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.


  1. Rebekah. Your blog is wonderful and I am very surprised that you have received very little in the way of comments but I must say that some of the reflections and lesson plans that you have written is very good.

    Anyhow, I would like to thank you for referring to my Abridged Dissertation Summary and I am glad that you have referred to this. In relation to teaching between 'eclectic' and 'prescriptive' forms of teaching, Leo van Lier (1996) suggests striving for balance in the language classroom (something which was highlighted from teacher interviews and questionnaires):

    "The term 'balance' suggests that in most cases a lesson which is tightly planned (and implemented)that there is no room at all for improvisation, and conversely, a lesson which is not planned at all and entirely improvised [in my opinion pure Dogme ELT], would generally be considered unbalanced and perhaps not terribly effective (though one must be very careful, of course, not to generalize unduly)."

    It is interesting, back in 1996 Leo van Lier published a book with very similar thoughts towards ELT as Dogme. I suppose this supports the assertion that Dogme ELT is basically re-inventing what has been done before. Furthermore, as my dissertation discovered, Dogme ELT appears to incorporate selective methods, approaches and techniques.

    What Meddings & Thornbury (2009) could be credited for is reformulating methods, approaches and techniques which were already present but provided a necessary change of thought or reflection with language teaching but the concept is simple yet highly effective for practising language teachers.

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this and whether you consider Dogme ELT to be a re-invention or reformulation of current teaching ideas/techniques and whether you believe that a balance could be struct between prescriptive and more eclectic forms of teaching.

  2. Thanks again for the comment, Martin.

    I think what we are seeing with Dogme ELT is the movement, once again, of the methodology pendulum. It's swinging back from the ultra-material focused approaches that have limited good teachers for years (but even that was a reaction to the ultra-free, undirected approaches from before).

    From this viewpoint, yes, I think the ideas in Dogme ELT are recycled. It takes good pieces of other methodologies and approaches (TBLT, etc., like you said in your dissertation summary). However, the strength of Dogme ELT lies in the way it takes those good ideas and strips them down to a basic form. The simplicity of the principles allows (and even encourages) teachers to focus on what is really important in teaching (student centeredness, for example), and this fact makes it unique.

    As a mindset, attitude, or philosophy that influences teaching practices, it can provide a good foundation. However, if it is touted as an all-or-nothing methodology, it is doomed. I think that balance is the key to making Dogme work, and it needs to be balanced, as you mention, by some level – however minute – of structure and direction. Eclecticism can give us access to the structure/direction provided by other methodologies, while allowing us to apply the overreaching principles of effective language teaching found in Dogme.


What do you think?