It’s my great pleasure to write that this blogspace will be dedicated to Phil for this post, who has written an account of his experience with Dogme. It’s a really great read and offers some thoughtful insights into Phil’s student-centered approach.
How it happened
I was teaching English in a university which in the first term had been very heavy on input via handouts and lecture style teaching. Then when we moved into the second term I was given speaking-based classes which again had plenty of handouts. The prevailing approach of teacher-led lectures or explanations didn’t seem new to the students who were used to it but the result was very poor speaking and even worse writing, as shown in their external English test. As I started teaching the second term I also started studying the DELTA module 3 and taking part in online discussions and began hearing lots about DOGME. Being an inquisitive or rather nosy person I began hunting round on websites for DOGME ideas and principles. Then when I picked up Luke and Scott’s book it was a complete revelation. Ever since my first ever class (a communication skills class) I’ve been struggling to find how to teach speaking or rather with a speaking-based emphasis. And since my current setting I’ve been very keen on teaching without the back breaking amount of handouts all too common to many of us. I then came across Anthony’s blog, the Yahoo group and subsequently Dale’s blog. From watching presentations, reading blog posts, discussions and reflecting on the book it struck me that 1) This is what I should have ALWAYS been doing 2) I need to go back to basics. What I found ground breaking about DOGME was that it was not some top down methodologically rigid theory or method. It was and is a product of teacher’s discussions about what works. It’s also interesting that everyone has their own version or ideas about it because everyone is different. And what’s even more amazing is that you can join in sharing your experiences and get real feedback from some very qualified people.
Thus, I started some serious rethinking about everything I’ve ever understood about teaching and my own approach. I had been studying teaching on and off for years in search methods and ideas to help me become a better teacher but even after finishing an MA I wasn’t satisfied. So then came the experimenting and throwing out of lots of pedagogical theories and fancy tools I’d been accumulating which just got in the way of teaching. From that time on I’ve changed everything, got my ‘mojo’ back and have been very happy with the results, the students too.
What went out?
Well, out went all the handouts and photocopies, the grammar and topic lectures, the teacher-dominated IRF style classes, heavy pre-planning and the overall approach of ‘filling empty heads’ or just ‘doing the lesson/handout’. Also all my ‘mixed methods’ and ‘eclecticism’ which I’d been blending in what I thought was a ‘seamless optimal mix of contemporary methods I had studied and would not fail to optimise students learning’ (or so I put in one essay). From possibly studying too much (CELTA, PGCE, MA, DELTA) I had somewhere along the line forgotten about the students and got too much into planning, methods and also the admin associated with my job. Students had become names or numbers and classes just got repeated as they were of the same subject. All of this went in the bin as I went ‘back to basics’. From reading about Anthony’s fantastic unplugged CELTA work I started thinking about what I had initially learned about teaching and how useful it actually was to me now. I came to the conclusion that I had to put the students and learning first and that communication was the key which is what language is for, not filling in gaps in a test. I wanted students to learn and enjoy learning and that was what motivated me to initially become a teacher but that didn’t seem to be true for many teaching contexts where students just jump through hoops and teachers crack the whip.
What came in?
My desire to teach, learn and an enjoyment I had not had in a long long time but this was all reflected from the students. Pre-planning came down to a minimum, student choice came in by them selecting topics and preparing talks for each lesson, I moved from standing at the front to sitting down with groups, I began asking opinions more, getting to know students and building the class around them. This was on a lesson to lesson basis but also in each lesson. Even though I taught 4 classes on the same course none of them were the same because the students weren’t. Something would start with a presentation or discussion but it could end with some writing or further discussion or lots of language work.
I started with upper ints, some of who I had never heard speak before and there was another CAE/CPE+ class who had been bored to tears with the low level work we had previously done as we had a policy of teaching the same stuff across the board. I delved into Luke and Scott’s book which I began to read so much my daughter would tap on them and smile. However, after trying some of the activities I still knew there was something missing. It eventually clicked that 1 or 2 activities was not going to make a big enough difference. I had to go the whole hog. I tried internalising the ideas more than the activities and thinking of ways I could encourage and support speaking, language and learning throughout a class and the course.
As I moved more and more into speaking activities, discussions, debates and listening to working on what students came out with they knew something was going on. This shock factor only lasted a couple of weeks as students struggled with the concept of being talked to and engaged and having an input. Lessons kicked off with some general topic but students could branch off into sub groups if they had the option, even groups who started off with the same topic ended up somewhere different and really enjoying speaking freely without being judged on their opinions or language. I encouraged them to ask each other and me for linguistic help, write down problems/questions and then we would have ‘mini linguist’ sessions to look at language and build it up or help with errors. This was very open and I’d answer any related questions. We’d then discuss how to use this language and then go back into another avenue of discussion. I also used blank paper for them to note things down and work on language. I gave no handouts and made them make worksheets for activities like find someone who. End of class revision then became very useful and surprisingly they wanted feedback and direction on how they could develop further. They would even ask what we’d be doing next week and who could present about the topic.
To book or not to book?
For a while I had to use a book but I didn’t know how. Then in one student-led talk and subsequent discussion about the Japanese nuclear situation we got onto alternative power which just happened to be the unit for this week. A light bulb burst in my head and I suddenly understood what so many of the DOGME people meant about ‘dipping into’ the book when it is needed. So, the next class and a couple after it involved that. The book became a reference for information to help discussions, debates, writing or just for background or further reading. As such it became useful. Whereas few students bought it or brought it to class before, now it was everywhere and people were quoting the texts.
Attendance increased, even students who had passed already and didn’t need to attend did, others brought in their friends and one class had a 100% attendance rate. Students came early, left late and discussed topics before and after class. Their fluency went through the roof, their confidence too. They started thinking critically and in English. Use of the L1 also practically disappeared compared to about 30-50% before. More importantly they started to enjoy learning English and also learning about the culture. They enjoyed the classes and appreciated having a teacher who was really interested in fostering enjoyable classes and putting them in control. But for me the best results were when they opened up and shared things about their lives and cultures. For instance, in one class a strong feminist and an Arabic student had a mature but spirited conversation about having several wives or and in the end the girl agreed that it should be accepted.
For myself I got to enjoy teaching again and finally found out how to do it which no book or class had taught me. I also made some great friends along the way and now look forward to every new class and student. Best of all I really appreciate the importance of being a teacher and helping students to improve. As Anthony says on the TDSIG we should be “interested in becoming the best teachers we can be – for ourselves but also for our students and for our institutions.