On Why The (Unplugged) Revolution Will Not Be Televised


(Gil Scott-Heron reciting The Revolution Will Not Be Televised)

There is nothing like a conference to re-ignite debate. Last week saw the IHDOS Conference in London, a wide-ranging forum for middle and senior academic management at International House schools.

One of the sessions at the conference was a public debate between Jeremy Harmer and Luke Meddings on the validity of teaching unplugged (aka Dogme). The debate was heatedly followed and participated in via twitter in real-time, and these disputes have started to find a more accommodating overflow in several well-argued and eminently readable blog posts.

Hawks, doves and dogme

Jemma Gardner wote a post seeking to synthesise and summarise the Dogme debate which has proven to be extremely popular and, ironically considering her intention not to be seen as hawkish, rather provocative. If you have not read it yet, you should.

The post was written in response to one by Neil McMahon, a DoS at an IH school. His initial position was critical, not of the ideas and principles associated with Dogme, but rather of the “hype” and “evangelicism” as he saw it, generated by its adherents.

As this blog post goes on, Neil may well feel this position of his is being vindicated 😉

In a later post replying to Jemma’s post (itself a response to Neil – are you keeping up with this?), Neil considered whether his resistance to Dogme was basically down to the fact that he didn’t need it – that he had evolved as a teacher within an environment where this kind of student-centred, resource efficient teaching was the norm. He suggested that he may simply be “one of the lucky ones” who didn’t “need” dogme.

Looking after the 99%

If I were one for making radical associations with current affairs, this might make me consider what is going on today with the Occupy movement. Perhaps Neil really is one of the teaching world’s equivalent of the 1%, one of the “haves”, one of those who truly “get” teaching.

Good for him. However, unless and until the other 99% also share in this privilege, then I think there is still work to do.

Occupy the classroom? Been there, done that.

I’d like to take this analogy a bit further, but before I do, I want to stress that I have simply been occupied (ahem…) by some of the references Neil McMahon makes in recent posts, and I would like to play out their ideas, in the spirit of playful dialogue: a bit of devilish advocacy rather than raving fundamentalism is what I’m aiming at 😉

So let’s suppose some teachers constitute the ELT equivalent of the 1%: a set of teachers who for one reason or another don’t need to take on board what dogme is offering as they already feel they have it. If such a group exists, it would be unsurprising to find them nonplussed at all this call for change – revolutions, after all, are rarely considered necessary by those who don’t require them.

Perhaps such teachers (as Neil self-identifies himself) are fortunate in terms of history: dogme as a label and movement emerged in the late 90s/early 2000s, when course materials were undergoing an undeniable expansion (coursebook, teacher book with supplementary activities, workbook, CD rom, then DVD rom, then websites etc…)

All this material brought with it, wittingly or not, the pressure to become familiar with it all, and, if it had been sold to students, then to make full use of it. This seems to have led many teachers and students to feel coursebook-bound to a greater or lesser degree.

If you as a teacher “came of age” prior to this period, you may well have escaped unscathed; for those qualifying after this period, they may have been less lucky.

ASIDE: By the way, there may also be a parallel to be drawn between the Dogme and Occupy movements in terms of their perceived lack of coherence in their positions and demands: Occupy is criticized for not having a clear agenda and leadership; Dogme is criticized for being similarly fuzzy and ill-defined. But that is perhaps a parallel best saved for another time 😉

So it may be fair to say that there were, for a certain period whose impacts are still being felt, systemic forces at work that maintained a materials- and/or prefabricated-syllabus hegemony destined (of not designed) to distract teachers to some degree from considering their learners (rather than syllabus or coursebook content) as the first point of reference when considering lesson content and design.

And I think there is a very clear materials and prefabricated syllabus hegemony still in place in education today, at every level. While such a hegemony may have many advantages for many people, undeniably including some for learners, it is also true to say that it brings with it disadvantages, and these disadvantages are almost exclusively learning and learner related.

I’m thinking here of low-worldly issues like costly courseware that students are obliged to purchase in order to participate in a course, through to the de facto narrowing of lesson and course focus to a greater or lesser extent to that pre-selected content as defined by the coursebook.

Revolution calling?

I don’t know Neil McMahon, but one thing I really like about him (apart from his love of running, which I share) is that he also posts about the thought processes behind his blog posts; he invites us to observe the process as well as the product. This time, he did this in another post, where he made a reference to the poem/song The Revolution Will Not Be Televised By Gil Scott-Heron. In referencing it, he provides me with the second revolutionary image that I would like to pick up from him and explore.

Gil Scott-Heron, while reciting “the revolution will not be televised” in the recording at the start of this post, said that the true revolution is one of thinking, of the mind, rather than one of street action. A revolution does not start with stones being thrown or peaceful protests being organised, it starts with the thought of doing such things, of realising that such actions are within one’s power.

As such, revolutions – true revolutions, as opposed to revolts, the physical evidence of revolutions – are unobservable. They are therefore matters, not of action, but of attitude.

So how does this revolutionary detour relate to dogme? I have argued for some time now (though my position is not original) that dogme is certainly not a method, still less a loose set of techniques. Approach (Richards et al 1992) is close but approaches are too often related to a given method; and methods (Thornbury 2010) are more defined on the level of action rather than reflection, leading to the term approach itself being also associated with specific types of action.

So both approach and method are too much predicated on the notion of action itself; Dogme (or teaching unplugged) as I see it is not so much a way of doing – no particular techniques are elevated or proscribed – but a way of being and seeing, a way of conceiving action in the classroom rather than a way of executing that conception.

Dogme…a new way of being a teacher.

Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. in Teaching Unplugged)

Attitude is a word better suited to what I think dogme is really about as it is about something more “gut-level” than “intellectual level” – it is at the gut level that attitudes reside. I would go so far as to suggest – and I think even Gil Scott-Heron might agree: it is also where revolutions – true revolutions, are first felt.

My tweet about what dogme collocates with

For me, therefore, an unplugged revolution (if there is one) is actually about classroom practice only insofar as it is a proxy indicator for teacher attitude. This does not make dogme unique, or even original – but it does, despite these shortcomings in pedigree, make it profound.

It’s not about the bike (or the book, or the photocopy…)

It isn’t ultimately about what is used or not used in a lesson: the fixation on whether or not a dogme classroom allows for use of any materials is misconceived in my view – the recent post I is for Input by Scott Thornbury addresses this.

If learners really do need and are interested in exposure to and work with certain texts, then that should occur – but not simply because those materials are to hand, no matter how cleverly a teacher can imagine “making them relevant”: they either are or they aren’t, and there the matter rests.

Equally, any classroom which demonstrably takes seriously and prioritises work on the language that learners are self-motivated to attempt as opposed to being corralled into using through more or less subtle means is one in which dogme as such is irrelevant – because it is already there.

Dogme for me is less about the presence or absence of material per se and more about the beliefs and principles that informed their selection and implementation; it’s less about the language that gets taught and more the reason for teaching it; it’s less about what the teacher was doing far more than about what they were thinking.

I like to think that when Scott Thornbury and Neil Forrest were working on DTEFLA/DELTA courses in the period leading up to Scott’s first unplugged outburst, the question going through their minds when watching lessons was not “What are you doing?!” but rather “Why are you doing that?!”

There is more than a facile difference between those two questions.

This blog is about teacher training: whether we train teachers to use coursebook material or to operate without it is not the real issue, although it is obviously an important practical decision when designing a course. The real issue is whether or not our training enables our charges to become, as quickly and effortlessly as possible, conscious of their beliefs and thinking as teachers, so that these can more adequately inform their actions.

When we as teacher trainers succeed in this, when we succeed in helping our trainees reach that state of grace that Neil feels himself fortunate to inhabit, then in this way, whether we need to call it dogme or not, we will be in the presence of a revolution taking place in teachers’ minds and – writ large over time – within educational systems, and in Scott-Heron’s words, it most certainly will not be televised 😉


  1. Pingback: The (unplugged) revolution needs to be televised! | Five against one: Teaching against the odds.
  2. Pingback: What is Dogme language teaching? | efl-resource.com

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