Dogme is not “just good teaching”

Photo taken with thanks from Craiglea123’s Flickr photostream under a creative commons CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

Usually when (it) is so simple we say, “Oh, I know that! It is quite simple. everyone knows that.”But if we do not find its value, it means nothing. It is the same as not knowing.

– Shunryu Suzuki in “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind” –

I am not sure when exactly it started, but at some point recently a strand of debate around Dogme ELT arose (or was resurrected) which basically can be summed up in the following statements:

“Oh, but that’s what I’ve always done.”
“That’s what we’ve always done.”
“That’s what good teachers have always done.”
“That’s just good teaching.”

I have heard these phrases used many times when responding to the suggestion by others of new ideas or practices.  I have said such phrases myself in response to such suggestions.

But notice what is happening here.

Move one – “That’s what I’ve always done.”: Assert that the desired quality or behavior is in fact already being actuated by the defending party.

Through this move, the speaker need not reflect any further – critical problem solved without any actual engagement with the criticism necessary.  However, if we ever actually followed up on this assertion with questions like “when was the last time you did exactly that being proposed?”, “How many times in the past month of teaching can you pinpoint it in your lesson notes?”, “have you ever used a more comfortable alternative to that being proposed?”, the vacuousness of the assertion would become evident.

Also, It places the speaker in a posited and perceived position of superiority – by virtue of already “possessing” whatever teaching virtues that are being championed by whichever revolutionary voices triggered the defence, the defender has spuriously gained professional higher ground as they are ostensibly “already there”.

Move two – “That’s what we’ve always done.”: Assert that some undefined group already embodies the virtues proposed by the revolutionary voices but – thanks to the vagaries of language – leave it open as to whether these are being included or excluded by the pronoun “we”.

Who is this “we”? Does it include or exclude the revolutionary voices? This is significant: if it includes them, then it makes them part of the asserted teaching mainstream, which is allegedly already doing what the revolutionary voices claim as their defining difference from the mainstream, and therefore, long story short, they (the “revolutionaries”) should shut up and get back in their box.

If it doesn’t include the revolutionary voices, then it implies that the revolutionaries are actually too blinded by self-indulgent show-radicalism to see that the rebelled-against mainstream is already actuating the values and practices that the revolutionary voices espouse, while simultaneously suggesting the revolutionary voices do not in fact practise what they preach. This constitutes a hijack of intellectual position and actual practice through leverage of a single pronoun.

Move three – “That’s what good teachers have always done.”: Use prestige to gain the upper hand

This is a slightly more explicit powerplay but has by this point in the conversation become employable thanks to the thin end of the wedge having already been driven in by prior comments.

By asserting that “good teachers” have “always” done whatever given practice that the revolutionary voices are calling for, the mainstream attempts to use prestige as a way of gaining the upper-hand.

In short, the argument is: if you consider yourself a good teacher, you will naturally do (or claim to do) precisely what the revolutionary voices claim is deficient in the mainstream. By extension, the revolutionary voices, assuming they believe themselves to be or wish themselves to become “good teachers”, will by definition feel themselves brought into the inside of this argument and onto the side of the mainstream. It is an attempt to “keep your friends close and your enemies closer”.

Move four – “That’s just good teaching.”: Depersonalise.

The weakness in the other three positions is that it can be easily debunked as an attempt to leverage personal sentiment. This variation has the appearance of objectivity without subjecting itself to the burden of proof.

As “good teaching” remains undefined (and perhaps undefinable), the assertion that anything is “just good teaching” is a non-falsifiable position (ie: it cannot technically be disproved, although it could be false).  This means that it can safely be asserted without any fear of needing to defend it.

Instead, the cultural weight of the importance of the notion of “good teaching” and the obligation that teachers may feel to uphold “good teaching” – whatever that may be – leads towards unreflected compromise instead of subjecting the other side – or one’s own side – to any kind of rigorous enquiry. Instead of the anvil, ideas are submitted to the melting pot.

Thus, through deliberate or unaware complicity, those engaged in the discussion are tricked into thinking that everyone is really in agreement though nothing of the sort has really been established.

As a result, the practice of teaching goes on as normal for those involved, and nothing may actually change.

I will repeat that. Nothing may actually change.

This is not good enough.

It is not that I am wedded to the idea of Dogme as a universal teaching panacea. I do not know that Dogme teaching is necessarily the best possible form of teaching, for all circumstances, for all learners, for all time. Nor do I know that Dogme teaching is necessarily superior to all forms of teaching that have hitherto taken place. Nor do I know that the argument between the position represented by Dogme and that represented by the principles and practice of the educational mainstream (in ELT or, more widely, in education generally) can be won decisively by either side (whatever that would mean).

I do not know this because I do not think that Dogme is a clearly defined classroom practice that can be placed in opposition to other classroom practices.

This is partly because Dogme has evaded definition, partly because I see Dogme more as a question to current practice than as an approach in its own right, but also partly because all other classroom practices are – in practice – equally undefined, if only by dint of individual variation in classrooms.

What I do know is that “without contraries is no progession” (William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience). Without positions in clear counterpoint, and an appreciative conversation taking these counterpointing positions as its starting point, and without the willingness to explore the validity of one’s own position as robustly as that of one’s interlocutor, there is no progession.

I do not need to agree with you

It should be clear by now that while Dogme here is taken as an example, this is incidental.

The larger issue is the nature of reflection on, and discourse about, practice.

I do not need to agree with you, or to find a way of assimilating a dissenting voice into my view of things, in order to engage profitably with your ideas.

I do not even need to assume that our apparently diametrically opposing views are ultimately compatible given sufficient compromise, or seek to work towards this.

I simply need the willingness to assume that any position I hold may fundamentally or in certain details be wrong.

Where this kind of true open-mindedness coupled with true critical engagement is the case, there is potential for growth.

Even where prejudiced position is taken with robust and well-argued support, there is useful and welcome grist for the mill.

Where, however, the fear of or shying away from conflict of ideas and perspectives becomes too strong, instead of a healthy threshing of the intellectual wheat from the chaff, what is left is a bland and shallow melange of incoherent positions held together only through the power of cognitive dissonance and the desire for superficial social (network) harmony.

I started this with a quote from the Zen priest Shunryu Suzuki. His point is that it is rather easy to dismiss a truth by too readily accepting it as part of our current belief system. This is a common way of evading the work of finding the true value for our lives in a proposition or a truth.

Without wishing at all to equate Zen, or its value with that of Dogme, I would like to suggest that by getting out of the habit of seeking to defuse professional discourse by superficial assimilation gambits of the “that’s what we’ve always done” type, whether the topic be Dogme or anything else, we would be doing ourselves, our profession, and our ideas a far greater service by avoiding them, and thereby leaving the way open to get to the heart of the matter of our practice as teachers.


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