIEWS ON THINGS, TALKING ABOUT YOUR FAMILY, ENCOURAGING PEOPLE, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU’VE BEEN UP TO, TALKING ABOUT WHAT YOU PREFER and so on. Each lesson had a scripted listening, some sound chunking pronunciation work (very influenced by David Brazil), some vocabulary and  collocations, some spoken grammar, some conversation strategies and so on. We were very proud of our efforts and convinced of their revolutionary nature. We sent a few sample lessons round to different publishers and sat back and waited for the phone to start ringing. To cut a long story short, this all eventually led to our meeting with Michael Lewis and Jimmie Hill, which in turn led to a book deal with what was then Language Teaching Publications – better known as LTP. During our first meeting with Michael – in a pub in Hove (!) – he spent some time flicking through all our samples before turning to us and saying “Well, there are some nice lessons here, but I don’t see a course! Where’s the bridge, the arch, the umbrella?”

I’m often reminded of this conversation when I browse the Dogme blogs that abound: nice lesson, where’s the course? And that is, of course, because there isn’t one. A course, that is. Just a series of lessons that may or may not follow up on from each other and that may or may not recycle or develop what’s been covered earlier.

As part our the preparation for our own five-yearly British Council inspection at University of Westminster last year, I was in charge of getting together a presentable syllabus for each level of the General English classes. Our courses are predominantly coursebook driven, and in essence the contents of the book forms the bulk of the syllabus at each level. I made discrete enquiries about whether or not it would acceptable to the BC to simply type out the menu of contents for each level, and was informed it would not. I then spent a fair bit of time liaising with a friend who works at the BC Madrid and who’s done some astounding work on syllabus for all six levels defined by the Common European Framework, including a very thorough mapping of a range of coursebooks onto the stated CEFR goals for each level (which I’m very pleased to say INNOVATIONS scored particularly well in). What resulted from this was a 6-page document for each level we teach at Westminster based very much of the CEFR. The way I see it, if the CEFR defines, say, B2 in terms of can-do statements across a whole range of skills, then this means that in order to be placed at this level, the student must’ve spent the time at B1 acquiring these competencies, so the B2 can-do statements become by default the B1 syllabus. The BC ended up commending us on the syllabi we’d produced and the inspection went without a hitch.

Luckily, as it turned out, none of this work was in vain or was just simple window-dressing designed to smooth our passage through the inspection because as it happens, almost every week we have potential punters and sponsors calling, emailing or visiting and asking us not only what’s special about our centre, not only what qualifications do our staff have, not only the fees and dates, but also – crucially – the course content. We explain some of what we offer will be determined by our perception of what students need, but are also able to provide detailed descriptions of course goals and content.

As a coursebook writer myself, as well as a teacher on General English courses, syllabus is absolutely central. What has driven Outcomes first and foremost was a desire to teach towards CEFR communicative competencies. Sure we felt we had to try to cover the grammar expected at each level and found in the vast majority of competing titles, but what we wanted to drive the car was the pursuit of can-do statements, whether they be to do with speaking, writing, listening or whatever. We also spent a lot of time working out how we could incorporate as many of the core 3000 words into the syllabus as possible, a task which simply cannot happen by accident and which, even with the best will in the world, is nigh-on impossible to achieve with any degree of comprehensiveness.

So where does Dogme fit into all of this? What does it have to say about syllabus apart from let’s wait and see what happens? How does it sell its vision to the BC or to punters keen to do what they’ll get out of the course? I’ve seen two possible answers to this questions from those within in the Dogme camp, both of which struck me as woefully inadequate. Firstly, I watched a Dogme talk which mainly seemed to be about how the teacher in question had constructed a ‘student-generated’ course (see my earlier post for my thoughts on that little myth) by asking his learners to bring texts in every day, work around which would form the bulk of each lesson. To counter any accusation of lack of syllabus, the teacher announced that every time he ‘covered’ (it wasn’t explained what ‘covering’ might mean in this sense) a grammar item, it’d be ticked off the list, so that if any parents or sponsors wanted to know what’d been going on he could point to the structures already dealt with. Now, not only is this based on an outmoded way of thinking of syllabus (i,e: competence = the ticking off of discrete structural items) that I would’ve thought anyone with any interest in pushing for a greater focus on spoken language would’ve been resistant to, but it’s also only possible retrospectively.

The second approach I encountered came dressed in many intellectual garments and garnished with plenty of scary quotes, but in essence boiled down to an ’emergent syllabus’ – or one that was ‘negotiated’. In the end, this turned out to be little more than a kind of simplified version of old-fashioned needs analysis, whereby the teacher asks the class what they want to do and constructs some (or, in this case, all (!!)) of the course around these desires. The killer for me was the first thing students said was that they wanted to go to the park – and so a park visit was pencilled in for Friday afternoon! Superb. Maybe another day could involve a pub lunch and then maybe Monday mornings could just be a lie-in! Genius.

When I first started teaching, I used to do needs analysis for my General English classes. I’d give them a long list of topics and ask them to mark their top three, count up the votes and prioritise that was round. Usually, there’d be 8 votes for food, say, 8 for sport, 7 for holidays, 7 for family and so on, and I’d have to make executive decisions on this basis. Now I’ve come to realise is that one of the things students pay us for is to KNOW what input they most need to take them to the next level. So much work has been done – by publishers, by the CEFR, by the BC – to define level that it seems plain arrogant not to take account of this.

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10 responses

  1. Yes, yes. I need a syllabus or at least a framework to work in. I generally can’t do odd lessons and random things and I don’t like doing them either. I have to create a 10 weekish plan with main goals but one that is flexible enough to allow change depending on how students progress.

    So, here’s an old post I wrote about how I’ve been doing it:
    http://languagemoments.wordpress.com/2012/01/11/phil-wades-course-skeleton/

    I’ve almost finished this term and have been doing the same sort of thing. Unlike many Dogme classes though I have been selecting topics based on my understanding of what will be useful/interesting and create opportunities for conversation. I did try one lesson where I gave students a choice but it didn’t work. It did, however, work in my last school though but they were a bit more motivated.

    1. Hi again Phil –
      Interesting to read your ideas both here and in the link you posted up.

      It all seems pretty sensible to me, and your description of “selecting topics based on my understanding of what will be useful/interesting and create opportunities for conversation” sounds not a million miles away from the way I approach coursebook writing! I guess the added element would be the collation of stated goals, often tied in to CEFR can-do statements, and then working backwards from there – in a backwards planning kind of way – construct materials that I feel will best facilitate this.

  2. Anthony Gaughan | Reply

    Without wishing to split hairs (but I will…), are you talking about syllabuses or schemes of work/series of lessons here? The difference is sort of important in the context of this discussion.

    Are you making the case that dogme does not account for an overarching sense of what sort of competences (grammatical, lexical, notional, functional etc) should be acquired in order to have internalised the syllabus, or that it does not account for a systematic and pre-determined collection of planned units of work (i.e. lessons) which would realise that syllabus?

    It’s unsurprising that dogme teachers tend not to talk about lessons in a way which suggests that they are linked together in a pre-determined manner, because they probably aren’t.

    This is only a problem if one accepts – as you clearly do – that learning cannot occur satisfactorily in the absence of a pre-determined scheme of work/series of lessons. This is your belief, but – even speaking as a teacher steeped in the linear additive qualified teacher status tradition of the UK state sector – I prefer to reserve judgment on that one.

    That’s as maybe. But there is nothing in my understanding of what dogme is about that stops me from working with a syllabus (if this is basically what you mean when you say what input they most need to take them to the next level. The difference is just that I would view it through the filter, if you will, of what I know about the particular individuals that I am working with, rather than vice versa.

    I’m not sure if playing the “arrogance” card is a very strong argument – after all, defining level and creating helpful ways of moving students from one level to the other are two very different things. Teachers are teachers and not testers or definers of level for the simple and obvious fact that their domain of expertise is in the teaching, not the testing end of things.

    This being so, there is actually no contradiction as far as I can see in a teacher who describes their approach as dogme in taking what those authorities you mention say about level very seriously, while at the same time trusting their own expertise when it comes to deciding how to get their students to raise their game within the parameters of whatever is going to be judged as progress.

    I have the feeling I am saying the same thing twice? Am I? Oh, you sort it out!

    Thanks again.

    1. Hi again Anthony –
      Thank you again for taking the time to write.
      Your thoughtful perspective on all of this moist appreciated.

      I was essentially talking about syllabi really, as in schemes of work for a whole course. Where I am, for instance, our courses are fifteen hours a week and run for up to fifteen weeks, which means over two hundred hours of classroom study, with attendant homework and so on. These courses don’t come cheap and potential students frequently want to know what will be covered during their time with us. Obviously, to some degree, what we tell them is inevitably a fiction – or perhaps a skeleton is a better way of putting it. We cannot tell them everything they will learn, nor every conversation they will have, every item of language they will look at . . . but what we can do is to paint in broad brushstrokes a picture of where we aim to be taking them. And this generally seems to suffice. For me, and I accept this may be different to what you intended, “schemes of work / series of lessons” imply a far shorter-term vision of things, running perhaps over a few days or so.

      My main point about Dogme was the latter one you raise above – that “it does not account for a systematic and predetermined collection of planned units of work (i.e. lessons) which would realise a particular syllabus”, but part of this problem is also down to the fact that I’ve yet to see folk within Dogme has explaining any overarching sense that they may have of what sort of competences (grammatical, lexical, notional, functional etc) should be acquired in order to have internalised the syllabus. Presumably to ‘internalise’ the syllabus, you need to cover it in some shape or form, yet all I’ve seen is, as I’ve said, ideas about checklists for grammar structures that get ticked off. I’ve never heard anyone within Dogme (and yes, I do realise how absurd it is to keep talking about it all as though it were a political party or whatever! :-)) explain, say, how they aim to cover core vocabulary – or even really accept the importance of trying to do so. I’m also still at a loss to understand why Dogme folk believe grammar can only be ‘internalised’ when the need for it arises – or for mistakes when using it need to corrected arise – as opposed to it being studied at a pre-determinded stage of a syllabus (which of course doesn’t preclude correction either before or after, or the provision of structures if and when a teacher feels they’re needed). What’s this belief based on? Where IS the research that supports this kind of approach?

      I think if you take the ‘classical hard line’ end of Dogme, let’s call it for the sake of argument, the kind of thing Chia was doing in her teach-Off lessons, the input is inevitably random and determined both by where conversations may meander and – as I argue elsewhere, more importantly – by where the teacher feels comfortable taking the class. That’s fine if you only aim to teach random language. Of course, as we discussed in Glasgow, a really really dskilled practitioner may within this cover many of the core 30000 words, say, or tackle a lot of different little bits of grammar, and that’s a good thing if they do, in my opinion. It’s just that Pure Dogme (TM) makes it harder for a teacher to do this rather than easier.

      As for assuming that I don’t believe that learning can only “occur satisfactorily” within “a pre-determined scheme of work/series of lessons,” that’s simply not the case. I am sure all kinds of learning happens within the kinds of classes Chia, say, delivers, and much of the input may more very memorable for all kinds of reasons. I also know from experience that my own students are quite capable of learning and using things I teach off the cuff. I also know, though, that sometimes I look back later and regret teaching certain items, seeing them as too advanced or colloquial or else not quite right (as evidenced by VERY SELF-CONTAINED in my lesson). I’d like to think I’m pretty on the ball with language, and yet I often find myself unhappy with input provided like this. I also know that this is IN ADDITION TO a solid, far more thought-out syllabus that I’m mediating between book and class, though, and that helps me feel less self-punishing about my slip-ups.

      I’m intrigued as to how Dogme allows you to work with a syllabus, by the way. Perhaps you could say more about that?

      As for viewing a syllabus “through the filter of what you know about the particular individuals that you’re working with, rather than vice versa”, well yet again I’d argue that this is what any teacher worth their salt does anyway. Even if I teach a whole book from A to Z, page 1 to page 176, I’m still always looking for what’s new and what’s known and how I can teach the gaps. I fail to see how Dogme has any special claim on this kind of approach.

      What else? Well, yes, of course defining levels and working out how we move students from one to the other are different things, and in essence one seems to me far more the preserve of the teacher than the other, which is perhaps best left more to experts (a word that I know will boil the blood of Dogme folk out there!), though of course is free to be interpreted and delivered as the teacher sees fit. All I’m saying is that there are already out there pre-defined and standard, recognised descriptors of level out there and if you’re serious about getting students from one to the next – and I see no reason why a Dogme teacher cannot be or shouldn’t be, for the record – then you need to know what these are and teach towards them. Again, maybe I have had my perspective skewed by the Teach-off, but whilst I see all sorts of conversations being developed there, I failed to see how any of it was done with any explicit or conscious nod in the direction of things like the CEFR.

      If though all you’re saying is that Dogme means teachers “trusting their own expertise when it comes to deciding how to get their students to raise their game within the parameters of whatever is going to be judged as progress” then I think you’ve just broadened the parameters of Dogme to fit petty much every teacher using a coursebook out there!

  3. I think we need to make a difference between private language schools and government-run schools with this whole ‘dogme’ debate. Private schools can choose their own syllabus (or not) whereas government schools (e.g. state secondary schools) generally have to have all their paperwork (course content, exams etc) in order *prior* to teaching and often have a fairly rigorous pre-determined syllabus. A bit of ‘dogme’ (or whatever you want to call it: free-wheeling/go with the flow style) lessons every now and again is fine; it’s something all good teachers around the world have been doing for donkeys’ years whenever they notice the course book not quite fitting in with the students, their mood, current affairs (feast days, terror attacks, for example).
    You mention the CEFR – something in which I have a personal (research) interest and which is very relevant to this whole debate, in my opinion (so I’m thrilled to see you discuss it here). There’s an incredibly good reason behind the CEFR = we need to have some description of measurement of level with all the migration in Europe, and this cannot simply be done by self assessment; some form of testing is necessary. I’d be curious to know how the dogme-camp feels about standard tests/assessments – I’ve not yet read anything about them testing their students…….

    1. Hi again –
      Many thanks for the comment. I think you’re right in pointing out that much of the Dogme-based approach can only really exist within the private language school sector where teachers are generally – though of course not exclusively – freer to experiment and to come up with syllabus ideas of their own, so long as the feedback stays positive and the punters keep coming back. I also agree that being able to go off topic every now and then, when you feel the time is right, is vital – and hopefully folk will be able to see that’s what I did myself in my own lesson that I detailed earlier in this series. Whether that’s ‘Dogme’ or not is another question, but it’s certainly a good thing to be able to do and should be encouraged.

      I hadn’t realised you were keen on the CEFR.
      What’s your involvement there?

      I’m very very interested in and see it as a potential force for great good, despite having grave reservations about the way it’s generally been hijacked by publishers thus far. It was very important for us when writing OUTCOMES and I hope the notion of teaching first and foremost towards agreed communicative competences becmes more widespread. Interestingly, the CEFR itself is very specific about its implications in terms of ADVANCE planning. It suggests that language learning should allow students to:
      • deal with the business of everyday life in a foreign country.
      • exchange information and ideas… and communicate thoughts and feelings
      • to achieve a wider understanding of the way of life and forms of thought of other peoples and of their cultural heritage

      and that courses should achieve these outcomes by:
      • basing teaching and learning on the needs characteristics and resources of learners
      defining worthwhile and realistic objectives as explicitly as possible
      • developing appropriate methods and materials
      developing suitable forms and instruments for evaluating learning programmes.

      I’ve added my own highlighting in here.

      My worry with a lot of the Dogme based lessons I’ve read about is that they simply ignore the CEFR statements and base their own teaching on perceived communicative needs emerging in the moment, whether this be the ability to describe a Lady Gaga video, to talk about a text you’ve brought in or to say when and why you last felt nervous. I may be doing some teachers who see themselves as Dogme rooted a disservice here, of course, and can only speak based on what I’ve read and heard, but would be very interested to see what anyone out there in the Dogme camp has to say about the CEFR and about the notion of standardised level descriptors and notions of competence.

      I am also curious, as you are, to see what they might have to say about standard tests and assessments.
      Maybe someone can come in here and enlighten us?

    2. Yes, I have and still have painful experience in the uni syllabus area. I have designed syllabi, had meetings to agree on them, co-write, choose, adapt…them with colleagues and people under me but I am still yet to find ANYONE who actually follows them. In many places it’s just a bit of admin in the first week and many teachers (usually of a certain nationality) just do their own thing and some even refuse to do the set syllabus from day one. I was in a department at a very high ‘big school’ as they call them in France (post-graduate school in English) and people just teachers just threw their books away or swapped them or just did whatever they wanted. I tried towing the line because I had sat through looong meetings where everyone explained the syllabus and how we had to follow it. So, when I found out the truth and that nobody followed anything I was a bit miffed. This unwritten rule seems to exist in every place I’ve worked. Teachers seem to take it as a personal insult when they are asked to follow a set syllabus as though they are being accused of being unable to teach. The knock on effect is that many unis just don’t give you anything or perhaps an A4 page with some topics on. I was asked to set up and run one department of prepa students and they admitted to having NOTHING at all. thus, they expected me to create everything either by designing a syllabus at the start or by just doing weekly stuff and hoping it would end up as a course. Pah!

      1. Hi (yet again!) Phil –
        Damn, but you’re fast to the draw.
        If this was an old-fashioned saloon bar gunfight, id be dead meat by now.

        I hear you n syllabi being guidelines rather than hard and fast rigid lesson plans, and that’s probably as it should be.
        Just as coursebooks are open to adaptation and exploitation by the teacher.

        Just out of interest, by the way, I’m curious as to whom you’re referring to with the “certain nationalities” jibe.
        Was that French teachers or what?
        It sounds to me like UK-trained / CELTA-trained teachers, but not sure if that’s what you were intending?

        We’ve gone the opposite way at our place and are now trying more and more to have fairly transparent written-up documents detailing what we expect of teachers on certain courses, what tenets we teach towards and what materials we recommend be covered. This isn’t intended in any way to imply we don’t believe teachers can teach. Rather, it’s to provide them with the support and foundations to ensure they can teach to the best of their capabilities. I guess what it IS saying though is that it’s the delivery and exploitation that’s their role, not the course itself. When you’re taking folk on over the summer, say, it’s best in my experience to have everything laid out clearly from day one, to avoid any future fall outs!

        Anyway, thanks as ever for such interesting comeback.

  4. Hi Hugh

    Thanks for alluding to my talk at TESOL Spain (the one I showed an emergent syllabus in which one lesson was in the park – how outrageous of me!). It seems it gave you a lot of food for thought.

    So that your readers can form their own representations of my scary quotes here’s the link to TESOL Spain slides (yours is there too):
    http://www.tesol-spain.org/en/pages/43/handouts-convention-2012.html

    I will try and teach using your latest coursebook, let’s see how many blogposts it will generate. Probably not many, since I’ve been using coursebooks for a decade and they’re all the same 🙂 just kidding. I can clearly see their evolution from overt grammatical-syllabus to covert grammatical-syllabus — just kidding again. Anyway, I’m serious about using your coursebook, and then discuss its pros and cons. I could never start my own series of dissing without having used it, could I?

    Have you ever taught in a way that resembles Dogme? It would be interesting to read about it.

    Cheers
    Willy

    1. Hi Willy –
      Thanks for posting.
      To be honest, I wasn’t sure if you’d want me mentioning you explicitly in this context, or if it’d be fair of me to do so, and I also wanted to avoid this seeming in any way personal, hence my decision not to name names. Glad you’re OK with being mentioned anyway, and thanks for the link. Good to have the other side of the coin and apologies for not having bothered to track that down myself the first time around. It did indeed provide food for thought, of course!

      That said, looking through the linked pdf, I do remember many of the things that bugged me whilst watching. To give an example, the notion of asking students how long they need to do an exercise. I look at this as being MY job to decide. I’m fairly sure that if most teachers asked their class this, some students would say three minutes, some eight, and some fifteen, whatever the task might be. The teacher then splits the difference and makes an executive decision regardless. How else is teaching possible? I know from my own experience roughly how long I’d expect certain tasks or exercises to take and also monitor keenly whilst students are working. Once a few people are done, I’ll stop and get students to compare in pairs before rounding up and teaching the gaps, as it were. I honestly don’t see this way of doing things as any kind of restriction of students’ self development. Indeed, if anything, the opposite is true: I’m saving them time to be spent on other more fruitful areas.

      Anyway, having revisited the course plan for the week on page 6, I stand by my comments. The fact that on one day students decided that the teacher decided the content was very revealing of deeper desires on their part, whilst playing language games and having picnics, as pleasant as they may be, seem to me a poor end product of something that came dressed up in quite such grand terminology (’emergent syllabus’). I’d never be able to get away where I work with taking students out to shops or the park, and I suspect that’s the case for 99% of teachers out there around the world. I also think it’s a bit like asking a patient what medicine they’d most like to take for whatever it is they think ails them – and then not being surprised if some opt for ten Marlboro Lights and a pint. My point is simply that one of our jobs is to know better than our students what it is that might most help them. It’s one of the things I think we’re paid for. Of course, you’re free to disagree.

      Incidentally, I would be really interested – honestly – to read your experiences of using OUTCOMES and / or INNOVATIONS.
      Not sure whether that was a serious statement of intent or a piss take, as these things are hard to read online, but if the former, of course it’d be interesting, even if it proved hostile.
      As I’ve said elsewhere, one of my beefs with Dogme is the tarring of all published coursebooks with a similar brush, and the fact that this prevents any more nuanced discussion of different angles, aims, content, etc.

      As for whether or not I’m ‘qualified’ to discuss Dogme, what with me not being a fully fledged card-carrying acolyte, well I leave that to everyone else to decide.
      If you believe Anthony, of course, apparently the way I do teach with OUTCOMES is very similar to what he sees as Dogme, so go figure. 🙂

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