Finding Dogme Moments

12 10 2013

The Dogme movement has been around for over a decade and has generated heated debates over the years.  It was first proposed by Scott Thornbury in 2000 and it discourages the use of textbooks, which should be replaced by conversational interactions between students and teacher on topics that emerge in the classroom.  Its main principles are (Thornbury, 2005):

Dogme

  1. The most direct route to learning is based on the interactivity between teachers and students and among the students themselves.
  2. Students are engaged by content they have created rather than third-party content.
  3. Learning is social and dialogic; knowledge is co-constructed in the classroom.
  4. Learning takes place through talk, especially talk that is scaffolded by the teacher
  5. Language and grammar emerge from the learning process.
  6. The teacher’s role is to optimize language learning affordances by directing students’ attention to certain features in the emergent language.
  7. The teacher recognizes he learner’s voice and accepts their beliefs, knowledge, concerns and desires.
  8. Students and teachers are empowered by freeing themselves from published materials.
  9. When texts are used, they should have relevance for the learners.
  10. Teachers and students should become critical of the cultural and ideological biases inherent in ELT materials.

More recently, the Dogme approach has been systematized in the book Teaching Unplugged, by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009). Here is the idea of the book:

I find the proposal enticing and can see how it can be applicable in certain contexts, especially in which students take English classes for a short time in “boutique-like” ELT Institutes or in private teaching environments. It certainly wouldn’t work in mine, an ELT Institute with thousands of students of all age and proficiency levels and over 200 teachers.  How would students be grouped, since Dogme doesn’t believe in grouping students by level? How would they progress from semester to semester, from zero knowledge of English to the C1 level? How would we deal with students changing groups in the middle of the semester, since what had emerged in the original group and worked on in class would be different from that of the new group? These and other practical questions – yes, it is my job to figure out the practical stuff – boggle my mind.

Nevertheless, I cannot deny the soundness of the principles outlined above. We have indeed become too dependent on course books and their ever-growing components. We have perhaps been using interactive whiteboards, PPT presentations, fun but sometimes language-poor You Tube videos and the like too much and too often, and have very little time, if any, to focus on what emerges in the classroom. Our conversations with students are always mediated by a device, be it the course book, a tablet, a cell phone, the board, etc. Even worse, we don’t allow time for anything to emerge that is not directly linked to our learning outcomes, and when it does, we ignore it and move on.

Thus, in the impossibility of adopting Dogme per se, I believe we should try to find Dogme moments in the classroom. I recently found one unexpectedly but fortunately didn’t fail to seize it.

I’ve been teaching a group of pre-intermediate adults since August and piloting a new course book chosen among many other options because of the “space” it allows for emergent interactions and for being “grammar-light”, again giving space for dialogic conversations in the classroom. This book contains a section at the end of every unit focused on developing life skills. One of such lessons was about doing research and proposed that students research what happened the year they were born. At first, I found the activity a bit lame but decided to give it a try.

I asked my students to search the web to find events that had happened the year they were born and select the ones they found more relevant to tell their classmates the next class. I told them I would do the same. I had little faith in this activity, though, because adult students are famous for not doing their homework, especially such an “unstructured” one. I was ready to be the only one to talk about my birth year and then move on.

The following class, I began by telling my students what I had found out about the year I was born. Since I like music and I was born in a decade of musical revolution, I focused on the albums that were launched and the bands that started that year. Then my students worked in groups to talk about their years. I was sure that in each group of three perhaps only one student would have done the research. To my surprise, though, they had all done it and had brought notes and even whole paragraphs. Most had even looked up words they didn’t know. More surprisingly, just like me, they had selected the events that were related to their own personal interests, such as political events, scientific discoveries, music, sports, etc. One student, for example, said that her birth year had been the year of the enactment of one of Brazil’s many constitutions. Yes, enactment! I was so enthralled by their engagement that what was supposed to be a ten to fifteen-minute activity became a one-hour one, for then I did a debriefing asking them to tell the other groups what they had found out about their peers, made a word bank on the board, worked on commonly mispronounced words, etc. I truly learned from my students and what they had to tell me about history, music, sports, and the like. My role was merely to help them with the language. Two students who had written whole paragraphs about their birth years handed their work to me for feedback. Even this aspect was student-driven!

I can’t say this is a pure Dogme lesson because the idea of researching their birth years didn’t emerge from the students, but everything thereafter did and was congruent with Dogme principles:

  1. There was intense interactivity between me and students and among the students themselves.
  2. Students were engaged by content they created; they selected what to focus on.
  3. Knowledge was co-constructed in the classroom. Students taught each other new words, words that they had chosen, not ones in a previously selected text.
  4. Learning took place through talk, and I helped by scaffolding this talk.
  5. Language and grammar emerged from the learning process. Students learned new vocabulary and new verbs as they emerged.
  6. I tried to optimize language learning affordances by directing students’ attention to certain features in the emergent language, especially in the debriefing phase.
  7. I recognized my learner’s voice by allowing them to choose what to focus on, based on their beliefs, knowledge and interests.
  8. Students were empowered by using their own materials.
  9. The content had relevance for the learners.

It’s been one of my best moments with this group so far, and it was one in which I used no previously planned materials except my own research. In Ethnography terms, it was the moment in which my conversation with my students was the most symmetrical.

Now I make it a point to find space in my classes for Dogme moments like the one described above. Do my students like it? Well, they gave me a beautiful card and gift for Teachers’ Day. On the card, they said I was a great teacher and person. It was the person part that moved me the most!

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