Sunday, 10 July 2016

Me and My Dogme

Back in the early days of this blog, dogme was quite a popular topic. There were virtual debates that played out over several blogs, twitter feeds and YouTube videos (at times prompted by and at times spilling over into the real world of conferences and other ELT events). There was also the "dogme blog challenge" which led to my first teaching-related YouTube video, my first ever animated video, my first ever split-screen interview conducted with Cecilia (sadly, the site we used has since shut down and the recording has disappeared with it).

But enough of the rose-tinted reminiscence. Dogme has become less of a 'hot topic' these days, at least on the pages of this blog. Having been inspired to revisit the whole idea by Ceri Jones' recent IATEFL talk on going "Barefoot with Beginners" this post will serve as a retrospective of my blogging journey with dogme and where I stand today on the subject.

Many plugs have been pulled over the years...
Image via Pixabay.com
A lazy Sunday morning in October, 2010 saw my first tentative steps into what was at the time a raging online debate with the post My Take on the Unplugged/Dogme/Coursebook Debate. Aside from the semi-apologetic ramblings about any false claims, I stand by most of what I wrote about - teaching unplugged does not simply mean not using a coursebook; rather than using them as a safety net, new teachers need to learn how to use coursebooks effectively; and over-reliance on coursebooks is a problem in many different teaching contexts.

Continuing with Sunday as dogme day, I shared some more thoughts a couple of weeks later, this time posing the question Could dogme work with Young Learners? At this time, I hadn't dabbled with the unplugged arts in classroom myself so it was all speculation. A lot of what I anticipated, however, would ring true later on - kids enjoy the personalised approach and the idea of creating something away from the constraints or specific targets of set coursebook tasks; despite the benefits, persuading stakeholders and decision-makers of the value of doing things this way is tough, even when you have proof that it works; small steps are therefore needed to enact change and perhaps weaning teachers and language departments off coursebook-dominated syllabi is a more realistic target.

After a month and a shift to a late-night Friday blogging slot, I was ready to reflect on Planting the seeds of dogme - unplugged lessons with YLs. (As a quick aside, this emphasised one the great things about having a blog like this - re-reading the post really brought back vivid memories of those lessons from almost six years ago!) When it worked well, we had some productive and positive lessons and I recall the togetherness we felt as we talked, explored collocations, tried out some past simple and wrote a descriptive paragraph to bring it all together. There was also the reminder though that with kids, a rigid structure to the lesson often helps with classroom management.

My experiments with dogme really started to take off when I started Unplugging Exam Prep in order to get my students better prepared for the Cambridge YLE Tests. Pompiskotch made his first appearance as we started to use student artwork and stories as the point from which our lessons began and the ultimate goal of succeeding in the exam helped provide a focus for the more unruly groups. This led to me using dogme long-term in classes for the first time as we based our preparation for the Flyers test on unplugged principles with Lessons on the Fly.

During this time, I became fully convinced that dogme was indeed a viable alternative to materials-driven courses as my students did just as well as those who worked through practice books and past papers and I was honoured with the TeachingEnglish Blog of the Month award for my reflections on the lesson Let It Snow.

Although I was not teaching dogme all the time, it started to influence my thinking more and more, eventually leading to what I view as a critical moment in the evolution of my teaching style and beliefs - captured in the post Don't just fill the gaps... Explore the space. This remains in my mind a fitting analogy for a lot of what I see in English language classrooms and course programmes - so much time and focus is on filling gaps and ticking boxes that there is not enough space for students and teachers to explore and develop in.

It's easier to move when you're not plugged
Image via Pixabay.com
 
From September 2012 onwards, there is an apparent decline of entries on this blog specifically focusing on dogme. Part of that stems from the eventual dimming of the flames elsewhere in the blogosphere on the topic (indeed, as noted at the start, the inspiration to revisit this topic came from Ceri Jones' recent IATEFL talk on 'Barefoot' teaching with beginners) but part of it is also down to me reaching and passing that critical moment as a teacher. The reality is that, apart from those 'Lessons on the Fly,' I have never had the chance to teach 'pure' dogme. There have always been (and probably always will be) external demands for certain goals to be met and certain materials to be used.

However, exploring and experimenting with dogme has allowed me to take a more critical view of what my students do in class and why. It is simply not good enough to say we are going to do something just because it is the next item on the syllabus. I always evaluate learning aims and set material in terms of how they meet my students' needs. If adaptation is necessary, we adapt. If too much adaptation is necessary, we throw it out and go our own way. I bring this up with management too, explaining why I skipped over a set task and why, also emphasising how the alternative approach was more suited to their needs.

The other key change in my teaching has been the ability to recognise and pursue those 'unplugged moments'. Without my past reflections and experiments, I would never have experienced my favourite lesson in 2014 or used The Lesson Springboard to engage students in cross-curricular learning or responding to the learning outcomes of students from different age groups.

Pulling the plug completely may remain an ideal rather than a reality for me but it has had a strong influence on me, and my teaching is all the better for it.