Maybe I’m just one of the lucky ones?
This weekend at the IHWO DoS Conference there has been a lot of debate about Dogme and as usual I’ve been on the outside looking in. While I agree with a lot of the ‘principles’ Dogme and its followers espouse, I just can’t whip up the enthusiasm to cry its benefits from the rooftops and, if anything, I tend to cringe at the evangelicism of it all.
This weekend’s debates, and particularly @jemjemgardner’s response to my above summary of the debate, have made me wonder why I react like this to well-meaning people with sound ideas. And the conclusion I’ve come to is – maybe I’m just one of the lucky ones.
‘They’ say 90% of the impression we have of someone is made in the first ten seconds of meeting them (at least some such startling fact like this is the basis of reading texts in many course books over many years). My first meeting with Dogme was Scott at his Borgesian best (lots of clever quotes and little meaty passion) – so perhaps that’s where my rejection comes from?
I also think ‘they’ say that the first year of a baby’s life is even more influential than we give it credit for. The quality of the nutrition given is paramount for the intellectual and physical development of the child. The quality of the interaction with the environment, the parents and other humans around is vital for developing socially. And this makes me think that instead my underwhelming reaction to Dogme goes back to my initial experiences of teaching 15 years ago (long before Dogme reared its ugly head).
Daniel, my Trinity trainer at Oxford House College in the barmy summer of 97 wasn’t very impressive to be honest (most of his sessions were very much ‘do what I say not what I do’ and he failed one of my mates without any prior warning) but his comment on my final certificate (see pic) ‘Neil needs to ensure that his learners are not too material-based’ has stuck with me throughout my teaching career. First of all, cos it doesn’t make sense and secondly, because throughout the course we were encouraged to lift the language off the course book page and make it our own through designing our own materials (I was particularly proud of a lesson where the controlled practice was students designing their own ‘Frankie says’-style t-shirts) so it seemed confusingly hypocritical. But all the same, it was the area of my teaching I felt I needed to work on.
So the day of Princess Diana’s funeral I left London at it most surreal (I think I was the only person without a bouquet of flowers in my hand as I got the tube to Heathrow) and headed out to Prague for my first teaching job at Gymnasium Ceskolipska, a secondary school nestled in the housing estates of North-East Prague. The next morning I turned up at the English department office to be told I was teaching in 20 minutes. My first question once I’d recovered from the shear dread I was experiencing was ‘Where are the supplementary materials?’ There weren’t any. The course book was arriving in a week if we were lucky. I was teaching six classes of 35 minutes that day with teens ranging from 11 to 17 and Elementary to Advanced. Needless to say I felt the first lesson was awful and I was ready to run all the way back to grief-stricken England and give up on this TEFL lark before I’d even begun. But as the day wore on and I fine-tuned the delivery (obviously I did the same two getting to know you materials-free activities with all six classes) my confidence grew and I found out a lot about the kids and they found out a lot about me. And thankfully they didn’t find me out.
I doubt I dealt with much emergent language during those early days, but hopefully I corrected their errors and told them what I’d say in that situation. And the kids told me a lot about themselves and a lot about their country and a lot about their future plans etc. And they asked me a lot about me and my country and my murky past. And we learnt English together. And when the course book did finally turn up two weeks later my relief was surprisingly tempered and it was greeted with a groan by most of the kids (and probably their parents who had to fork out a week’s worth of crowns to pay for them). And so I sought to find a balance between covering the content of the course book and allowing the students space to talk and to ask and to enjoy themselves. And, to be honest, it didn’t seem so difficult.
Looking back on these early, vital days in my teaching formation, I discover an answer to @jemjemgardner’s question comment on ‘Dogs and Elves’ – ‘Have you used Dogme much? Or had the opportunity to observe it in practice? I’d be interested to know if the reservations you express are because you have experienced them first hand?’ Yes, I have used Dogme much. I was born using it. And perhaps that’s why, like a rebellious teenager who reacts against their parents’ best intentions, I am sceptical of the need for Dogme. And I realise now it’s because I was lucky. ‘Dogme’-like principles and techniques have always been part of my teaching, and so, like @Harmerj suggested at #IHDOS, I’ve always seen it as ‘Just good teaching’.
Now, I realise there are many other teachers out there who weren’t so lucky in their formative years. Perhaps they grew up in a prescriptive, test-obsessed environment and know no better? Perhaps their teaching personae were formed in Tsarist monarchies where course book was king and unquestioning loyalty was demanded at all times? Perhaps there are teachers out there who needed a Bolshevik revolution to wake them up from their teacher-centred slumber and wrench them away from the misconstrued comforts of published-materials paradise? Perhaps.
But Dogme therefore leaves me feeling like a February revolutionist. Change was happening long before the Dogme revolution came along. Teachers were realising course books are fallible, students are at the centre of learning, tangents are learning opportunities, grammar is but one of many important areas of language, making tasks authentic is motivating, fluency leads to accuracy etc. etc. And I see Dogme as a Bolshevik revolution. And we all know what happened after that.
So my reservations about Dogme come from trying to avoid a cold war. Trying to avoid a split into camps. Dogme V Course book. Luckily for me, I just don’t see the need. So let’s declare the revolution over. Let’s do away with the propaganda and the class struggle and the fighting and the stand-offs. It does none of us any credit and doesn’t help our less lucky colleagues. Let’s start looking for the middle ground now. Let’s continue to train our teachers and encourage our colleagues to be eclectic, to teach the context, to use a course book selectively if they and their students / institute want to, to encourage students to negotitate the syllabus and select texts, to structure classes with logical stages that achieve aims and to leave that structure when the context suggests it, to balance the focus on skills and language, to develop critical thinking skills, to encourage learner autonomy, etc. etc.
Dogme is dead. Long live Just Good Teaching.