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Humanising Language Teaching
Year 5; Issue 6; November 03

Short Article

What dogme feels like

by Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury

Dogme has been described in many ways by different people in the three and half years since it 'emerged'. Rather than proceeding by edict (except to those who choose to interpret the tongue-in-cheek 'vow of chastity' literally), it has proceeded by analogy and by example. It is therefore hard to define.

This summer, for example, a posting to the dogme ELT group (www.groups.yahoo.com/group/dogme) asked the question, 'What does a dogme lesson look like?' It was asked in advance of a presentation, and we carried it around with us for a few days trying to think of an answer.

Our first reply was to say that it looked like a group of people in a room, talking. This at least transfers the question from the printed page into real, lived space; from two dimensions into three.

But, because the question relates to the prevailing paradigm for assessment, which relies on the collection of external, often superficial, evidence, it presupposes an answer which does the same: 'What does a dogme lesson look like?' 'Well, it looks like any other lesson, but with the following differences….'

So our second response was to re-imagine the question, asking instead: 'What does a dogme lesson feel like?' A dogme lesson can feel like a group of people freed from their expectations of the traditional teacher-student, them-and-us, relationship: a group of people enjoying the freedom of using language to talk about immediate, real concerns; a group of people reassured by the teacher's interest in them, in their experience, and – critically – in their language use and needs.

Asking what a dogme lesson feels like changes the emphasis from the external to the internal dynamic: namely, the immediate sensations, well-being and receptiveness of those involved, of the people in the room.

We don't pretend that external factors have no influence on what goes on in our classrooms, or that – in the shape of exams, for example – they can be ignored. But we say there is room for manoeuvre. Dogme targets the same goals as 'conventional' teaching but these goals are achieved through dialogue, rather than through the more closed varieties of interaction characteristic of transmissive teaching (teacher spouts, students bite tongue) or, even, of the communicative approach (students search for words, teacher bites tongue).

Dogme's quarrel with materials is not that materials are bad per se, but that, more often than not, they simply get in the way. They are a barrier. They inhibit dialogue. Hence the appeal of the Dogme 95 filmmakers movement (the analogy that engendered dogme ELT), which rejected Hollywood razzmatazz, and saw itself as a “rescue action”, attempting to restore to cinema the “inner story” of its characters and to rehabilitate, for the makers of films, their original joy in film-making.

Ironically, dogme became more than the sum of its parts thanks to technology, as the internet helped us share our teaching experience. But the key here is that technology is at the service of the human interaction, not the other way round. The frustration expressed in the first postings was born of this over-dependence on the means of transmission when we argue that language itself is not only the end but the means of the language learning experience. Dogme classes are unmediated in the sense that we do not rely on the agency of materials to order our learning.

Is dogme a movement? Is it a 'post-method' method? Is it an approach? We see it more as a mindset, a way of being in the classroom. Rather than preparing lessons, and marching the learners down a route laid out in advance, the dogme teacher is prepared for a lesson that is co-authored by the people in the room. After all, which sounds better – arriving in class, excited by the knowledge that whatever happens is the only thing that could happen, or sweating under a load of photocopies and visual aids? Or, worse still, feeling stressed because you wanted to have a load of photocopies but the machine wouldn't work again?

And, far from being touchy-feely, clappy-happy or anything-elsey, dogme is based on the fairly workaday assumption that people with a shared concern will find something interesting to say to each other. As language is not so much a subject in itself as a medium for other subjects, there is a wide and – on the face of it at least – inexhaustible supply of subjects that may prove of interest in the classroom. The fact that this supply may be restricted by circumstance (a self-renewing group of adults from different countries has a wider pool of experience to draw on than a group of children from the same village which stays the same for a year) does not invalidate the wider truth that language carries the world, and that the world is wide whichever angle you look at it from.

So, being a teacher in the dogme classroom requires an interest in language – both an awareness of how it works and the skills to make its meaning-making potential a tool for learner creativity. It also requires an interest in people – both a curiosity about individuals and the skills to manage this classroom diversity for the common good. And it requires an interest in the world – not just being in it, but wanting to talk about it, and even to change it.

Teachers by definition bear a responsibility to broaden horizons, and dogme is one small way to say gently but powerfully that we all matter, that our contributions are all valuable – and that these are far from peripheral concerns, but ones that go to the core of what is valuable in the language classroom, and in ourselves.

(Editor's note: You will find a Dogme lesson idea in the lesson plan section of this magazine)


Luke Meddings was, until recently, educational co-ordinator of the Lilian Bishop School, London. Now writes for Guardian Unlimited on ELT matters. luke@blinc.tv

Scott Thornbury divides his time between International House, Barcelona, and free-lance activities. sthornbury@wanadoo.es

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