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.
Today I’m pleased to present my first guest blog post, written by an old friend of mine called Simon Kent.
Simon is a teacher at London Metropolitan in north London, but may perhaps be better known to some of you as one of the authors of both the Market Leader and Language Leader series. What follows are his thoughts on the Dogme trend that’s been sweeping hipper circles of ELT these last few years. I’ve plenty to say on the matter myself, but thought this might serve well as an opening salvo.
Take it away, Simon . . . .
Much has been made of Dogme in ELT since Scott Thornbury’s initial article in 2000. It now counts as a ‘movement’ in ELT , with a discussion forum, conference papers and its own very well attended symposium at last year’s IATEFL conference In Brighton. Followers and more recent converts also have a holy text in the award winning ‘Teaching Unplugged’ (Delta publishing 2009). But, what does it really offer? If I understand correctly, in essence Dogme (like the Danish film movement it derives its name from) is all about a return to basics, originally a focus on the uncluttered purity of film making, or in this case, teaching. Set free from the tyranny and excesses of the modern course book, the idea seems to be that this will herald a new age of awareness among teachers and students.
Although at first glance these ideas may seem attractive, underneath there lurks another agenda, or more reactionary subtext.
1 It is Anti teacher
As the Dogme proponents themselves say, the three guiding principles are that it is (a) conversation driven, (b) materials light, and (c) focused on emergent language. Well, I take this to mean that teachers need to engage with, and talk to, their students, and listen to what they say, and deal with the results. Well, what’s new about this? Isn’t this what any sensible teacher does, and what goes on in classrooms anyway? No material, course book or otherwise, is unmediated. The teacher is a conduit. Where are all these teachers who blindly follow course books without reference to themselves or the students sitting in front of them? The assumption to me seems a bit insulting. Can the world really be full of unprofessional teachers who spend hours after hours slavishly following course books without reference to their students’ language needs, interests and desires. All teaching is a voyage of discovery for student and teacher alike. It’s a bit like what my friend Hugh Dellar said to me about a class some years ago: “I never thought I could have anything in common with someone who likes Phil Collins.”
In fact ‘Teaching Unplugged’ is chock full of activities which any teacher worth their salt should have at their disposal, but which are not really enough on their own. The Dogme proponents seem to be saying to teachers who may use a course book, “you’re not doing it right”.
2. It is Anti student
The ideology is really pretty unmediated. Underpinning the three principles is the notion that somehow the students are fully formed in terms of their ideas, opinions and thoughts, and simply lack the language to express them. I would suggest that some students fall into this category (perhaps particularly, though not exclusively, in a Business English environment), but that many people are in a language classroom for much more than just language. They are there to learn ‘stuff’’, develop an aesthetic, interact with others, and expand their knowledge of the world and the way they feel about it. Some students even attend language courses as a way to sort out their personal lives, and indeed their motives are far removed from pure language learning The idea that all students lack is the language they need to communicate what they already want to say is absurd. Part of learning is language but also exploration of things not seen, heard or thought about before.
In some cultures the idea that the student ‘teaches ‘ themself is seen as confusing, contradictory and a dereliction of duty on the part of the teacher. Materials may be seen as a key part of the learning process. In some parts of the world the idea of developing a conversation in front of a class of people is simply alien. I can imagine a new teacher bounding into a class of Japanese students head held high and saying “ right, we’re going to have a real good time together- let’s have a conversation.” It’s almost inviting the teacher to fail.
3. It is Anti industry
Now, I’m no apologist for the EFL publishing industry, quite the opposite in fact, however it is part of the lifeblood of the profession. Who sponsors and helps pay for many of the key industry conferences and events? It is not perfect, far from it, but there is probably enough good stuff coming out each year to indicate a vibrant industry. This is important. It is a sign of health that all sorts of courses and books are coming out.
It is easy to see course book writers as the lackeys of publishers, as most EFL publishing these days is market- driven. With their focus groups and research questionnaires, publishers are loath to do anything without prior market approval. However, it all comes down to teachers in the end. In my experience publishers rarely listen to anyone other than the markets (teachers) about anything. Dogme is a negative approach in the sense that it sees publishing as corrupting rather than aiding teaching. It seems to see published materials as trying to come between student and teacher rather than helping to bridge the gap.
The image which is invoked by the self-styled Dogmeticians is an MTV one of being Unplugged (see above), so at the end of last year there was an opportunity to see a ‘Dogme’ lesson by Luke Meddings ‘live and unplugged’ at the British Council, London. Filmed for posterity, it was a 45-minute class with a group of 13 students from the Wimbledon school of English.
(See link below)
It began, a little unfortunately, with squalling ‘ White Light/ White Heat’ era Velvet Underground feedback noise, due to microphone problems. To teach a live lesson is to be admired, but really what we saw was the information gathering part of the Dogme approach. What would have been more interesting would have been to see the following class and how the raw material provided by the students was developed into teaching material. There wasn’t much ’ conversation ’. The students were asked how they felt, and predictably “ nervous” was the almost universal one word response. A series of communicative tasks were then built around this single piece of information. It was all very nice, if quite teacher directed. However, the students didn’t seem to actually learn anything new. At the end, when someone in the audience asked what it was the students had got out of the lesson, and they were asked directly- one Japanese girl gave the biggest shoulder shrug I’ve ever seen- I thought her arms were going to come off. Ironically, the only new word learned by the students was ‘feedback’, (rather than ‘horrible noise’ as one student called it.) They did, understandably, all look a bit horrified when, at the end , Luke slipped into the more usual teacher use of the word and said “Now , let’s have some feedback! ”
I confess that I do have some sympathy with the Dogme proponents in the sense that there does seem to have been a concentration on fewer and bigger courses by publishers. Where we differ is that, far from discouraging teachers from using coursebooks, we should be encouraging teachers to demand more of, and from them, their publishers, and writers. After all, these days publishing is “market driven”, full of focus groups and research teams hell bent on re-purposing content, and ‘offerings’. The point is publishers cannot do it alone – they need input from teachers i.e. people at the coalface, to produce lively stimulating and relevant material.
Finally, to return to the musical analogy, the title ‘Teaching Unplugged’ also seems misplaced. It obviously comes from the series of MTV concerts where musicians played their songs ‘unplugged’ and acoustically. However, as many of these performances were not actually acoustic, the title is more about the atmosphere, intimacy and perhaps purity of the experience – i.e. unfettered by technology. The point is ‘plugged ‘or ‘unplugged’ you need some songs to play. Dogme to me is a bit like bad jazz. It seems to elevate technical ability over ideas, virtuosity over original thought, at worst a directionless self-indulgent meandering, mainly for the practitioner’s benefit.
So, to conclude, I’m not really sure what Dogme is offering teachers and their students. Although, at first glance there is an attraction, it is at best an illusion, an idea that is all presentation but which lacks substance- a ‘foggy notion’. To use another musical analogy, what I’ve always liked about the Velvet Underground is the fact that their songs were much better than their own ability to play them. Dogme in ELT seems to me to be the opposite of this.