TDSIG Unplugged Countdown: “Three…”

This mini-series sketches out some of the ideas that I would like to explore at the upcoming TDSIG Unplugged Conference in Barcelona on 21 May 2011.  If any of them chime with you and you would like to explore them as well – or if you would like to work on completely different issues, the conference is there to give you the open space to do just that.  It is never too late to join in, so if you haven’t already, visit and register!

Counting down…3…

How can we learn more effectively from what each of us is doing in our classrooms?

Here is a video version of this post – why I’ve done this will become clearer as you watch or read along.

However, I’ve built some “goodies” into each version that you’ll only get by watching/reading both to the end 🙂


Prefer reading to viewing?  Suit yourself…

I work on initial teacher training courses in Hamburg (my boss would never forgive me if I didn’t do a spot of advertising at this point, so if you actually want to fall for some product placement, click here…)

Where was I? Ah yes.  I work on initial teacher training courses most of the time and we get, for the most part, very positive feedback from course participants at the end.  Interestingly, the thing that consistently receives almost unequivocal positive feedback is observing us (the tutors) teaching the same students that the trainees are working with.

Trainee feedback always hones in on the same thing: they feel it is very enlightening and helpful for their own development to see someone – live – working in their own context (the same room, the same board, the same people, the same time of day, etc.)

So as a teacher trainer I am drawn inexorably to the conclusion that the single most powerful tool for initial teacher development is witnessing someone – maybe a more competent other – who essentially shows you the ropes.

You teach my class, I’ll teach yours…

So far, so good, but here’s the problem: how can we all benefit somehow from this form of observational learning?  One thing some of us could do is make contact (real, face to face on the street type contact, not twitter or skype – though that is where it could naturally start) and arrange to teach each other’s class(es) once in a while.  Or even simply invite each other to tandem teach a class occasionally (recall activity “Outside In” on p.33 in Teaching Unplugged? – why not leverage it to enable some observation?)

What if I have no one to play with?

But this idea will not work for everyone.  The Dogme Diaspora is found in the farthest flung reaches of the globe; setting up actual lesson swaps is impracticable (assuming for the moment institutional acquiescence..)  This is where I need to use a four-letter word…


I’ll wash my mouth out with carbolic soap later, but for now, humour me.

With the widespread availability of mobile devices with advanced recording features, it is much more feasible to capture lessons (either snippets, longer segments or even whole events) than it ever was in the past.

Some teachers out there have already taken this step, for example:

Jason Renshaw – The English Raven

Martin Sketchley – ELTExperiences

Here is his video of the lesson, which you can also watch on YouTube here: 


What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I know people bang on about the difficulties of recording teaching, and I’ve heard all the reasons why it isn’t possible:

The school/location won’t allow it

The hardware is too hard to set up & use

The teacher is distracted by the recording

The results are often jerky or poor quality

The results give a skewed view of the event

The viewer doesn’t get a sense of “being there” and cannot appreciate the lesson as a result

Behind all of those objections, if you burrow deep enough into the objector’s argument, is perhaps the same basic problem:

I am afraid of being recorded

I am afraid too.

What are we afraid of?  Is it fear that we will be outed as bad teachers?  Ours is a very self-critical profession, perhaps an overly critical one.  However, I have yet to watch a teacher at work in whose practice I haven’t easily found something admirable.  I have yet to be watched by someone who ripped me and my work to pieces.

I repeat: what are we afraid of?  Is it fear that what we really do in the classroom – even if it is “good work”, won’t live up to the image that we have projected to others?  I certainly feel the pressure of this one; despite the title of this blog and my interest in unplugged teaching, I am sure that some observers would be nonplussed to see me at work on a one-off occasion – “where is the ‘unplugged’ bit?” I may hear them cry.  So what?  The room belongs to me and my trainees – our classroom, our rules.  Take it or leave it – but if you take it, take it on its own terms.

At the risk of repeating myself: what are we afraid of?  Is it fear that we will appear un-photogenic?  Watch the results seven times before asking someone else to watch it, and you will get over that, guaranteed.

I suggest that Dogmeists, Dogmeticians and Dogheads of all stripes reach out to each other via the Dogme Discussion list, the Reservoir Dogme ELT Facebook page, the TDSIG Dscussion forum or directly via blogs to set up Kino-buddy deals:

  • I send you a link to a video from my classroom (YouTube and other video sharing sites usually allow viewer limitations of you don’t want to go totally public)
  • you comment and send me a link to a video from your classroom.
  • Repeat. Good. Again.  Good.  Repeat…

Interested in using the TDSIG Unplugged Conference to set something like this up?  Form a working group on the day and get cracking!  Not remotely interested in this?  Fine, then form a working group on something else!

I’ll even really practise what I preach and upload a video of me at work – is that an offer or a threat?  Take it as you like 😉


  • Yes I’m afraid! VERY afraid, because I have this notion that I’m a bit of a rubbish teacher. I’m serious. I “teach” students for like a week or two at most. That is not time enough for them to rumble me. I am a superb blagger and I keep my trainers on ALL THE TIME.(lions and cameramen abound!)My teaching is not based on any theory, or methodology, or principled-ly eclectic anything. I just do it and there’s an end to it. I “teach” in a place that focusses entirely on speaking and listening. Writing happens sporadically and there’s very little reading (certainly none in class). It’s a place where face to face talking happens, where noticing and asking and listening and opining and suggesting and soap-boxing and empathising and old-fashioned “hard teaching” happen. If I was filmed? I have no idea WHAT the upshot would be.

    • I think the upshot of filming you at work would be a Palm D’Or-worthy documentary, Candy 🙂

      Seriously, I’m afraid too – that’s why I wrote the post. I am fascinated by the openness with which teaching gets talked about and the overwhelmingly generous reception that such openness meets, but that so many of us are still deeply insecure about really sharing what we really do “behind closed doors” – and what we “really do” is exactly what you describe in your comment so well: we do our best.

      So I think – however hard it may be for me – I need to feel the fear and do it anyway (remember that old classic?) How’s this: I don’t do much front-line teaching these days, but I’ll try to capture some footage of me “in the wild” some point over the next few months and put it somewhere you can see it; I’d like you to watch it and tell me your responses, because I value your opinion and am prepared to trust your judgement. Don’t feel you have to follow suit if you agree to help me on this – you would be doing me the favour!

  • If you use a “theatre” anology you won’t have to “wash your mouth out with soap” for using the word “tech”.
    When a theatre production is filmed and aired on television so that people can see it all around the world, it does not become a TV show or series. It is still a play.

    On the other hand, the camera IS a scary tool and influences everyones behavior – takes guts to film your lesson!

    • I admit: you caught me playing to the gallery there 😉

      It is interesting, though (changing tack a bit), how some people feel recording produces something fundamentally different from the live event: in classical music, for example, Sergiu Celibidache was notorious for insisting that recordings were not “music” in any real sense!

      And you are right, the introduction of an “all-seeing eye” does influence the whole – but what fascinates me is: why is it scary? What are we afraid of? And, crucially, how can we get over these fears if (as I do here) assume that the products would be worthwhile having?

      Still, I have an old VHS tape of my experimental practice lesson (TBL, as I recall) from my diploma. Maybe I should digitise it and put it up on YouTube: now THAT would be truly terrifying! 😉

  • You’re on, Gaughan! I have myself on VHS tape somewhere too, but it has gone the way of all “old tech” – bin! But I will do some again – I promise – when we get enough students (in a changeover process at the mo and students are v. thin on the ground.)
    Look forward to “being in your class”!

    • That’s the spirit! Now I have some willing accomplices, I really should get the camera out!

    • I might have bitten off more than I can chew, here! I know it’s only like, 50 people who’ve read this, but it still feels like suddenly the whole world is waiting for me to put my money where my mouth is (and maybe watch me put my foot right in it…!) :-0

  • Yeah, but the people who are interested enough to discuss this with you are very supportive!!!

    That being said, I’m not offering anything.
    It would be pretty complex anyway in my class, we speak a lot of Hebrew and Israeli Sign Language (excuses, excsues)

    • That sounds fascinating! I’m looking forward to reading into your blog next week when life gets back to normal here.

      I am very grateful for having met so many positive and supportive people in the last year, though, both face to face and online. There really is such a thing as a community of practice!

  • Hi Anthony,

    I always enjoy a good video post – and this was a good video post. 🙂 We need more of the in the blogosphere. For me (in terms of video posts on my blog), the biggest question/fear before taking the plunge was ‘will anybody actually bother to watch it?’ Now, I could record one quite happily should the need arise.

    As for recording classes, the ‘my school won’t allow it’ line would be a geniune barrier to be overcome as I work with kids and the powers that be/parents are a bit funny about recording their little darlings, especially if it is to be posted somewhere online.

    However, this is I barrier I intend to oversome especially with my MA thesis and the need for in-class research looming. One suggestion that was made when discussing video observation in the teacher training module I did on my MA recently was the need for a few ‘practice runs’ before the recording programme starts with the camera visible in class (whether recording or not) thus allowing students and teacher alike to get used to it. That could help people overcome their ‘stage fright’ as well.

    • Glad you liked it, Dave: YouTube chose the least flattering still frame for the title view 🙁 heh heh

      I must admit, I’m not crazy about sharing a video of me in the classroom with the entire world either: but of course it needn’t start that big.

      It’S funny how as soon as you do choose to “out” yourself pedagogically, there is the absurd fear of not being observed! Something odd going on there with the ego 🙂

      And I agree that there are certainly plenty of situations where videoing classes is genuinely difficult to the point of impossible (as you say). But I know that in my context, at least, I could get it done if I really tried – and JAson Renshaw has shown in his video how to make good use even of a video where the only one visible is the teacher!

      Thanks for writing!

      • The still frame is one of the highlights any video post! 😀

        (By the way, did you know that somewhere in the video options on YouTube you can choose from one of three still frames? You may find something more flattering… or perhaps even less!)

        • Heh heh! I know and have actually changed it – but the video seems determined to embarrass me and is clinging on to its original form!

          There’s a reason people like me avoid technology …(I pause to smile)

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