On Monday 18 April 2011, on the penultimate day of the IATEFL Annual Conference in Brighton, England, approximately 250 people crammed into a hot and sweaty room. Four speakers, three hours, one moderator, and no powerpoint. The next few posts will attempt to summarize a rich and often heated event.
Scott Thornbury opened proceedings and outlined the plan: each speaker would have 15 minutes to make their point, followed by 3 minutes of “burble-time”, for everyone to respond to what they had just heard and to come up with questions for later. After all the speakers had said their piece/peace, it would be over to the group to move the conversation forward for the remaining hour.
Part one – yes, but is it Dogme?
Luke Meddings picked up from Scott by inviting us into his guesthouse bedroom, where he had been given ample time to contemplate the relationship between a B&B and a classroom. As he explained, the raison d’être of a guesthouse is to provide the conditions under which guests can rest and sleep. WiFi, recycled toilet paper and other such things may be pleasant or welcome, but if the floorboards and plumbing are so noisy as to obliterate sleep, then the guesthouse isn’t doing its job.
By analogy, the raison d’être of a language classroom (at least from a dogme perspective) is to provide the conditions for communication. By extension, while IWBs, coursebooks or other add-ons may be pleasant or welcome, they mean nothing if the basics aren’t right. Those basics are:
- a classroom driven by conversation
- a materials-light approach to content
- focus on emergent rather than imported language
Luke was very careful to dismantle some of the misconceptions which can still cling to discussions of teaching unplugged.
- A classroom driven by conversation does not mean it is one devoid of third party texts, particularly written texts. He suggested that such texts can play a powerful role as catalysts for conversation.
- A materials-light approach does not preclude the use of materials – it simply asks the teacher to question how to source these materials and how to exhaust their potential instead of partially using and disposing of them prematurely, leading to waste.
- A focus on emergent language does not mean that only the language that the students produce is “fair game” for study; the teacher’s voice and language, if it they are authentic and meaningful, are valid objects of study if it benefits the learners in their task of learning the language. In the discussion which followed later, it was clear, however, that this message would still take a while to take root.
Despite Luke’s suave brilliance as a speaker, there were two emergent moments of comedy that made his talk even more memorable for me.
The first was his difficulty in handling a flip-chart to the satisfaction of some members of the audience, which perhaps explained why Dogmeists/Dogmeticians eschew all technology when possible!
The second was when he drilled the Danish pronunciation of the word “Dogme”, then asked the Danish contingent in the audience whether he had got it right, to which they replied: “No. You sounded too Swedish!”
Part two – Do you want to tell me your story?
Candy Van Olst is the walking definition of the word firebrand. She grabbed her audience by the scruff of the neck and held them tight for a quarter of an hour while she took us on a journey from Africa to middle England, visiting a German shoe-fetishist along the way, as well as an Italian business English student whose underwear seemed to be central to his transfer to an overseas branch office, largely as a result of phonological error.
She started her story about stories back in the day when she worked in a tough neighborhood school. Stories and tales were the only way of holding her pupils’ attention – but constantly telling stories- driving the process – was exhausting her, so she moved into adult education.
This led to her work with refugees from around the world, often from African countries. Instead of telling stories, she heard them. These men had nothing left but their stories, and in sharing them they reconstructed not only a sense of community, but also a sense of self and self-worth which had been stripped from them. They owned the stories, and in making these stories the stuff of lessons, they were able to take ownership of their lessons.
Candy brought the room to stunned silence with the following words:
“You cannot have a student-centred classroom if it isn’t a Dogme classroom.”
The silence resonated – but no one disputed her passionate claim.
Part three – Dogme for Beginner Teachers, Lesson #1
I found it incredibly hard to follow Candy on the day, and I won’t make the mistake of trying twice: I’ll be posting my contribution to the day on a separate page for brevity’s sake here. To see how I made a case for coursebooks impeding teacher development, and understand how I managed to prompt an audience member to declare that what I advocated was “irresponsible and dangerous”, watch this space…
Part four – Less Tech, More Talk
Howard Vickers had arguably the toughest job of all the speakers: talking to a crowd of notoriously tech-sceptical teachers during the conference “graveyard shift”. He started, disconcertingly, by praising coursebooks: their completeness, their coherence, their perfection, like a bubble.
Then he burst the bubble.
Learners don’t live or operate in the “bubble-world” that coursebooks are; they live in the real world – the one we share with them.
Increasingly, mobile technologies (such as smartphones and other digital devices) are becoming parts of our lives that we take for granted – and being cut off from connectivity feels increasingly alien (something that was readily observable during the conference, incidentally, as patchy WiFi coverage at the venue drove delegates to distraction…)
Taking this as his starting point, Howard presented an application for this affordance which has implications for learning and teaching much further than he initially presented.
Learners often encounter language use in the real world which intrigues or confuses them – in the past, they would probably have lived with it and moved on, as the effort of finding a pen and paper to note it down would have been more trouble than it was worth.
Today, where virtually every phone manufactured and sold is a dictaphone and (video) camera at the same time, capturing that language event is often as simple as going “click”.
This seems a very mundane idea on the surface, but its implications are profound.
Firstly, this makes the ephemeral tangible: language which would have otherwise slipped between the learners’ fingers can be captured and brought to lessons for study.
Such study will require the context of use to be re-established; this will require the learners to reconstruct it for their teacher and colleagues, which is a powerful motor for language recycling and practice as well as situating the language object in a meaningful context.
The ability to use language from outside the classroom massively increases the range and scope of language which can be made the subject of a dogme lesson. This reduces the power of criticisms leveled at Dogme that the nature of the language events which emerge naturally in classrooms is too limited to ensure sufficient language variety.
Connected to this, it also exponentially increases the sheer volume of language which can be accessed, at any given time after the event, or even during it if learners are recording themselves and colleagues on the fly. This (it seems to me) could relieve teachers during monitoring: they can worry less about “catching everything” as the room is full of willing digital informants.
What this also does is democratize the language study process by enabling learners more easily to dictate precisely what language is explored. Normally, the only person taking language notes in a lesson is the teacher. While teachers can also suggest for learners to take their own notes or re-run conversations for this purpose, this can seem artificial and is certainly often overlooked in the cut and thrust of conversation. Now, learners have more say in the choice of language.
Howard’s idea was simple but has the potential for radically shifting power and agency in the classroom. In this sense, his talk was arguably the one whose content was most concordant with Dogme principles – which, considering the stereotyped “technophobe” stance commonly ascribed to unplugged proponents, was both ironic and elevating.
You have the floor…
After a final “burble”, we opened the space up to the plenary – and that’s when the fun started…
(tune in next time!)