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 😉


  • Great post, Anthony. Hope you’re well.

    Nice job with comments such as:

    “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.”

    I wonder how long it took you, as a teacher, to really understand the principles behind this behaviour. It took me a while, I can tell you, and judging by practically every other teacher I’ve met, they too. Which leads me onto Neil’s elegantly-written, but slightly irritating post.

    Why irritating? Jealousy, I suppose.

    You see, I have to admit I was jealous (as I suspect others were). Any teacher who seemingly understands the the core of the language classroom to such a large degree almost from the get-go is remarkable is my opinion. Neil says (my italics):

    “I’ve always seen coursebooks more as a provider of useful texts for skills work more than syllabi of language exponents, particularly since most if not all course books describe language inaccurately and over complicate its use unhelpfully. One of the reasons they’ve never stood at the heart of my classroom life. Lucky me.

    Perhaps also why I’m struggling to see why the idea of emergent language is so new and particularly why it’s a challenge to ELT orthodoxy. But then I’ve been helping students say what they want to say and feeding in natural language for them since those first tentative days in Prague.”

    Maybe I’m just jealous, but the skeptic in me somehow doubts the ‘always’ and ‘never’ etc components here. After all, we have a tendency (some more than others, of course) to exaggerate a little when we’re talking about our achievements, don’t we? Does any teacher actually form such sound principles that early on?

    So, frankly speaking, I am inclined to take some of his comments with a pinch of salt, whilst on the other hand freely open to the fact that he may well have learned these things much quicker than I or most other teacher’s I’ve ever met.

    We are the 99%.


    (alias Mr Darkbloom)

    • Hello stranger! Glad to hear from you again 🙂

      I think I was a bit like you: when I started teaching, I recognised a tension between working with the questions and talk that emerged as a natural consequence of having 16 young people from all over the world in a confined space in central London and my obligation to work through a sufficient amount of the assigned coursebook to ensure a) they felt prepared for the exam that they were aiming to take in 10 weeks’ time and b) they felt they had got their money’s worth from it.

      I don’t think I was very good at this balancing act, and I certainly don’T think my initial training focused much on achieving this balance; in fact, it focused, as I recall, on keeping students tightly focused on whatever it was I as a teacher deemed it worth their focusing on. I can’t say whether my training was “good” or “bad”, but I suspect (having got around a bit now) that it was in these regards quite typical.

      So I suspect a truthful answer would be about 5 years, on and off”. That’s the time that passed between my initial qualification and my encountering dogme for the first time. I recognised that it was both something that concorded with my up to then unreflected beliefs about teaching and learning, was something that was despite this not yet part of my teaching, and was something that I felt powerfully motivated to explore.

      So like you, I was also envious when reading Neil’s posts – there, I’ve said it! While I have great respect for my colleagues in those early days, I certainly wouldn’t claim to have had the positive developmental context that he feels he enjoyed. I suspect, however, that of all the NQTs starting work in London in 1995 with me, the majority, for better or worse, did so in environments that one could term “sub-optimal” for their development. I wish this were otherwise, and I would love to be wrong, but I don’t think I am.

      I suspect we are all given to overstating the case for something we passionately believe in, as I have here. However, I think it is fair to suggest that while it may be fewer than 99% of us who actually feel that Dogme speaks to their most authentic selves (to pinch a line from Sir Ken Robinson) and who feel that it provides them with the missing pieces to the mosaic of the professional development, we are still be a sizable number, and as such deserve a voice (even a grating one), a forum (even an unruly one) and all the help and support we can get from those who have already completed the stretch that still lies ahead of us!

  • Hi Anthony,

    Another nice post. What really interested me was this part;

    “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.”

    From my point of view this is probably the most important thing to be dealing with in terms of making a case for Dogme. I completely agree that Dogme is an attitude, but will it ever be anymore than that? Will it ever become a recognised approach? If it is, shouldn’t we be tackling the ‘fuzzy and ill-defined’ views that people hold of Dogme?


    • Thanks for stopping by, Adam. I think that de-fuzzing Dogme is an important job, and several people are working on it currently. First of all, the many great bloggers out there like you, but also people like Scott Thornbury who is currently seeking proposals for papers to form a serious academic study of Dogme; I hear there are also moves afoot to get an action research volume together as well. Then there are people like Martin Sketchley and (soon) me who are seeking to pin Dogme down in MA dissertations and other studies.

      So I think you will get your wish for more clarity. Whether it will lead to Dogme gaining any academic respectfulness in being dubbed an Approach or not is a different matter. Part of me hopes it does; part of me hopes it doesn’t.

      To ask a naive question: I wonder in what way it would matter?

  • Thank you for this post, Anthony. I continue to swim through these various dialogues and pick up little gems. Being back in the classroom this semester is allowing me to put to work all that I’ve been learning online the past year, and it is quite an interesting time.

    On some level I always enjoyed being an unplugged teacher without knowing that that was what I was doing, and yet right now I find myself tight on time and provided with materials I am supposed to teach. Tough position when I have ‘higher’ standards and lack the time to think of ways of turning ‘delivery-oriented’ material into emergent langauge. That being said, I still find ‘language moments’ and still hear the various dogme clan blog post ideas popping in and out of my head while I venture through a classroom session. I’m enjoying the revolution and counter-revolution currently going on in my mind and where it’s leading me in the classroom.

    Best to you in 2012.


    • I love the conflict, the interplay, the counterpoint of it all as well. I seriously doubt if there is a teacher out there operating in a sufficiently pure-school dogme fashion to satisfy critics, but I don’t worry too much about that – who was it who said: “the attempt is all”?

      Anyway, it was certainly William Blake who said: Without contraries is no progression” (the Marriage of Heaven & Hell) and that’s as true in education as it is anywhere else, so…

      vive La Difference!

      (bet I got my articles wrong there…)

  • Hi Anthony,

    What a fantastic post (and it is beautifully written).

    I completely agree with you. For me, unplugged teaching is the underlying attitude. I use different methods in different classes, but all are strongly influenced by the idea of asking the learners about their experiences and ideas. I have found that using different approaches for different learners, according to their learning styles, is much more effective than completely throwing the materials away and simply relying on the students. You won’t find me with a coursebook in my hand (unless a student has demanded it whereby unfortunately I have no choice), but there is still support of photocopied materials when needed.

    I have written a little more about what I have learnt during my own unpublished unplugged revolution here:

    Thanks again for the post and I look forward to reading more in the future.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment, Karen. Ways of doing are worthless if they aren’t in concord with ways of being. Being a perfect example of a type is not important, and permanently living up to values we hold and aspire to is not humanly likely, so…

      It’s about working toward an ideal, whether or not we reach it is secondary, I think. In what other field of life would it be normal to count partial progress as failure and betrayal or deceit?

      Oh dear, I’m getting hawkish again… 😉

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