Practical Ideas for Retrospective Planning in a Reflective Journal

I want to offer my thanks again to the audience in my talk on Reflective Teacher Practice at TESOL France, who came up with a number of very practical ideas to create a retrospective plan to use in a reflective journal. Their wealth of experience they had to offer helped me come up with a number of ideas. I owe you all a big thankyou, and maybe a drink next time we see each other, you can hold me to that! I have synthesised the ideas into a few frameworks that could be of use to someone thinking of starting a reflective journal:

Circular snapshots

Hard-data stored in your brain is more easily accessed through emotions and visuals, in my humble opinion. This model encourages the teacher to first go back into the lesson and take a visual snapshot of it, then, give it an adjective. Having entered the lesson in this way, you’re ready to look at the focus, needs, opinions and feedback.

Questions about the teacher/questions about the learner

Reflecting and writing a journal has a number of benefits which I would espouse. However, at times, alone with your thoughts, it’s possible that reflection becomes inflection. By this I mean the teacher is the centre of everything. We are professionals and we take our practice seriously. Basically, we flagellate ourselves. This framework rebalances the situation by addressing the learners first and then the teacher. The questions in the first box focus the reflection on the learner, then expanded and refocused on the teacher; it’s beneficial not only to learners but also to the teacher to bear them in mind when retrospectively planning/evaluating.

Reflection into research

An area I touched upon in my talk was action research. This is the area in which I feel I short-changed my audience slightly. There was a missing link between how to synthesize the journal content into a well-focused and fruitful action research project. The idea below goes some way to bridging the gap; it takes you step-by-step through the lesson running order. The first part elicits your thoughts on the lesson. Unpacked, the most salient points are then questioned and re-packaged in the form of a focus or action research (by this point the number of point should reduce). By the time you arrive at the action research box, you’ll have a few ideas in mind. At this point it’s a good idea to get the opinion of other teachers. This could be done by asking them to read your journal or through an informal staff-room chat. Finally, you’re ready to start picking out literature to help research.

The two classroom pillars

I used this framework to analyse a Dogme lesson I did last week. I found it useful to start with the learner pillar. They focus on interactions: firstly communicative interaction, then the interaction between learners and the content of the class, difficult and easy.

Answering the three questions on the teacher-pillar accesses the teacher’s decisions through the lesson in relation to learner interactions. What I find helpful about this framework is that you can draw conclusions on your decisions in the classroom and link them directly to the learner.

It could be beneficial to revisit the lesson or start an action research project in the case of an imbalance between these questions e.g. Learners found it difficult to produce X language/I found it difficult to help them with X language, learners found it difficult to understand what was required of them in the lesson/I found it hard to give instructions.

Surprises and moments

It doesn’t always go according to plan, does it? Emerging interactions can come as some surprise. It’s how we deal with them that makes them learning opportunities. In reflecting on them, consider the cause: internal or external. E.g. students had a bad day, it’s 5.30 p.m. on a Friday and my teenager group wasn’t exactly thrilled to check into grammar 101, the material was pitched too high, etc etc. If these were surprises the next step is to reconsider your plan or classroom behaviour.

At the end of the process, give yourself a mark out of ten. It’s better at the end than at the start – again, reflection is better than inflection.

Moving from one lesson to the next

This idea focuses on how to move from lesson to lesson. As I mentioned in my talk, I often find the focus for the next lesson in the leftovers of the previous. Reactivating could be to address any one of the questions presented. This doesn’t necessarily have to something identified as a negative; one might want to reactivate to revise, add continuity or to introduce a new focus in the context created in the previous lesson.

Challenge

Here’s my challenge. To anyone out there: teachers: newly qualified or expert, trainers: teaching or training. Directors/ADOSs: running development sessions or teaching, try it out with a class. Maybe two if you have the time.

1. Which of these structures best fits your teaching style/beliefs about teaching/context? 

2. Do you find it helpful to reflect in this way?

3. Have you noticed and areas for improvement in your teaching? Would you like to improve these?

4. Have you identified any strengths? If so, how could you ensure your planning/preparation/teaching exploits your strengths?

TESOL France: Reflective Teacher Practice for Newly Qualified Teachers (and everyone else)

Firstly, I’d like to send out a big thanks to all those who came to and participated in my presentation at TESOL France. I’m planning another post and a few challenges to include the excellent contributions given by some of the participants.

Reflection

I want to share with you something that happened to me a couple of months ago. I had just moved city and I was going through the interview process. Now, I consider myself a rookie when it comes to interviews, but this one in particular will stand out in my memory for years to come. We were about half way through when I was asked:

“What would you say is your biggest weakness?”

Now I’ll be the first to admit how much I dislike this question. I even felt quite inclined to not answer it. Let’s face it, who in their right mind would reveal potentially harmful information in front of their prospective employer? It seems like interview suicide!

You see, it’s not what the question is asking that troubles me; it’s the way the question is asked. I have never sat on the other side of the table, but If I did, I imagine the perfect candidate would respond like this:

“Well, at the moment I’m in the process of improving…”

I think you’ll all agree that this is quite different from the original question, but is that not what it’s asking? There’s something curious about this: taking a different perspective on a question I’d been asked many times before provided a very positive outcome, one which no doubt will make me more confident for the next time.

In this presentation, I’m not going to treat a weakness as a problem. Instead I’m going to propose, like in the response, that it makes up part of a proactive process towards improving. Confront the issue with a different mindset so that, in essence, the question remains the same, but the results you obtain are different. That’s how problem solving works, right?

I have not been in the EFL world for very long, two and a half years to be precise. In that short time I’ve come across many teacher trainers who are passionate about their work, who are an inspiration to their trainees which, in turn, speak very highly of them.  These courses provide lots of support – regular feedback with an experienced tutor, post lesson evaluation, setting action points to improve on, help with lesson planning, a focus on language awareness and language teaching methodology – trainees are never on their own.

I remember my first job in EFL very well. After a few months working where I trained, I moved to a school in Italy. Let me tell you now, you’re left to your own devices. You complete your pre-service training, you move away and you’re more or less ‘autonomous’ – which is a nice way of putting ‘on your own’.

Now I’m sure all of you remember being a newly qualified teacher or you work enough with them to recognise some of the following thoughts:

Journal writing

Very soon after starting my first job I began to write a journal. I had a class of badly behaved teenagers on Friday evenings and needed a place in which to track my efforts to pacify the warzone, where I could record my actions in lessons and how students responded to these. I have a confession to make though: I didn’t manage to resolve all their behavioural problems by the end of the course. What I did manage to do however was to learn a lot about the teenage classroom. This learning experience taught me two things: firstly, classroom interaction between a teacher and teenagers differs from interaction with adults. Secondly, that writing about my thoughts after a lesson, making a connection with what I planned before crystallises the experience in your memory.

I spent the next year keeping a record of my lessons, writing what I felt happy about and what didn’t work so well and asking myself why. In my experience, it works. My classroom practices became a lot clearer to me. I pulled them out of the dark and put them on paper. If there’s a something to work on, and it’s clear, improving it is much easier. If there’s a record of what’s good, continuing it is no problem.

The best thing is that I had a record of my ritualised practices, be they positive or negative. You slowly pick up your own style; the things you do, when you do them, which can be used to get in touch with your teacher-self – the teacher you are in the classroom.

There’s an element of self-evaluation involved. It’s got a lot in common with pre-service training courses; in fact, it’s more of a continuation of what one learns during training. The structure I’m partial too is likely to be very familiar to any teacher trainer out there, it includes: What I learned from the lesson, what I think the learners got out of the lesson and how I would do the lesson differently if given the chance to.

What about our newly qualified teacher’s thoughts? First of all, bad lessons aren’t thrown in the bin. They aren’t forgotten but instead used as learning moments for the teacher. Not only this, but also, keeping such a record lets you know what your strengths are as a teacher. We all have them, but it’s easy to focus your evaluation on negatives and fixate on improving these. In actual fact, identifying your strengths is just as important.

Retrospective planning

Now the question I’m going to put to you is this: does it always go according to plan? One of those questions we all know the answer to. What interests me is the moments in which we put the lesson plan down and respond to what is happening in the classroom.  One of the fears about this for newly qualified teachers is they are stepping into unknown territory; if you go down that road you might not know the way back.

But we are curious beings; we want to know what’s out there. Let’s just have a quick show of hands: how many of you have recently dropped your plan and ran with something that came up in class? I have spoken with newly qualified teachers about this and, as it turns out, we (I include myself still in this bracket) do in fact go with the flow at times. Now, this leads me to think: how do I deal with these moments, when my teaching skills are put to the test?

Let me give you an example. I have just moved to Rome, you know, Julius Cesar, The Coliseum, a big church where some important religious people live… well… naturally, the first thing I bought before leaving was a map. The first few days I clung to my map with my life, never leaving the house without it. Two months down the line and my map is gathering dust in my desk drawer. I’m walking around the city, taking in the sites, the alleys, street names and landmarks. What I’m getting on at is, every new discovery remains in my memory that much more with my head in the air, not to mention the world passing me by that would otherwise go unnoticed with my head buried in a map.

There’s something important to be learned from these experiences, and doing a sort of retrospective plan of the lesson accesses and unpacks these. I like retrospectively planning, it gives me feedback on the decisions I made during the lesson and the learning opportunities that presented themselves. I feel more confident after reflecting on them and that, the next time they arise, I will be better prepared to exploit them to the students’ benefit.

A retrospective lesson plan might resemble a normal pre-lesson plan. You write down, say, each individual stage as it unfolded, with timings, aims and interaction patterns. Place yourself back into the lesson and reassess what difficulties learners were having at each point during the lesson.

Another question: But but but, I hear you say, doesn’t this lead to more planning time? It depends on the mindset towards planning. Well, actually I hope it’s quite the opposite. Since I started using a journal and including retrospective planning the amount of time I spend planning has reduced. It’s question of efficiency. Take the idea of a new city and a map. I’m a cyclist too, and it’s not always possible to look down at the map, there are a million and one things to concentrate on, especially when trying to negotiate a safe passage through the frantic Roman traffic. I check the map after my ride, trace my route through the city and compare it to what I had planned out, and then I’m ready for the next time I use that route. The same can be said for retrospective planning.

Why spend so much time investing time into a lesson if there’s no review of the investment? Tracing your route through the lesson, the corners and one-way systems encountered along the way bridges the gap between one lesson and the next. By reflecting on the last lesson in this way you’re immediately in the mindset to tackle to the next lesson; I can’t tell how many times I’ve found the stimulus or language focus for my next lesson in the leftovers of the previous.

Action research

So here’s another question: what to do with all the information in the journal? Personally I found at first that there was more than I knew what to do with, so many thoughts about my classes. It was a case of prioritising what seemed most immediate at the time and synthesising it into an action research project.

If then we see that what’s most needed comes up in the journal, it can be followed up on with action research. I saw that the most common areas for improvement had to do with language awareness and ideas for engaging students in lessons. I kept my focus narrow and my goals reachable. This is important too. There’s so much out there to know that a well-thought out goal for action research is necessary.

I want to give another example of how I did this. I remember a lesson in which I ‘did a reading’ and faced the blank confused stares of ten students. I had gone through the necessary stages and checked comprehension, all regular, all how I was trained to do. Something didn’t seem right though and in my ‘how would you do things differently’ section I found myself brainstorming ideas to tackle reading texts without comprehension questions, to engage students in reading.

There’s an interesting pattern here. This kind of teacher-centred research, involving what’s immediate is what I’d outline as important for newly qualified teachers in facing low language awareness and a lack of ideas in the classroom. Base it on what you do. We teach our students on a what-they-need-to-know basis, so why not centre our teacher development on the same sort of things?

Indeed, this sort of way of approaching lesson-planning, from reverse, puts the teacher at the centre of development. Imagine an environment lacking in external support for a newly qualified teacher; you might feel pretty lost, right? For many of us, this is the reality. Nonetheless, remedying the situation doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Assuming that teachers want to develop, they can place themselves at the centre, in charge of their own pathway.

So why not try it for a month. Keep a journal of your lessons and at the end of the month review it. Make a list of the most common areas of your journal and write an action plan. Include points of reference for reading up on the topic, brainstorm ideas to include in lesson planning and try them out in the same classes. Include retrospective planning to get the bigger picture of how things happened. After two weeks, do an intermediate review to see how things are going. Then at the end of the month, have a look at what has changed.

Obtaining subjective feedback

It’s fair to say that in the last two years, a lot of changes have happened as a result of my keeping a journal and the action research projects it gave birth to. Yet comparatively, an equal amount has been also as a result of student feedback. Now I might hear you say: there’s nothing new about that, is there?

Allow me to now give another example, this time of when I was learning Italian in language school. One of my teachers came to class most days and told us a story, which used to be the highlight of the lesson. You see, Italians are great story-tellers, it’s got something to do with the fact that they rarely get to the point, which makes their stories full of imagery and rich in detail. Anyway, at the end of the of course we were given feedback forms to complete, by then it had been two months since I had last had this teacher and it didn’t cross my mind to write about how much I liked them.

Now, the question I want to ask all of you now is: how do we make feedback more useful for the newly qualified teacher? I know for sure in my case that I didn’t give truthful feedback at the right time. It’s a shame, it really is, and I could have changed my class for the better. But there’s a reason for this; feedback wasn’t subjective and it didn’t come at the right time.

So the question poses itself: how can we make it so? One idea I have had success with is keeping a teacher-student journal, in which students write to you and you respond to the content. I started this idea as a way of giving students practice writing informally about what interested them. Over time the conversation turned to class. What I found striking was that students felt freer to write what they think about class in this space, what’s more there’s more trust involved; it’s a dialogue between you and your teacher.

To repeat: feedback is most helpful when it’s subjective and at the right time. A teacher called Adam Beale is currently using student diaries to gather subjective feedback on an unplugged course in Spain. If you haven’t had a look at his blog, I really urge you to. Students write about their lessons in a diary, using either L1 or L2, which ever they feel most comfortable with. Now I think that’s a fantastic idea, how much feedback, especially at low levels, gets lost in translation?

Another idea is to dedicate 5-10 minutes of classroom time to gathering feedback based on the following aspects: What have you liked about class? What would you change about class, how much do you think you have learned? The important thing here is to collect it regularly; weekly for an intensive course or monthly in a course lasting the academic year. If you’re short on class time, setting feedback as homework via email can remedy this problem.

In addition to this, I have also tried a class suggestion box. Place a pile of cards next to the box and learners are free to post a suggestion at the start, in the break, or at the end of class.  Take them in at the end of the week/month and include them in a review of your journal.

Now I’ve had the same thoughts as I outlined at the start many times: “I feel like I’ve run out of ideas”, “I think my lessons are boring”, “I’m really not sure how my teaching went”. But you know, how much of it can be resolved by obtaining the opinions of your learners? In fact, taking action on constructive feedback from your students – a collaborative effort – indicates to learners that their teacher listens. What’s more is the feedback can be included in your diary and matched against your own evaluation of your teaching.

It’s fair to say that one size doesn’t fit all; everyone out there has their own way of doing things, one of the important parts of reflective practice is that you find what works best for you. So, in light of this, can you now work in groups of two or three to come up with a scheme with which to evaluate a lesson in a journal

Mentoring

Can I just have a quick show of hands from those of you have been mentors or have been mentored? It’s great, isn’t it? I remember my mentor, Chia Suan a person who helped define the teacher I am today, whose ideas and enthusiasm still remain a constant inspiration to me. I also remember being a mentor for the first time, last summer, to two newly qualified teachers. In both cases what I found most benefiting was the exchange of ideas – someone to offer a second opinion.

So I started thinking and my question is this: how can mentors play a role in the reflective practice of a newly qualified teacher? Imagine writing a journal in your first year of teaching – it’s fair to say that many of your questions will remain unanswered. Which is not much of a consolation. Now imagine that your mentor has the opportunity to read your journal – a mentor that can nudge you in the right direction when you come to a dead end – a mentor that can offer some direction and support. What I am proposing is that alongside the content of the journal there’s also a dialogue between teacher and mentor.

Peer observation

Here’s a thought: it’s nice to get a second opinion on your strengths and weaknesses and official observations can be a bit daunting. What I am going to suggest is that colleagues review their journals and observe their teaching. Take a review section including the strengths and areas to work on and have a colleague watch you teach to see if they agree. Like I said, it can be a bit disheartening when there are no answers to your questions, likewise if you focus too much on areas to improve. To this end, I had a fellow teacher read my diary and observe me when I was trying to make my classroom environment with those rowdy teens more conducive to learning. From there we discussed what was in my diary in relation to my lesson and set some action points.

So where are we now? We have a significant number of newly qualified teachers working autonomously on action research, using the situations that arise in their classrooms. Now there’s definitely a huge benefit to the institution regarding the sharing of this information. It’s grassroots teacher development. I don’t know how many institutions out there involve their newly qualified teachers in running development sessions, but here’s a thought, why not?

I want to take you back to the start, when I asked, “What would you say is your biggest weakness?” I said it was not what the question is asking which bothers me; it’s how the question is asked. In the same way it’s not the problems for a newly qualified teacher that should bother them; it’s how they deal with the question. In contrast with our teacher we saw at the beginning, I’m going to show you another:

It can work on three levels: the teacher, the teacher and students and the teacher and institution. Depending on the situation you find yourself in, any of the three levels is possible to achieve.

Thoughts

Could these ideas be incorporated more into teacher training? Certainly they are transferable skills that would be useful to a teacher embarking on their career. Are they worth squeezing into an already packed schedule of input sessions in a pres-service training course? There are already some incredible trainers out there taking steps to include more reflection in their timetable.

Secondly, as in institution, could there be the possibility of including some of these ideas in teacher development? Handling the demands of a busy timetable is time consuming to say the least. Could there be benefits of adopting this sort of mindset?

If you’ve recently started teaching, or even if you are a seasoned professional, would you consider making space for reflective practice? If so, I’d be very interested to hear about the results.

Whether you’re part of a teacher-training team, in charge of hiring new teachers, in some way involved with teacher development or training, or you are a newly qualified teacher, I am going to leave you with this thought: the end is not the really the end, it’s just the beginning.

Reflective Journals

What exactly is a reflective journal?

This is the same question I asked myself after leaving a stationary shop with a stylish leather-clad diary in hand. I opened it at the first page, wrote the date, some information on the class and the rest, as they say, is history. Having used various forms of a journal in the past 18 months, I have come to realise that the primary aim of it is to provide a space to articulate and download your thoughts. What’s more, using Dogme, I wanted to be sure that I had both a record of what I was teaching and how I was teaching it.

How was my journal conceived?

As I mentioned, about a year and a half ago I started keeping a teaching journal. The thinking behind it involved a desperate attempt to control a class of rowdy teenagers, all uninterested in English at 7pm on a Friday evening. The idea was developed from a black book of successful lesson ideas, tried and tested in the classroom, unpacked and recorded in this book for future use. The new-look journal documented changes in behaviour of the class during the course, including post-lesson reflections on the efficacy of my attempts to pacify the war zone. Three months of reflective experimentation with the class saw improvements in their behaviour, their motivation and my attitude towards the students. Success motivated me to reflect more, including my thoughts from other classes in the diary, including a Dogme class I included in my presentation at IATEFL 2010, but also classes with which I used course books, YLs classes and exam classes.

Dear diary, today…

 

Well, not quite, but some of my entries bear some resemblance to the classic dear-diary structure. Mostly, entries focused on capturing as best as I could remember what had happened in the classroom. With this information on paper, I re-read it and asked myself  for instance why I did things in X way or what would be the benefit of doing X before Y. The guiding question that emerged was:

Is this right because I do it, or do I do it because it’s right?

The bold to me represents ritualised practices and routines, which have a large part to play in a lesson, whether positive or negative. Once on recorded in the journal, I started to question these, asking for example why I used to elicit answers in full-class plenary or why I used pairwork instead of open-class discussion. The implication of this is that established classroom practices become those that are based on successful models, tried and tested in class.

Is a teacher’s intuition and existing belief set enough to act as a guide though? Of course, this relies upon a person being very observant and having a heightened sense of self-awareness regarding their practice.

But doesn’t this mean I will spend more time planning?

I will be the first to admit that it adds to your planning time, around 30-45 minutes per lesson. Consider it a start-up cost, an investment. Much like lesson planning immediately after qualifying, it reduces very quickly. After a few months the way in which I planned had turned completely on its head; reflecting on the lesson after it happened prepared me to teach the next, like retrospective lesson planning.

How do you know the right questions to ask?

 

Good point. I certainly did not have a highly developed reflective capacity at the start and there were times where I felt like I was reaching a dead end. From looking back on early diary entries, the focus was more on capturing the information and detecting patterns in my classroom routine. The addition of student feedback guided me towards what to ask and was included in journal reviews, where I put my practice under the microscope and extracted what to keep and what to throw.

You’ve mentioned ‘awareness’, what do you mean by this?

 

I guess it lies in the ability to look at your classroom as an outsider and pick up on what is happening, This is by no means easy, as the pen is in the teacher’s hand, which is influenced inextricably by existing beliefs on teaching and even the surrounding social and cultural context. Therefore, is subjectivity possible in a journal? Or should the aim be to reflect on, formulate and reinforce your practice?

That’s all very well, but what do you actually write?

From my experiences with a journal, I would recommend putting on paper what is on your mind at the moment of writing. This is already a step towards bringing things to the surface. A lot of the time an entry included my concerns over why learners had difficulties or why some did not seem engaged in the lesson. In fact, these thoughts still come up and often form the basis of a foray into the past, reviewing the lesson structure, materials, interaction, language/skills focus etc in order to make a few pedagogical tweaks to it ready for next time.

Might it not be beneficial to get a second opinion from a more experienced teacher?

I would be the first to say so. In fact, it might be beneficial for both parties, especially if there were some sort of mentor system set up to support this. I found exchanging ideas with a mentor very helpful for my growth as a teacher. In other cases, I found the dialogue-with-myself aspect of the journal very comforting, especially if I did not feel confident talking to colleagues about something, or if nobody was available.

So what are some of the benefits?

1.   Bad lessons are not thrown in the rubbish bin

Everyone has lesson they would rather forget. Instead of being forgotten about, they can serve as useful learning moments for a teacher. Placing yourself in the shoes of the students in an attempt to pinpoint what went wrong has its benefits. Not only does it make you consider your role, but also that you might not be to blame. Sometimes, however hard you try, things just do not go well.

2.     Strengths are identified

We all have them, but sometimes it is easy to forget what we actually do well. Especially in the face of some bad feedback or a lesson that went badly. Not only this, but also, there is an extra benefit of being aware of your strengths: they form the basis of your day-to-day teaching to make sure learners benefit from the best their teacher has to offer.

3.     Areas to work on become more apparent

 

When something appears consistently in the journal as less positive, it is time to make an action plan to improve it. In addition to this, looking out for what is missing (just like we do with our students) can uncover a springboard for a research project and structure a sort of self-directed development, based on what you need at that time.

I will wrap up with a few final thoughts, one from an article written by Scott Thornbury (1990)

“Might not the detection and analysis of teaching rituals… provide insights into a teacher’s image set?”

Now for a few questions…

  • Directors and managers, how can you create the right conditions in your staff rooms to encourage teachers to detect and analyse their teaching rituals?
  • Trainers, how much of your course is dedicated to guiding teachers towards becoming reflective individuals, able to ask questions about their practice in their formative years of teaching after qualifying?
  • New teachers/experienced teachers/senior or expert teachers/EFL gurus, have you tried keeping a journal? If so, what form did it take and would you recommend it?
Dale
Thornbury, S. (1990). Metaphors we work by: EFL and its metaphors. ELT Journal, 45/3

Guest post – Dogme Revolution

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.

Dogme Revolution

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.

Dogmeing

 

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.

Results

 

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.