Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Dogme ELT / Teaching Unplugged: Minimalist Teaching?

This is the second in a series of articles exploring Dogme ELT / Teaching Unplugged. You can see the first one here.
What is it?

In my personal life, I am a big fan of minimalism. It's clean, it's simple, it feels right. I think my inclination toward minimalism attracted me to the idea of Dogme ELT/Teaching Unplugged (here, I'm only going to use Dogme ELT for simplicity). 

Dogme ELT started out (in one of Thornbury's earlier writings) as a radical view of “ESL chastity.” [Interesting side note: Minimalism is an expression of a form of asceticism (not aestheticism--different things!), which coincidentally was often practiced by the same people who would take chastity vows.] As is mostly commonplace knowledge by now, the Dogme teaching movement was named after the Swedish Dogme film movement that had similar ideas of film “purity.” The "Teaching Unplugged" name comes from the idea of unplugging from the coursebook, but not necessarily from technology (as I thought at first - thank to Jason Renshaw's article for clearing that up).

Aside from the focus against coursebooks and pedagogical materials, early discussions of Dogme ELT “methodology” were about learner-based content and  decentralized classroom power:
In a dogme class, power does not reside in the teacher who delivers the grammar to the students who ‘learn’ it. Instead, discourse and learning start with the learners’ own lives. It is built on an understanding of the shared construction of knowledge and therefore liberates the teacher from the feeling that they are solely responsible for whether or not their learners are learning. (Online Forum Report, ELT Journal 59/4, 2005, p. 334)
The Dogme ELT position seems to have mellowed a little from it's early days, where Thornbury's principles included materials light teaching, no pre-recorded/artifical listening material, equality in teacher/student positioning, no fake/display questions, no adherence to any single methodology (such as TBLT), no pre-planned syllabus of graded grammar items, and priority on student-generated topics.  Now, many teachers who use this approach/philosophy/method seem to adopt various degrees of it into their classrooms. Martin Sketchley simplified the old principles (a.k.a. vow of chastity) into three tennants: scaffolding language, materials light, and learner based teaching (Source: dissertation summary). From what I've seen, this is a fair representation of the main goals of Dogme ELT. 

Some criticisms of Dogme have centered around the fact that the approach is not a new one. It's not. Thornbury even responds to this criticism in this video. Good teachers have been incorporating aspects of teaching like this for a long time, I suppose. What's new is the label. The actual methodology is a mix of good teaching practices from other methodologies:
Dogme ELT appears to incorporate selective methods, approaches and techniques such as CLT, TBL or Learner-Based Teaching with the emphasis on interaction and communication.... Dogme ELT incorporates the “best bits” of other traditional methods, approaches and techniques and is regarded as “Eclectic Teaching.” (Sketchley, p. 12)
Eclectic Teaching. In this way, I think that Dogme/Teaching unplugged is a wonderful approach. It can be adapted to a variety of situations. It incorporates good practices from a variety of other approaches, and there is no need to choose extreme views of any methodology. Moreover, the simplification of teaching to basic necessities brings us back to the core. Dogme's focus on materials light teaching is a nice reminder that the needs of the students should override the needs of the textbook.