The road to hell is paved with good intentions (or Much Ado About Nothing?)
As a teacher and as a coursebook writer, one of the (many) things I’ve always been interested in is trying to present a broader and more nuanced view of the world to students than is often attempted. As I’m sure you’ll all be aware, publishers often have fairly strict guidelines on what can – and cannot – be included in material aimed for a global mass market. In essence, what this far too frequently means is that potential Middle Eastern sales – and the sensitivities of the region (both real and imagined by overly-sensitive EFL editors!) dictate what the whole world gets to read about. One common acronym often used for describing what remains taboo is parsnips, standing for politics, alcohol, religion, sex, narcotics, isms (such as communism or atheism), and pork. Given these strictures, what then all too often occurs is writers themselves want an easy life, want to maximize sales and don’t want to rock the boat in order to get repeat commissions and so the cloyingly bland little world of ELT materials repeats itself ad infinitum.
For many teachers, this prompts a lurch away from published materials towards so-called ‘authentic’ materials, a move I’ve argued against elsewhere. For me as a writer, it presents its own kind of challenge. How can I get interesting and relevant issues in through the back door? How can I leave space for potentially interesting debate and discussion to emerge? And how can my material affect or impact upon students – and perhaps alter or modify their ways of thinking? Obviously, this is a vast area and one out of which many, many posts could emerge. However, this particular thought piece is based on watching a class yesterday which used a subversively-intentioned text I’ve long been quite proud of – and the depression and shock which ensued from seeing what the class did with it! As the title has it, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
This was a listening-based lesson from OUTCOMES UPPER-INTERMEDIATE Unit 16 – Business. The basic gist is that it revolved around reality TV shows and in particular a radio programme about two new Afghan reality TV shows: an Afghan version of Dragon’s Den and Afghan Idol! The hope was that it might afford students a more sophisticated and complex view of a country that’s not exactly had a great press in recent years. The lead-in is based on a short text about the boom in reality TV and some discussion of shows students have seen (see below).
Read the short extract below. Then discuss the questions.
Dragon’s Den is a popular reality TV programme in Britain. Each week, would-be entrepreneurs who want to set up their own businesses present their plans to a panel of five successful business people, with the aim of persuading the five to invest a certain amount of their own money in exchange for a stake in any new company the entrepreneurs are then able to start. After the entrepreneurs have pitched their ideas, they are then subjected to questioning from the panel, as a result of which each of the business people either offer to give the money the entrepreneur has asked for or declare that they are not interested. There is no negotiation on the amount that is invested, but the entrepreneurs and business people can negotiate what percentage of the new company the business people will end up owning.
1 Does a programme like Dragon’s Den exist in your country? Is it a programme you would watch? Why? / Why not?
2 Discuss other reality TV shows you know in the following areas. What do they involve? Do you like any of them? Why? / Why not?
– living with a group of other people
– survival or dealing with difficult situations
– music or dance
– romance and dating
It then moved onto the following exercises, which were predominantly based on the listening embedded here.
You are going to hear a radio report about a reality TV programme in Afghanistan.
A Before you listen, work in groups. Discuss what you know about Afghanistan.
B Now listen and answer these questions.
1 What is the programme?
2 Why is it important there?
3 What is different about the programme compared to its British equivalent?
B Listen again and decide if the following statements are true or false. Then compare your answers with a partner.
1 The show was originally devised in Britain.
2 The Afghan economy has not been sustaining itself.
3 Most people in Afghanistan work for the state.
4 More people need to learn about aspects of business.
5 Faisulhaq Moshkani has an electricity company.
6 His company is unique in Afghanistan.
7 There are two reality TV shows on Afghan TV.
8 In Afghanistan, women weren’t allowed to have paid jobs in the past.
The group was a small one and the teacher decided to conduct the discussion of the first question – exercise A above – with the whole group. This was the cue for a Ukrainian student to launch into a rant about how everything that Afghanistan had was a result of Russia having provided it for them, that the main field of work there was drug-production and drug-dealing, and that essentially all Afghans were violent and barbaric Taliban wanna-bes who treated all women worse than dogs. These comments completely threw the (admittedly relatively inexperienced) teacher and went unchallenged by other students. Indeed, one other student – a young Romanian lad – simply chuckled along at the outpouring. The teacher did try to say that maybe it was a bit harsh and that you couldn’t really say a whole country was violent, just that people were violent. This well-intentioned attempt at encouraging personalisation and discouraging sweeping generalisations resulted in the response: “Yes, the people are very violent!”
Then whilst the teacher was rounding up the answers to the true or false questions that accompanied the second listening, the same student replied that number 8 must be true – not because of anything that had been heard, but because ‘They are all Muslims, and that’s how they are. They don’t let women do nothing. So of course it’s true.’
Now, were I teaching this class myself, I’d pick up on this, challenge it, explore it, complicate it, explain what I felt was wrong with such outbursts, but in this instance I was merely an observer. And the experience raised some complicated questions: does any of the above really actually matter is perhaps the hardest question. Is it simply that as a well-intentioned left-of-centre bleeding-heart British liberal, I expect the world to be a better place than it clearly is, and that the reality is that many many of our students hold views I perceive to be odious and unsavoury and yet which, when aired in multi-lingual classes, often go unchallenged or get agreed with – possibly even by other teachers themselves? Also, by making material which raises these issues, albeit in a discrete way, am I inadvertently facilitating such bile? Or is it better that it exists and can thus be used as a springboard by some teachers to challenge, explore and complicate – and that others who don’t, with students who think similarly to the student described above, remain essentially unchanged and continue as they would have anyway? In other words, is the feeling of discomfort I experienced essentially a luxury, an irrelevance?
I’ve always felt that as teachers we have two responsibilities that pull against each other at times like these: on the one hand, we have a responsibility to help our students express themselves better in English – even if we find their opinions repellent. After all, they have paid us to help them learn better English! At the same time, I also feel all teachers have a right – perhaps even a duty – to challenge on a personal level opinions they find disgusting. I’ve never really felt these were mutually exclusive desires, and have long managed to more or less balance them.
However, by sending material that opens the world up the classes out there into the classrooms of others, I suppose I simply have to accept that material can be used to challenge, but can also end up simply reaffirming, prejudices and biases that students come with. In saying this, I start to feel like an NRA gun freak claiming that it’s not guns that kill, it’s people, but fear that in this instance (though NOT, of course, when it comes to guns!), that’s just the way it has to be. Maybe we just have to accept that bigots and racists have a right to their viewpoint and that in the end, even being challenged or critiqued may well do very little to dent their world views. While conversation CAN be transformative, it can also simply be a reaffirmation of previously held beliefs, whatever our political inclinations. And that my angst is ultimately much ado about nothing very much.
Dissing Dogme Part Seven: a dogma in search of a mantra
If you stop and think about it, calling an approach to teaching DOGME is probably not the greatest idea.
Firstly, and of course this could just be my filthy tabloid-polluted mind, it looks like DOG ME and as if that didn’t sound sufficiently saucy enough already, there’s the whole concept of dogging that was brought into the popular imagination by one-time Liverpool striker and violently abusive ex of Ulrika Jonsson, Stan Collymore. On a more serious note, there’s the fact that the Dogme 95 group of Danish film directors who so inspired Scott Thornbury with their manifestos, their vows of chastity and their desire to purify film making by rejecting special effects, post-production modifications and other technical gimmicks actually soon ran out of steam, splintered into arguing factions and was defunct by 2005! What started out as a clever metaphorical construct ended up being a bit of an albatross around the neck, especially when you learn that today if you want to claim you’re a Dogme film maker, you simply submit a form online and check a box which states that you “truly believe that the film … has obeyed all Dogme95 rules as stated in the vows of chastity”. Now surely a smarter person than me can see some kind of metaphor here involving the Internet? No? For shame! Finally, of course, there’s the fact that Dogme is Danish for dogma. Now, whichever way you slice it, dogma is not a great thing. My Macmillan dictionary defines it as “a belief or set of beliefs that people are expected to accept without asking questions about them” whilst Wikipedia defines the concept as “the established belief or doctrine held by a religion, or a particular group or organization. It is authoritative and not to be disputed, doubted or diverged from by practitioners or believers.” It is, as the old cliche has it, like punk never happened! I could well go into yet another post lambasting the creeping influence of the old hippies and attempt to paint Dogme as a sinister cult with its inner circle of True Believers, its guru, its tenets of faith, even its communes . . . but I won’t because that would just be childish, wouldn’t it?
What I WILL do though in this my final Dissing Dogme post, you’ll be pleased / stunned / devastated (delete as applicable) to hear, is really question what on earth Dogme is offering us that it feels in a position to be so dogmatic about, to query why smart and innovative teachers feel the need to wear group colours and to attempt to move the debate towards saner areas of discussion, which I hope to then go on and explore over the coming weeks.
Talk to folk outside of the loose collective that embrace the term Dogme and reactions range from amusement to bemusement to outright hostility. Simon Kent, who kicked this whole saga off way back when emailed me recently and let slip this little gem: “I’ve very much enjoyed the recent stuff, and I’ve also come to realise something else about the Dogme ‘community’, which I think one of the earlier Dogme people themselves mentioned . It is a group of people who openly share their ideas. Agreed. However, essentially what they are doing is saying “Here’s a good lesson I did (maybe using few materials).” Really, it’s nothing more (or less) than that. It does seem a bit ridiculous to claim or extrapolate a whole way of teaching from this, and to then go on to peddle it as a complete philosophy!”
This, in turn, is kind when compared to a comment made to me at IATEFL this year . . . “Dogme . . . or winging it, as we used to call it!”
Or, as my co-author Andrew Walkley puts it, “Dogme . . . isn’t it really just correction?”
Now obviously, all of these cheap shots fail to nail the big beast that Dogme has become, but part of the issue is just that. Dogme has become a kind of amorphous moveable feast that seems to mean different things to different people and that spectacularly fails to really define itself in any coherent and universal terms. In a sense, of course, this may be its fundamental power, and yet on occasion, it has started to remind me of a scary talk I once saw by an NLP snake-oil seller who proclaimed “If it works, it’s NLP”. If Dogme is to be anything other than a flag of convenience for a loose scattering of the rebellious and the disaffected, the earnest and the intellectual and if it is ever to be taken seriously as a meaningful movement then it needs to maybe focus more on clarifying exactly what it is – and isn’t – about. Alternatively, of course, it could be that teachers start stepping out from under its protective banner and saying what they think individually without invoking groupmind and stand / fall on their own two feet.
Let’s just briefly look at some of Scott’s original Ten Commandments.Again, these were clearly originally intended to be a humorous device, aping both Dogme 95’s vows of chastity and of course the basic ground rules as brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses (allegedly). However, the idea of Ten Commandments is an interesting one. How many is one able to break or abandon before one no longer can really claim to be of the faith? One? Two? Five? At what stage does one’s faith become something other than the One True Faith Of The Book is one jettisons commandments at will? My (admittedly sketchy) understanding of Christianity is that just breaking ONE – if it goes unrepented – is quite sufficient to get you a one-way ticket down the highway to hell. Where do today’s self-proclaimed Dogmeticians stand in relation to their own ten commandments? Are they pure in intention and action? Or have they erred away from The Path? Are they really still even of the same faith? Or are they rather sub-cults, splinter groups and factions?
Well, let’s go back to where it all began, when Scott Thornbury arrived with the tablets of truth. Firstly, there was Interactivity and the belief that the most direct route to learning is to be found in the interactivity between teachers and students and amongst the students themselves. Well, any teacher worth their salt tries to make their classes interactive – and there are many many ways of doing this. Coursebooks have been suggesting ways of making classroom activity interactive for donkey’s years, as have all manner of methodological tomes. Secondly, there’s the bold – and totally impossible to prove or quantify – claim that “students are most engaged by content they have created themselves” and yet as we’ve seen from these debates here, very few Dogme-rooted teachers seems to adhere to this in any kind of disciplined or consistent way, with most preferring either to simply ride the conversation and spin out their own teacher-led board-based input repertoires or else bring in their own material. Next up is the notion that “learning is social” – well, no kidding. Was anyone claiming it was anti-social? – “and co-constructed”. Indeed. This can surely mean anything from students discussing guided discovery questions about grammar to a teacher asking questions about language in a book to whatever else you want it to mean. Next came the idea of scaffolded conversations – in some corners, this has become twisted and taken to mean that learning in class can ONLY really take place through a never-ending ongoing conversation and that nothing can explicitly be taught – a kind of perversion of Krashen’s now discredited ideas carried to their logical end-point – whilst others prefer the idea that ‘conversation’ can mean not only what we normally think of as a conversation, but a conversation between an individual and a text, say . . . or what used to be known as reading in class! Yet surely a scaffolded conversation can be exactly what good coursebook material can offer teachers help with. The first double-page of every unit of every level of OUTCOMES aims to teach conversations specified in the CEFR, and aims to scaffold students to the point where they are better able to have these conversations. Unless I’m missing something, one thing scaffolding cannot mean, however, is letting students try first and THEN feeding back. That’d be like building a house, seeing if it stands or falls and only erecting scaffolding when it starts to shudder and shake! The fifth commandment focused on emergence and the belief that “language and grammar emerge from the learning process”. Again, this is essentially Krashen-lite and is based on his notion of acquisition over learning, a theory which has been widely shredded in the years since it was first propagated and which has little or no support within the literature. Are there still Dogmeticians out there who believe that learning is ONLY possible through some kind of negotiated and emergent process and that the more formal study of lexis or grammar, whether that be in class or outside of it, is less or completely non effective? If so, where’s the literature ti support such claims? And I’m NOT asking for a rehashed adapatation here of Vygotsky and his zone of proximal development theory.
So where are we? Oh yes. Halfway through. the sixth commandment is about Affordances and is rooted in the notion that one of the the teacher’s roles is to “optimize language learning affordances through directing attention to emergent language” – now, it may be me, but I can’t see how this differs much from ideas about noticing, which have been developing for the last few decades. In fact, the only real difference seems to be that Dogme limits itself to ONLY encouraging noticing of new language as it becomes ’emergent’ when in fact much evidence seems to suggest that it is when the language is NOT immediately pressing that students may perhaps have more brain space free to actually pay attention to form and function. No serious writer on noticing has ever suggested, as far as I know, that it only has impact under the limitations suggested here. Next comes voice and the idea that the learners’ voices be given recognition along with their beliefs and knowledge.Well, again, there’s nothing exclusively Dogme about such a notion. Surely any teacher who cares about their students, regardless of their approach to materials, grammar, etc. attempts to encourage learners to voice their own sense of self and ideas and opinions, and many published materials go out of their way to tap into these impulses. We’re left with a woolly notion of students and teachers being empowered by being liberated from the shackles of published materials. Clearly, Chia Suan Song’s students who said they enjoyed having a coursebook as part of their course or those teachers unwilling, unable or unhappy to abandon materials are just stuck in their slave mentalities and haven’t fully grasped this great gift of freedom they’ve been proffered. The fools! Personally, and to get all religious on your ass again, I always liked the Subud notion that freedom is free of the need to be free! Ninth is the notion of relevance and the idea that materials should have relevance for the learners – ironic really as it seems to suggest that relevance is an inherent quality rather than something meditated and faciliated through interaction in the classroom, and that it is possible for materials brought into the Dogme class to be in and of themselves ‘relevant’ to all the many students in the room. Relevant how – culturally, linguistically, grammatically, intellectually, etc. – is never gone into. leaving us with the tenth and final diktat, one rooted in Norman Fairclough and the Nottingham School: “teachers and students should use published materials and textbooks in a critical way that recognizes their cultural and ideological biases.” So I’m guessing that this is what the Dogmeticians are all busy doing, right? Counting the ratio of white faces to non-white, men to women, etc? Writing sociological treatises on sexism within ELT listening material? Dissecting the hetero-fascist subtexts? No? Thought not. If anything, the closest I think the ELT classroom gets to this most of the time is actually through coursebooks such as Ben Goldstein’s Framework. But of course Dogme cannot go there, can it!
So anyway my closing questions really are these: what does Dogme actually believe these days? Is there any sense of adherence to the commandments outlined above? If so, to how many of them? If not, then what’s the point? Admit you’ve lost your religion and embrace your atheism! If you’re clinging to a few choice concepts, is there there ANYTHING inherent in these beliefs that actually sets it apart from other more generalised statements about good practice? And on a broader level, why do people even feel the need to invoke and protect the whole concept? Is it a misplaced sense of brand loyalty? Is it just because you get to hang with the cool kids, even if only online? Or is it simply a cover. a shield to hide behind in case the flak flies too hard and fast?
I guess in a sense what I’m asking is why don’t the smart, young, motivated teachers who use Dogme as part of their calling card simply ditch the badge and start talking about what they believe about teaching instead? There’s a kind of collective madness inherent in jumping to the defence of a tag or a label that’s out of your control and that others will take to mean whatever they want it to mean. If you believe that classrooms would be better off if we all stopped using any published materials and all just had loads of conversations and reformulated, why not just pitch those ideas as exactly that? If you’re interested in critiquing published materials whilst using them, then great: write a paper or conference talk or a blog post about that: recognise these ideas were around before Dogme and have a life outside of their appropriation. Know your roots and talk your own truth. It is, of course, The Only Way (TM).