Tag Archives: Task-Based Learning

Dissing Dogme Part Two: Carrying TBL to its demented logical extreme

So, ding ding, gloves on! Here we again with Round Two of cheap pops at Dogme. I bet you can’t wait.

Today what I’d like to focus is an issue right at the heart of Dogme: when and how students are given language, the medium through which new language is delivered and the issues arising from this. The title of this post refers to TBL, and the reason for this is that in many ways I think Dogme has ended up painting itself into a bit of a corner by adopting much of the orthodoxy of Task-Based Learning. Interestingly, though, it has done so without really acknowledging as much, and even without (often) doing it in as focused  a way as the best TBL manages. Now, I’m certainly no advocate for TBL, and tend to agree with much of what Anthony Bruton has said against it, but at least it had a clear aim – usually (in its early forms, anyway) geared around asking students to do meaningful tasks often related to real-world necessity or utility. These tasks might be something like visiting a doctor, having a job interview or booking tickets.

In TBL, language may be fed in during some kind of pre-task stage, where structures and lexis are either explicitly focused on or are merely hinted at, but the bulk of the language comes in response to the students’ own ability to perform the given task. Inevitably, when the whole thrust of a task is to communicate (and perhaps negotiate) a particular message successfully, students are basically free to use whatever grammar and lexis they wish. Some tasks may suggest or prompt the use of certain items more strongly that others, but at the end of the day, its the completion of the task that matters. All too often this means that students – scared of drawing attention to themselves by making what they may still perceive as mistakes – stay within the confines of words and structures they already know; in short, they get by, but do so without always bothering to make the extra effort and take the risks needed to utilise new language.

The feedback then depends both on what students themselves feel they needed, if they are willing – or able – to ask about this, and then on whatever the teacher was able to notice students having problems with. In reality, often what this means (and this is especially true if the teacher is setting up and running tasks they’ve done before and thus have some sense of the linguistic requirements of) is that teachers have an already prepared set of language ready to be wheeled out and looked at; at best, they may well focus on a mixture of previously anticipated areas (which may or not have actually been problematic, but which nevertheless will make students feel they’re getting some input and upgrading of their output) AND actual responses to things students really tried to say.

Much of the feedback will be done on a board, possibly (and ideally, I suppose) using examples written up whilst students are busy communicating and doing the task. There may well be gaps in the examples / boardwork, which the teacher then elicits, and probably some time for commentary and also questions on the linguistic input.

In many ways, this basic template, developed and honed by Prabhu during the Bangalore Project in the early 80s, fed into both the TTT (Test-Teach-Test) paradigm and, more pertinently for the purposes of this post, Dogme. However, whilst TBL at least focuses on tasks which may have some real-world utility, in Dogme, there may not necessarily even be a task, or if there is, it may just be ’emergent’, just as the students’ language is supposed to be. In reality, this may well mean one of two things: (1) a teacher walks into  a room and starts chatting to students – or, in an even more Dogme twist, students start chatting to the teacher – and sooner or later either a task suggests itself or some language that needs to be fed in order to help the communication along gets given to the class (orally, or via the board) or – and I suspect this is by far the more common approach adopted by many self-proclaimed Dogmeticians – (2) a teacher walks into a classroom with a task of some kind that they want students to do. Maybe the students are to brainstorm ideas or debate a series of moral questions or listen to and discuss the meaning of a pop song or whatever. There’ll be some kind of ‘task’ which results in some kind of talking, which in turn results in some kind of input (which may well be, as stated earlier, not based exclusively on what was really actually heard, but also on past experience and prediction).

There may possibly also be some kind of learning that occurs as a result of students interacting with each other. In Dogme presentations, I’ve seen this kind of thing dressed up as the true fruits of a Vygotsky-ian social constructivist approach, but to most people it’s called accidental learning – and certainly nothing the teacher set out to actually teach!

Now, my beef here is this: why on earth do the Dogme folk think that language can only be given to students AFTER they actually need it? What  grounding is there for this in any theoretical approach to learning? And what kind of load does it place on both the teacher – as sole provider of linguistic input – and on the students, who have to sit through a kind of presentation stage post hoc after every single chat / task / debate / bit of speaking? The teacher inevitably ends up being the source of input, thus increasing the risk of their own ideolect colouring the language they pick up on, whilst the medium of delivery for feedback will invariably be the board, meaning students then have to copy down what they’ve seen written up. If you then want to check the degree to which students have learned from the feedback, there needs to be a repeat stage built in later on, or some kind of parallel task, though of course 9as stated above, again) if the goal is purely driven by an interest in communication, it ultimately doesn’t matter if learners try to take new language on board or not, so long as they get their point across again!

Now, I’m all for teachers being able to do the above, but to elevate this to the be-all-and-end-all of language teaching is idiocy. What most annoys is the denial of the notion that we are actually able to predict language students may well need to do tasks. Surely one of the things students pay us for is to make informed decisions about what tools might best help them perform tasks. Oops. Wait a minute! This is actually what COURSEBOOKS do – or good ones do, anyway! Silly me. Nearly forgot.

Once coursebooks are focusing on helping students to perform certain kinds of tasks better – and with the increased influence of the Common European Framework more are, or are at least paying lip service to the idea of doing so – then the next step is to predict what lexis and what grammar might best aid students in their attempts; what kind of listening (or reading) models it might be useful for students to meet before attempting tasks – and how the task itself might best be framed in order to ensure that students are best positioned to attempt to take some of this new input on board as they attempt it. This means students have written records already provided, teachers can see how much they already know and teach the gaps by using exercises designed to get new language to students ahead of tasks and tasks can be more fruitfully and richly attempted (and, of course, as students do this, the teacher is STILL free to monitor and get new language up on the board to round up with).

Are Dogmeticians seriously suggesting that feeding in language – or testing students’ knowledge of language – before getting them to try some kind of communication is a no-no? If yes, then why? And if not, then why the coursebook hate?

How’d we ever get this way?

He may well not remember this, but a long time ago, when I was first starting out on the great merry-go-round that is the ELT talks circuit, Jim Scrivener – the esteemed author of Learning Teaching, as I knew him then – once called me a Thatcherite. Well, to be more precise, he called my ideas Thatcherite!

To those of you lucky enough not to have been living in the UK during the reign of That Bloody Woman (as my grandfather insisted on calling her till his dying day!), this may not strike you as much of an insult, or even as an insult at all. However, where I come from, that’s fighting talk! Punches have been thrown for less. Having pointed this out to Jim, the ensuing discussion clarified what seemed to me to be some kind of generational fault lines. Jim felt that my talk – about the importance of teaching fixed expressions and collocations if we really want our students to become more fluent (and, I’d venture to add, accurate) – was crassly commercial (in his defence, the talk may well have ended with passing mention of a book I had out at the time, INNOVATIONS!), utilitarian and focused on outcomes and results, and was thus lacking poetry, creativity and soul.

The reason I mention this scurrilous piece of EFL gossip, apart from to simply hook you in, is because I was reminded of it during the debate which seems to have emerged of late about the many failures of Brit-centric, CELTA-rooted Communicative Language Teaching, and also when watching both Jeremy Harmer’s recent talk that I blogged about earlier this week and Jim Scrivener’s talk up at Glasgow IATEFL recently (incidentally, you can read many of Jim’s stimulating recent thoughts over on HIS blog – http://demandhighelt.wordpress.com). We seem to be hitting a moment where teachers of a certain vintage are reassessing their careers, thinking about where things might perhaps have gone slightly astray and posing questions for the rest of us to ponder. Here’s my take on all of this – and on how it connects to my recent post about focus and testing.

Much of what has become ELT orthodoxy has its roots in the late 1960s counter-culture. At his recent talk at my university, Jeremy Harmer said quite clearly that he was a flower child back in the day (and anyone who’s seen such Youtube clips as this one will testify that he was most certainly of the paisley-shirted and hirsute persuasion from a young age). The late 60s and early 70s was the cultural and political environment out of which many of The Grand Old Men (and they do tend to mainly be men) of TEFL emerged, and from which, in many ways, ELT as a globalised profession grew. This was a time of challenging authority, of the realisation that the powers-that-be were not always straight-forward and honest, of utopian daydreams, of free love, of experimentation, of screwing the system and standing up to The Man. And out of this developed a pedagogy rooted in caring and sharing in the language classroom, in humanizing the classroom (with the implications being, of course, that all classrooms before must have been neither caring, nor sharing nor even very human!). I would argue that what also developed was a generation of teachers – often wonderfully funny, warm, witty, creative (and, lest we forget, influential) teachers, it must be said – who felt vaguely uncomfortable about actually being TEACHERS; who preferred to be seen as facilitators or mediators or unlockers of inner excellence or guides, and so on. Anything but the dreaded T word.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I have nothing major against the 1960s. As anyone who knows me well will attest, a large chunk of my ever-expanding record collection derives from that very decade. Indeed, the title of the post comes from a ’68 pop hit by the wonderful and very underrated Andy Kim.

That said, I am not, and never can be, a child of the 60s in the way that Jeremy and Jim and Adrian Underhill and that generation are.

Whether I like it or not, I was formed as an adult during The Thatcher Years (or the post-punk years, as I prefer to remember them!).

I am also the product of the comprehensive school system, and the first from my family to go to university, and all of these things shape who we go on to become and what we go on to believe.

My feeling is that the 60s generation have shaped an ELT pedagogy in their own image for a long time now, and are finally starting to have doubts about where it’s got us. The simple dichotomy (I feel a Henry Widdowson moment coming on) of 60s = freedom / 80s = authoritarianism at worst, hard-headed pragmatism at best may be an oversimplification, but it’s one which contains a fair few grains of truth, not least in terms of the way that the 60s generation – and all those they have influenced so deeply – have come to see things, as evidenced by the story with which I began this piece.

CLT – and its close cousin, Task-Based Learning – has created a generation of teachers who think of lessons solely in terms of activities. The number of times I’ve sat down with teachers and asked what their goal is for the lesson they’re planning to teach only to be told what the teacher and students will be doing. On occasion, when I’ve said “No, that’s WHAT you’re doing. I want to know WHY you’re doing it”, it’s got so bad I’ve been told that I must be a bit slow and that the goal of the lesson is obviously – as any fool can see – TO DO A LISTENING. Or a reading, Or a speaking.

This has all been exacerbated by the tyranny of four-week CELTA courses, the easy entrance into our noble profession for the vast majority of native-speaker teachers (present company included: Westminster College, 1993). Given its ridiculous time restrictions, the CELTA is unable to help trainees learn much more about language than the names and basic functions of a fee grammatical structures – and how to find one’s way around a dictionary and the grammar notes at the back of the book. As such, the main focus falls on faking it: we end up pretty linguistically ignorant, but highly adept at manufacturing that magical quality, FUN! We may not know much about how language works, but we’re dab hands at a bit of TPR, we know good games for Friday afternoons and we can knock up a gap-fill based on almost any song you’d care to name.

And we wonder why non-natives are starting to distrust our infinite wisdom!

We have come to a point where teaching has become a dirty word, where FUN has become the be-all and end-all, where teachers are all-too often little more than automatons able only to string recipes, games and activities together, where testing creates terror (and has come to be seen as some kind of weird anti-educational cult-like behaviour indulged in by those crazy authoritarian Asians, whilst we in the Free West (TM) see ourselves as creative libertarians.  We have come to a point where the hard graft and discipline required to learn not just language, but almost any kind of serious skill are in short supply. We now pin our hopes on shortcuts: technology will save us by facilitating a sufficient amount of meaningful exposure; DOGME will save us by freeing us from actually being teachers and having to make informed decisions abut syllabus, word choice, topics and themes, testing and assessment, and so on and instead will allow us to exist in Gurdjieff’s perpetual now.

And all the time we fail to get better at the one thing we’re all supposed to be doing: teaching language.

When I first read The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis, as part of my DELTA reading, one thing that hit me hard was just how much language there is out there. Just take the word blog. We read and we follow blogs, we post on blogs, we maintain blogs, we upload stuff to our blogs; indeed, we BLOG. We talk about bloggers and the blogosphere. It goes on and on. And each word and each collocation has its own colligations – grammatical patterns it’s often used with – and its own co-text (words often used with – or around – it). There is a LOT of language out there – and students really need to start getting to grips with it.

Students know this.

Examination boards know this.

Employers know this.

University entrance panels know this.

It’s about time we all woke up to this harsh reality too and started to think about whether or not what we’re doing in our classes is getting enough of it to our students. Are we covering a broad enough range? Are we honestly covering the 750+ words needed to lift a student from one level to the next? Are we revisiting and recycling them? Are we testing how much our students are retaining? In short, are we making the teaching and learning of new language the absolute centre of our practice? And if not, then why not?

To wrap up this rambling ranting post, I’ll go right back to where I started from.

I am proud to call myself a TEACHER first and foremost. I am also, however, a man of The Left, hence my annoyance at the Thatcherite tag. I would argue all day long that having clear goals which can be stated before a student buys into a course, having high expectations of what my students can achieve in terms of language load, and giving students regular (soft AND hard) tests in order to help them see how they’re doing and what they’ve got for the money they’ve invested are acts of The Left as well. They are rooted in a desire for collective improvement and in a belief that the powers-that-be have a duty of care to those entrusted to them. These beliefs also, though, come with a clear-eyed acceptance of the long hard route to competence – and see little point in hiding this reality from students. To insist on the process over the product is to deny this reality, and to me is little short of professional irresponsibility.