Throwing down the gauntlet

We are language teachers and teacher trainers working on initial teacher training courses in Hamburg, Germany.  During the course of our work we have constantly sought to refine our course design and delivery so that it provides the best training experience for the people who come to us as possible.  Over the years this has led to us looking closely at the syllabus requirements of the awarding body that we work with, Cambridge ESOL, as well as “best practice” as embodied in the course design of other centres that we are in contact with.

We were proud of the course that we had developed over time and this pride did not seem entirely unfounded: our graduates gave us consistently positive feedback; external assessors and moderators were almost always very happy with our work; colleagues familiar with our approach regularly asked to borrow our ideas.  Resting one our laurels would have seemed a reasonable position to take, on the face of it.

But something was bothering us, which we boiled down to the following points:

  • though we did everything we could to reduce stress (with thorough guidance, clear templates for plans, plenty of supporting notes, etc.) trainees still felt under a lot of stress;
  • while we espoused the centrality of developmental feedback to learners, we saw very little of it going on in lessons, even in week 4;
  • while we espoused the need for principled use of published materials, we regularly saw the opposite in teaching practice;
  • while we claimed to take a holistic view of the learning process and didn’t want to encourage ritualistic teaching behaviours, we saw a fair bit of it going on.

We started to come to the conclusion that our attempts to refine and improve the training experience for the teacher trainees were in some ways counter-productive.

Was it possible that, by putting so much work into co-ordinating and cross-referencing input schedules with Teaching Practice (TP) lesson types, by adding online learning support and input, by regularly extending and expanding the course handbook so that it answered virtually every question about the course experience that a trainee could think to ask, by refining the content of our input sessions until they intermeshed seamlessly, we were in fact squeezing our trainees out of the picture?

Was it possible that, far from being a supportive scaffold, all of the organisational superstructure and paperwork was in fact becoming a constraining straitjacket, within which the trainees were trapped, unable to move freely?

This thought was not a pleasant one, so we decided to do something about it.  The question was: what?

Serendipitously, at much the same time, we attended the IATEFL conference in Cardiff and watched Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury announce the launch of their book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in ELT (DELTA 2009).

We had been following the ideas of the Dogme ELT group since its inception almost a decade ago, and this seemed an appropriate moment to take a more serious look at the question: is an unplugged approach to teaching languages only the preserve of the experienced teacher who can use this approach to “unshackle” themselves from earlier, initially reassuring but ultimately constraining approaches familiar from initial teacher training (reliance on implementation of coursebook-mediated material, additive-linear syllabuses, prescribed rather than emergent language focus, etc.)?

Is it possible for novice teachers to start teaching this way from the start? Centrally, is it possible to teach teachers to work unplugged? And is it possible to teach them to do this while using an unplugged training attitude yourself?

Big questions, certainly, but we are giving finding the answers to these questions our best shot.  In coming posts, we will explore the answers as they emerge.

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Ref: Meddings L. & Thornbury S. (2009) Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta

12 comments

  1. Johanna

    Oh, this does sound interesting! I’m working on a CELTA starting tomorrow and as I get ready for it so many of the same concerns are going through my head. Particularly interesting was your idea that perhaps the more help you give the trainees the less well they seem to do. I remember when an organisation I worked for changed the TP times which mean we could only do 30 mins of SLP instead of 90. I was horrified and fought against it. But when it happened I was amazed to see that lessons were actually better!

    There are undoutably techniques and principles that initial trainees need to learn about, but on 4-week CELTAs I think we try to cram so much in that it is probably counter-productive for many. I think moving towards a less prescribed approach would be definitely worth a try, but it couldn’t be done within CELTA, could it?

    Looking forward to watching this develop.

    Johanna

    • AG

      Dear Johanna,
      Thanks for commenting! I think you’re right that there is a perceived tension between the needs of trainees as learners and the requirements of the CELTA syllabus – I just happen to think more and more these days that this is all it is: a perceived tension. Izzy and I are working on looking at the problem in a new way (new for us, that is). Now that we know we have at least one reader, we’ll be sure to crack on with writing up our experiences!

      All the best with your new course – tell them they all have the potential to become the best they can be!

      Cheers,

      Anthony

  2. Luke Meddings

    Two readers,Anthony,and counting!It was great to meet you last year and this is a really exciting development.I will be following your blog with great interest: the question about dogme and experienced versus inexperienced teachers always comes up in workshops,and now as well as saying that pre-service training has a potential role to play here,I will be able to refer people to the actual role it is playing in your work.

    • AG

      Hi Luke,
      Glad you dropped by and glad to hear we’ll be helping your work! So far, we have been impressed at the ease with which new teachers can listen to their students, note language, present it at the board and ask questions of it so that learners can uncover interesting features or correct it, all without the need for “terminology” or “teaching” in a conventional sense. Izzy and I will be writing about this soon!

  3. Sputnik

    I too am looking forward to what you come up with, particularly how you square it with the demands of the Cambridge certificates. If you want to reduce the stress of a Delta, either lengthen the course considerably to enable time for personal research, or hammer home the need for extensive pre-reading, for a couple of years preferably!

    • AG

      Hello Sputnik, Thanks for stopping by!
      We’ve found that so far, changes in approach and what we are valuing in teacher performance have been generally well-received by assessors. What we have noticed is a very different vocabulary being used by them and us on occasion, which sometimes obscured the fact that we basically were in agreement about something! As for the DELTA point you make, I agree that (as Johanna also suggests), there is perhaps a tendency to try to “squeeze too much in”, which leads to more or less direct forms of transmission teaching, which I personally would like to find ways of avoiding quite so much.

  4. Scott Thornbury

    Anthony, I’m really glad there’s a place (both physical and online) where these issues are being addressed (and I’m looking forward to your session at IATEFL). One question: to what extent – in your input sessions – are you able to ‘model’ the behaviours you are hoping to develop in your trainees? E.g. to what extent are these sessions also ’emergent’ and even paper-free? I find this is a real challenge, but unless – as trainers – we are able to set an example, in our own training practice – the trainees might be less than convinced by the agenda we are setting them. Just a thought.

    • AG

      Hi Scott, thanks for stopping by!
      We thought this was important too, which is why we were both surprised and thrilled when we finished sketching out new approaches to “input” in week one and noticed that we didn’t need to give out any (and I DO mean “any”) paper until Friday week one, when we were slowly moving towards looking at formal, paper-based lesson planning (which we have to take account of by dint of Cambridge assessment criteria). The sessions, centered around questions and rooted in the trainees lived experience each day, didn’t need paper to make them work. We are continuing the work in the other weeks of the course but week one is remarkably “light” as a result. Practising what we are preaching is important to us – we don’t follow through dogmatically (as opposed to dogmetically) on this, but the intention is to reduce the space taken by prefabricated ideas and “methodology mc nuggets” (to borrow and bend a phrase of yours!) and reducing the paper load – especially in input – is a key part of this for us. Looking forward to hearing what you have to say as this develops, and looking forward to seeing you at IATEFL!

  5. Sara Hannam

    Just a message to welcome this blog to the array of people trying to do things differently which, I am very happy to see, is expanding. I am looking forward to future posts. Unfortunately I won’t be at IATEFL this year to see your talk though it does sound interesting.

    I am also very interested in teacher development and education. I wrote a blog post recently on my experience of doing certificate and diploma level training in relation to the restrictions I felt they placed on my ‘right’ to question orthodox practices. If you are interestsed, you can find it here http://sjhannam.edublogs.org/2009/11/01/critical-language-research-a-waste-of-time/

    Good luck with your new blog!

    • AG

      Dear Sara, thank you for stopping by!
      It’s always interesting to read your posts online so I am looking forward to reading what you have to say about our little endevour. I’ll make sure to read your blog post tonight – thanks for the link. We have always wanted to question “orthodoxies”ourselves, because of the risk of their being simple ritualisms, but now we are spending more time developing this critical thinking with our trainees – but it’s time to get into a session now so I have to go!

  6. Nick

    I wish you the best of luck in the endeavor. I think it can and should be done. I’m trying to convince my fellow managers that we need to start training our teachers like this from the beginning. I’m getting a lot or resistance saying they should get comfortable with coursebooks and grammar first and then move into more dogme-like teaching. It makes no sense.

    However, one thing I would worry about as a course is that most schools do not like or would not accept teaching unplugged methodoligies. I would be worried about ill-equipping teachers for what will be expected of them at the many disinterested, profit-oriented schools that dominate our field. Perhaps forming partnerships with schools that are looking for these kinds of teachers might be an important first move.

    I’m very excited to follow this project on your blog and see what results. Thanks!

    • AG

      Hi Nick, thanks for stopping by!
      The issue of whether such training approaches adequately prepare beginning teachers for contexts where other traditions or expectations of the teacher apply are naturally very serious. Colleagues of ours in Berlin asked us the same question: how can you ensure that by the end of the course all trainees are in a position not only to “work Dogme” but also “work ‘traditionally'” (meaning course-book mediated from a prescribed syllabus)?

      We are trying to square this circle by staggering the exploration of and work with published materials throughout the course. We do not ask trainees to work with materials prepared by someone else at the outset because we suspect that they will find it easier to create a coherent journey for themselves and their learners if they aren’t distracted by understanding someone else’s intentions and design principles (which making principled use of a course-book entails). As you’ll see in a recent post, we DO provide a framework for the trainee’s first lesson, but we spend a lot of time helping them to explore how to make it their own from day one.

      Ultimately, though, trainees do need to get to grips with working with (of not from) published materials and we have to help them in this. For us, though, the fact that this competence is a desired end-state does not mean that it also needs to be the primary process of learning from day one, if you see what I mean.

      The idea of making contact with “like-minded schools” for trainees to move on to for their initial teaching experience is a great idea: I wonder how best to start such a thing?

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