The End of Books - page 227bBy George Chilton – with thanks to Neil McMillan for his thoughts and edits

Just to break with tradition – this is not a lesson plan.

I’ve been reading the Dogme debates and commentaries with interest recently. I am following the opinions being offered closely, as I believe that testing and questioning pedagogical methodology and approach is key to realising systemic progress in TEFL – and debates like these have the potential to generate a movement toward more effective ways of teaching.

In my opinion, an approach should be seen as a tool: you wouldn’t take a claw hammer to fix a window, nor would you approach every single class in the same way. So why you’d decide to be a purist of any kind is beyond me. I therefore tend to think that a mix of approaches, of classes, of structures and tempos is the way forward.  Pure Dogme might have the students itching for a gap fill, and static textbook materials will likely have the students staring out the window in the hope that something current flies in. We’re all well aware of the dangers of extremism in any form, how it stymies growth and threatens self-reflection. So why bring it to the table in our professional lives?

Chia Suan Chong’s thought-provoking run of posts, documenting a teach-off between a Dogme versus a course-book based series of lessons, has encouraged a lot of enthusiastic reflection on the part of teachers in both camps.

However I feel that some of the players are not being all that fair to one another, being rather negative, and possibly even blind to the potential that “opposite” or other out-of-fashion approaches offer. Self-proclaimed “Rants” by Hugh Dellar of  and ripostes in the comments by Anthony Gaughan show an engagement and desire to reach a conclusion, but also seem a little sour; “I think one of Dogme’s fatal flaws is the absolute prioritization of the here and now over any possible future. It’s like a child’s view of the world!” says Dellar, rather ironically forgetting that ranting itself is a somewhat childish thing to do. Perhaps, though, that’s just the way I’m reading them. They might all be friends. I just wonder where they fit on the friendship graph*.

So, in the immortal words of Popeye, I tell you, I can stands it no more; what’s with all this dissing?

I can’t put it any better than Phil Wade when he questions, very sagely;

“We should be developing whatever kind of teaching we do and helping our colleagues do the same. I really don’t understand why there is so much negativity and why people want to spend hours criticising Dogme and pointing at certain groups or members. What do they expect in return?”

Other than to say – it’s easy to knock something and much, much harder to try to improve on it – I’ll leave that question open.

We can safely say that nothing is perfect, and every approach and methodology has its failings, so when one invests everything in one to the cost of all others, it’s the students who are going to lose out in the long run. We need to continually develop our pedagogical ideas in order to develop professionally, and – more importantly – to meet learner needs.

“As ‘Dogme vs CB’ takes up more and more cyberspace we slowly forget about the Silent Way, about TPR or NLP, about Audiolingual or Grammar Translation, all methodologies which have offered us something and continue to do so if we leave ourselves open to third and further options. Which, let’s face it, most good teachers already do.”
(Neil McMillan, 2012)

The Tools
When planning a class we take into account cultural background, students’ ages, interests, language learning, personal and professional ambitions, level, personality mix, among many other things.

Unplugged courses tend to use the students as resources, and so focus the content in a much more personalised way.

Course books, on the other hand, are static, and cannot hope to provide a one-size-fits-all umbrella course; it falls to the teacher to make the material come alive. Yet, these courses do have structure and follow a syllabus – which for some, especially those teaching exam preparation classes, is essential.

Dogme can be accused of having very little cohesion between classes, with the course having far less structure, and at times being unpredictable, especially when it comes to language points and grammar. Retrospective syllabi are ideal tools for reflection and learner progress records, but aren’t so hot when it comes to laying out a realistic plan based on your learners’ course expectations. One of the major criticisms is that it also doesn’t tend to work with lower-level groups. I’m not sure even the most hardened Dogme prof would head into a beginner class armed only with a charming smile and hope that the conversation would flow.

Cherry Picking

English: Cuisenaire rodsAs I’ve mentioned, I don’t fly one particular flag when it comes to teaching English. Like a piece of fluff nestled between two toes, I’m neither a Dogme purist nor a course-book fan; I sit somewhere halfway between the two. I unplug and plug in equal measure. That has had a decided effect on the classes I’ve taught and the lesson plans I produce and feature on the blog.

Also, having never taught a hermit, I’ve come to the conclusion that communication is at the heart of language learning, and I think that in order to find the ideal approach to ELT we need to think of questions that we must ask ourselves and our students in order to find the ideal approach and methodologies.

One of the most positive and encouraging aspects of the Dogme debate has been to see the numerous blogs reflecting on the lessons, the conversations, the questions and the positive to and fro between teachers. Dogme is not something that I would describe as being “new”, “maverick” or “experimental” – it’s just another way of approaching a class, like it always has been.

If it works with a group, great – if it doesn’t try something else. Every class is different, as is every teacher. I’ve both had and observed some amazing classes using coursebooks; classes which have been engaging, with multi-faceted opinion driven conversations. The same goes for unplugged classes –and I think perhaps those teaching unplugged/Dogme classes should revisit books occasionally– and those relying on the books should try something less prescribed now and then.

So long as the students come away with something they’ve learnt, have used English and bring it with them again to the next class, then that’s a success.

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Designer Lessons by George Chilton is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.