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

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