How Dogme Are We? – Part 2

You can be Dogme in many different ways, depending on which aspect of its philosophy you value.  For example, the teacher who values a shared teaching and learning space uncluttered with unneeded materials will try to reduce to the required minimum what resources from outside the classroom they import into it.  The teacher who values conversation – or dialogue – will seek to make the students co-constructors of this discourse, taking (equal?) responsibility for the content and direction of the talk.  The teacher who values emergence will try as far as they can to enter classrooms and conversations without clear pre-conceptions of where those events will lead – they are truly there for the ride.

So in relation to these points, how Dogme are we?  Specifically, how Dogme are we in relation to this final point?  Do we enter group sessions with our trainees with no plan for where the conversation may go or what aspects of teaching will be addressed?  Do we have total faith that, given time and space, the CELTA syllabus will emerge from our conversations and be observable in the actions of our trainees as the course proceeds, without any kind of steerage?

A confession

Frankly, against this absolute benchmark, we are not very Dogme at all.  However, we don’t think we are Dogme charlatans either.  There are some reasons for this, so we would like to explore them in this post.

Firstly, our course is there to fulfil the purpose of meeting a pre-defined syllabus (in this case, for the Cambridge ESOL CELTA) and it is embodied in a course timetable.  The choice to meet the needs of the syllabus by designing a timetable at all is a clear compromise (capitulation?) in the face of non-emergent syllabuses.  We have not yet taken the radical step of simply inviting a group of trainees to share four weeks of exploration and see what happens.  We are not that Dogme yet, at least within the context of delivering a CELTA course.

Within this timetable there are clearly defined sessions devoted to exploring particular aspects of teaching and learning.  When walking into one of these sessions, we usually have a clear idea of how we intend to open the session, what questions we plan to pose or what tasks we plan to set for our trainees to engage with, and we have clear moments in mind when the outcomes of this work are pooled and scrutinised.

When sketching out these sessions and their direction, we have consciously used the simple framework found in the book Teaching Unplugged: 1) set it up, 2) let it run, 3) round it off.  The frameworks for our group sessions are worked out in no more detail than these “official” Dogme lesson frameworks.  So in this sense, we are being at least as Dogme as Teaching Unplugged presents Dogme to be!

However loose a framework may be, though, its presence brings with it expectations.  These expectations of “coverage” bring with them a pressure to “uncover certain key ideas”.  At its worst, this could lead to us feeling unsatisfied with whatever contributions and realisations that our trainees have reached under their own steam, which may provoke us to “offer” them “extra” ideas (“Interesting, but here are some other techniques you could have noticed…”).  This, while well-intentioned, can very easily turn into pure transmission: delivering pedagogic knowledge with little sensitivity for whether the trainees are going to be receptive to it or not.

Now, in their chapter on Unplugging a school, Meddings and Thornbury make a case for judicious use of transmission methods, and we follow them in this.  However, at the outset of our course (i.e. in week one particularly) we try as far as we can to avoid it.  This is because we set out to see whether our trainees, given adequate data and a meaningful question or task, are capable of noticing and articulating anything about teaching that they are capable at that stage of their development of acting on.  If they cannot notice and discuss something about teaching, then the time may not be ripe and a well-intentioned transmission intervention may not bear fruit.

“Whenever you’re ready…”

We started this experiment because we started to doubt whether much of the teaching techniques and principles that are commonly found in short ELT courses – concept questions, elicitation, dictums such as “task before text”, etc. – would make much sense or be amenable to critical engagement by novices without an experiential base, a mental model of teaching, and a fairly conscious one at that.

Therefore we decided consciously not to press noticing or acceptance of such ideas too much at the outset, instead choosing to employ them in the trainee’s presence and then later provide opportunities for them to recall – if they could – such techniques.  In other words, we made a lot of use of modelling and a simple reflective process.  This decision was intuitive and not (for better or worse) consciously based on any particular model of reflective practice in the literature.  We simply set out to give less, to “force-feed” less, if you will.  To use a questionable analogy, we wanted to move away from “stuffing the goose” to “free-range” training.

This is NOT to say that we are angels in this regard and that we always manage this!  Far from it, sadly.  Interestingly, something we notice a lot is exactly this pressure within us to give, to provide knowledge.  This pressure, and the moments when we give in to it, give us a lot of professional pause for thought.

Like trainer, like trainee

In these moments, I see an interesting parallel with trainees who have researched a language area deeply in preparation for TP and, contrary to the students’ needs, embark on a detailed lecture about the language item’s meaning, form and phonology, quite unnecessarily looking at the students’ displayed level of knowledge and comfort with it.  By giving so much information about the language under study, they totally disregard CELTA assessment criterion 2e (analysiing language in the classroom to an appropriate degree of depth).

This behaviour is usually the result of the desire to share all this recently acquired knowledge with the learners and it is laudable to this extent, but it is equally unnecessary and tutors discourage it.  How ironic, then that we teacher trainers find ourselves doing exactly the same thing, for exactly the same reasons!

As the course proceeds, though, we feel much less uncomfortable with simply telling our trainees things about teaching and learning.  We feel more comfortable partly because we, after all, are “experts” by certain measures and we know that our trainees want to hear about aspects of teaching that they cannot experience directly within the scope of the course from us as experts.  Also, we feel more comfortable with doing it because at some point, we can see that for the most part our trainees have constructed an explicit  model of teaching and learning for themselves; this means that whatever we say can take its place within this framework – they can make sense of what we “transmit” once they have a clear framework within which it can make sense.

So to conclude: we aren’t all that Dogme from a certain point of view – but on the other hand, we are!

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