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).
Some foggy notion? Dogme in ELT
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.