Conversation is an elusive beast. It can be hard enough to have a decent one with someone that you know well and enjoy talking to. You may not be in the mood, you may not feel you have anything particular to report on since the last time you spoke, the topic that seems to be emerging may be of little interest you and you may participate only nominally as your mind may well be somewhere else entirely. Now add a few more people and shake to see what happens. Well, if my classes over the last twenty years, or the classes I’ve observed during that time, are anything to go by, then what happens isn’t all that dissimilar to what would happen in a conversation between eight or ten or twelve people in a pub. Two or three people dominate, with sometimes just one or maybe two hogging the conversation completely. Factions emerge, people drift in and out and sub-groups splinter off and have their own conversations instead, maybe chipping in to the main conversation when they feel like it. What almost never happens is a conversation spontaneously develops in which all the varied multiple members participate and contribute equally. I’m not complaining about this. It just seems to me to be the way things are. As any of you who’ve met me will know, I love a good conversation as much as the next man (or woman) and believe, much like Theodore Zeldin, in his mesmerisingly good book The Art of Conversation, that what we talk about and who we talk about it with can have a profound effect on who we become. So I’m down with the concept. What I have an issue with is basing a whole approach to teaching on it! Or claiming to, at any rate.
Dogme prides itself on its own self-image as student centred and conversationally driven, yet beneath the veneer my feeling is that there lurks many a frustrated materials writer simply waiting for the right offer from the right company before cashing in their chips, saying goodbye to the revolutionary kudos and joining the big bad enemy camp. And I speak as someone whose whole career as an ELT materials writer has been driven by general boredom and frustration with much of what I had been given to teach with early on in my career! The roots of my cynicism lie in the fact that when I hear Dogme practitioners vent about materials, what I think is actually going on is not a rejection of materials per se, but a rejection of most other materials apart from their own! Now, in and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with this. Many good young – and not-so-young – teachers start out on the road towards becoming materials writers (even if only on a part-time basis, as I’ve always preferred things to be myself) by rejecting published materials and preferring their own. This is as it should be. This is how you start to learn your craft. But let’s be honest here and recognise things for what they are.
I remember reading – slightly incredulously – a post on Chia Suan Song’s blog where she took a Tom Waits’ song into class and did a lesson based around it, which then morphed into student-selected songs followed by a viewing dictation of the action in Lady Gaga’s Telephone video and a homework that revolved around pop artists Roy Lichtenstein. Now, I’m not saying none of this was fun. I’m sure most students had a great time doing all the activities Chia describes – and I’m not saying it didn’t lead to some vocabulary work that may have been of utility (though the cynic in me feels the need to add that some items such as a helicopter flew by, prison warders and a car with red and yellow flames may be particularly useful when having to describe the video to Telephone, and that perhaps this is not something students will often find themselves doing again in future, but hey!), but to claim that this way of doing things is anything other than a keen teacher infectiously spreading her enthusiasms (Tom Waits, social semiotics, Roy Lichtenstein) and teaching on the hoof is to dignify things above and beyond the reality. In essence, this is a materials-driven class; just that for some reason the teacher believes that a Tom Waits lyrics and a Lady Gaga video offer more to the students than published material might. Of course every teacher has the right to make these decisions, but at the end of the day, we also have to be able to square with ourselves that what we end up teaching is of maximum utility to our students, and not simply something that was needed to describe something foisted upon students by one’s own whims. And I speak as someone who comes from a music background and who spent the first few years of my teaching career imposing countless songs I was personally mad for onto my students!
On a similar note, last year I watched Luke Meddings give a plenary at France TESOL, where he compared the city planning of Paris with the way Dogme teachers approach lesson planning and where he also made several analogies between exploring cities and language. Within this, we were treated to several pseudo-impromptu tasks involving working with partners and describing our first memories of visiting Paris, what we’d done thus far in the city this time around and so on. The idea was that a teacher could use these talking tasks to generate ‘meaningful, student-centred’ discussion and from there, pick up on mistakes and things students were trying to say but couldn’t quite say yet (or ’emergent language’ if you want to sound fancy) and turn this into input – the old TBL task-followed-by-teacher-led-input paradigm I’ve discussed elsewhere in these rants. Now, again, this could well be a lot of fun and could generate a lot of discussion – BUT Dogme seems to mistake generating a lot of discussion with being ‘discussion-driven’! It’s surely TEACHER driven in that it’s the teacher deciding to bring such tasks (or, indeed, any of the many similar tasks that you find in Teaching Unplugged) into the class and using them as a way of getting students to talk! And in this sense, can anyone explain to me how this is any different to a good text in a coursebook that students want to talk about, or a set of questions in a coursebook that students want to discuss? The only difference I can see is that one may – if written well – feature graded input, recycle previously taught language, be written specifically to encourage classroom conversation and target specific high-frequency bits of lexis!
Let’s be really generous here and assume, for the sake of pushing the extremes, that a teacher DOES somehow manage to work from emerging conversations that happen between the students themselves, at some point they will inevitably want to turn this inwards and towards language. What they’ll be looking for is a slip or a gap in the students’ output that they can seize on and exploit, so students feel like they’re actually learning something and not just jabbering on. What is picked up and the way it is exploited is often the result of past experience and practice. Indeed, it’s hard top see how it could possibly be anything else. This means the teacher rolling out a familiar riff and thinking “Oh great. I can do my thing on used to versus usually here” or “Brilliant. Let’s do a little bit on what they thought London was going to be like, and how it turned out to be different. That always goes down a treat!” In essence, despite the appearance of spontaneity and ultra-responsiveness to students’ so-called needs, these linguistic interludes are frequently simply another form of teacher-driven task or teacher-led language focus.
As an adult, I’m smart enough to know that not everyone in a very varied group of fellow learners is going to want to sit and chat or talk about whatever I might want to start talking about of a morning – whether that be Arsenal’s ongoing struggle for a Champions League spot, a new country record I’ve been digging, a row I had with my wife or the nutter I had to deal with on leaving my house in the pissing rain that morning. And I sure as hell don’t want to spend my morning having conversations about other such mundane topics of anyone else’s choosing! I’m all for classrooms having more talking in them, and for this talking to engage the whole student, but let’s confuse things and call these bits of talking conversations. They’re clearly not, or at least hardly ever will be. They’re the result of materials (or tasks) that teachers bring in, and that teachers have to justify to themselves, their students, their students’ sponsors and their bosses in terms of their goals, the utility of what is taught around them and so on. In this, the good practice that Dogme seems intent on claiming a monopoly on is no different to the good practice nay teacher who’s learned how to listen to their students engages in, and to insist that it is is to do these teachers, who numerically surely far outweigh the Dogme crowd, a profound disservice.