Dogme and I
Anthony Gaughan is a freelance Teacher-Trainer based in Germany. He is a Cambridge CELTA Assessor and Main Course Tutor as well as a Tutor on both the Cambridge DELTA and Trinity DipTESOL programmes. He is especially interested in applying Dogme ELT and other minimalist approaches to teacher education and language teaching, and he occasionally writes about this on http://teachertrainingunplugged.com. Email: email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @AnthonyGaughan
Coming of age
Dogme ELT – the minimalist mindset, movement, method, or whatever you like to call it – comes of age this year in a very literal sense. Scott Thornbury published his first article declaring a Dogme for EFL in the February – March issue of IATEFL Voices in 2000, and so as I type, in April 2021, Dogme ELT has, twenty-one years later, literally and metaphorically reached the age of maturity.
It seems like an opportune moment, then, to take a moment and reflect on this … what, exactly? This radical, revolutionary idea? This punkish, unruly brat of an idea? This unoriginal, underwhelming fluff of an idea? As with most ideas which spark a movement, no one person will consider it in quite the same way.
Therefore, instead of trying to present some kind of objective, facts-based meta-analysis of the origins and impact of Dogme ELT which you can find for yourselves ten-a-penny on the internet these days, I would like to tell you the story of how we – that is, Dogme and I – came to be in each other’s company: how we met, how we fell for each other, how we quarrelled, how we lost touch, how we found each other once again by chance, and how – perhaps – we might live happily ever after.
In other words, I would like to tell you a love story.
Are you sitting comfortably? Good. Then I’ll begin.
When Dogme met Anthony
A cold, wet day in winter it was, January 2001, to be more precise, when I walked slightly nervously into a top-floor room at the British Council Berlin. I had moved to the city the summer before, and although I had promptly joined the local teachers’ association, ELTABB, this would be the first of their events which I had managed to attend. In fact, it would be the first ELT workshop that I had ever attended, which is somewhat surprising looking back, as I was not really a novice teacher at that point.
I had started teaching in London in the mid-1990s, at a private language school which later became Ground Zero for the largest visa scam and student fee fraud in UK ELT history to date. Needless to say, there had not been much in the way of CPD during my time there, at least not organised by the school itself. The teachers, my colleagues and role models, helped me get up to speed quickly, however, and the years I spent there on Tottenham Court Road and the adjoining corner of Oxford Street were a wonderful place to cut my teeth.
The classes I taught were all exam-preparation and, with no prior experience combined with 10-week courses, 5 days a week, 3 hours a day, and teaching up to 3 courses concurrently, it was obvious that to survive, I had to learn how to make the coursebook work for me, and fast.
So I did.
But along the way, moving from one coursebook activity to the other, keeping one step ahead of things in terms of what I had to teach, I got to know my students. Unsurprisingly, looking back, I cannot recall many of the moments we spent poring over a gap-fill or checking answers to a listening task.
What I remember vividly were the conversations, both in class and out, across the road, at the nearest public house. These conversations were not only we got to know each other, and to become friends, they were also where language happened. While talking about their lives, and while listening to them talk about themselves, we found ways of saying what they meant, what they wanted to mean. The conversations that occurred around the coursebook were, in other words, the underlying motor of their language development during the course.
Towards the end of my time there, before I moved into UK state high school teacher training, even I noticed the increasing bulk of the courseware we were given and told to use. CD-ROM was an emerging technology and it increased exponentially the amount of stuff – and I use that word deliberately – at everyone’s disposal. In a sense I was glad to get out of ELT and into where I thought I could learn to focus on essentials – great English texts, prose, poetry, play – and explore these with my students.
My PGCE and subsequent practicum were, to put it briefly, a rude awakening in this regard. Study Pack after Study Pack, reams of paper after each INSET day, and paperwork, always paperwork. By the time my personal life gave me cause to move to Germany two years later and return to adult ELT in the private sector, I had become conditioned, in a way, to associate schools with a surplus of stuff.
But not the right stuff.
So back to Berlin. As I walked in, it was quite obvious who the presenter (Scott Thornbury) was, for two reasons: firstly, he was surrounded by people up at the front trying to talk to him, and secondly, he stood literally head and shoulders over virtually everyone else in the room, which would prove handy later, as there seemed to be hundreds of people there and – arriving naïvely close to the start time – I barely managed to get a seat towards the back.
I didn’t know what to expect, but I certainly didn’t expect what I got. Possum wool sock stories, antipodean exuberance, and charm, and – along the way – a series of educational epiphanies. The strongest of which, and one that will never leave my mind’s eye, was when Scott drew the following on a flip chart:
He made the point that, typically, communication between the teacher and the students was mediated via the materials, via their engagement with the coursebook, in other words. Then he pointed towards the space between the words LEARNERS and TEACHER and mused: can anyone see a more direct route…?
That was all I needed to fall head over heels with Dogme. Scott went on to discuss and demonstrate techniques and ideas, but in a sense I could have left after that flip chart moment. I left that 3-hour workshop literally revitalised as a teacher.
Over the next few years I read what I could and joined the Yahoo Discussion Group, and tried to forge my ideas there in the crucible of conversation. In my classroom, if I could provide the text rather than the courseware, I would; if my students could, they would, and all the time I listened. Learning to listen differently as a teacher took a while, but I got better. I won’t make the claim that I became a better teacher as a consequence, but I believe that I became a more intentional one over time.
War of the Roses
At some point circumstances found me moving towards working as a teacher trainer and eventually on Cambridge CELTA initial teacher training courses. I had, in Dominic Braham, a wonderful and inspiring mentor with a wealth of experience and expertise, and over the years we formed what I like to think is a good (working) relationship, but as anyone who has operated within a training system such as CELTA can attest, it can at times be stressful for everyone involved.
As I gained experience, I thought I could solve this problem by adding more support, more documentation, more resources, more structure: in short, I forgot my roots and fell for a classic logical error, which, once I realised my mistake later, I framed like this: the problem with systems is that when they start to go wrong, you think you need more of them to put things right.
So there I was, by this time the Head of Teacher Training at a successful and respected CELTA centre in Hamburg, working with a wonderful colleague, Izzy Orde, and together we thought we had cracked it. Each visiting Assessor at the end of their quality-control visit would praise us on the clarity, the efficiency, the technical sophistication of our CELTA Course and how we ran it. Feedback from trainees said the same.
There was every reason to be happy. Except deep down, we were not.
Both of us were stressed and we knew it was the same for the trainees. We kept twiddling the dials and fiddling with the systems in place, but we couldn’t solve the problem: we couldn’t even put our finger on what the problem was.
So, who better to help me, the stumped student, than my own former teacher? David Carr, then still Director of Teacher Training at IH London, had been (with Jenny Parsons) one of my DELTA tutors some years earlier, and as chance would have it came as a CELTA Assessor to visit one of my courses. As usual, the visit was very smooth, and everything was in order. As usual, David in his role of Assessor praised the clarity of our systems, our efficiency, our technical sophistication. He likened the course to a finely tuned BMW. We smiled, modestly.
Then he asked a question, and the question floored both of us.
He leaned back in his chair and said I just wonder, where is all the human messiness?
Both Izzy and I immediately knew what he meant: it penetrated me with the force of truth.
We talked about other things for a while, and David left for his hotel, and left Izzy and me with a lot of work to do.
Cardiff isn’t quite Casablanca, and it was 2009 not 1942, but of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Dogme walked back into mine. Izzy and I were attending the IATEFL Conference that year as Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury launched their book Teaching Unplugged more or less 10 years after the Dogme ELT movement started. True to the spirit of the thing, Scott and Luke ran the session as an unplanned Q and A and amongst all this, I decided to ask them whether they thought it would be possible to run initial teacher training along Dogme lines.
I recall Scott being encouraging but circumspect in his response.
I got the message, nonetheless, and once we were back home I asked Izzy what do you think would happen if we took this totally effective, well-designed course of ours and threw it out the window?
Needless to say, we were both scared about the prospect, but eventually curiosity won out and we literally threw the whole thing out and started with a big piece of blank paper. Working backwards from the results that we wanted to achieve, we asked ourselves the question: what qualities would be present in teachers whom we would like to be taught by?
In the end, we settled on the following:
- They would enable us to speak about or explore what mattered to us;
- They would listen to us closely;
- They would notice ways of helping us say what we wanted to say better than we currently could;
- They would work with us to help us become better to say what we wanted to say better than we currently could.
It was on the basis of these beliefs that we completely reconceived our CELTA course, and eventually, after a year of experimentation, we returned to IATEFL in Harrogate to share our progress and working method (anyone who wants to trawl the archives on my blog to read about this, there’s a link for you.) Most of the questions we were asked by the audience of experienced tutors and assessors were along the lines of how did you get away with doing that?! or how did you get Cambridge to let you do that?!
These days, I might have responded by channelling my inner Ayn Rand and saying who’s going to let me? My dear, the question should be who’s going to stop me? But at the time we both just said well, if you look at the regulations, there is actually nothing against what we’re doing, so everyone is free to do it…
On Golden Pond
Over the years that followed, some fellow trainers took our lead and started to unplug teacher education in their own contexts and in their own ways, but for the most part as far as I could tell from my experience assessing other CELTA courses around the world, initial teacher training was proceeding in much the same way that it ever had, in a coursebook driven, apprentice-model manner. I had to ask myself why, and in February 2014 I had the opportunity at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference to ask the question that had been dogging me for some time: where were all the unplugged teacher trainers?
What I didn’t understand then was why a movement as widely talked about for over a generation as Dogme ELT could have such an apparently negligible effect on the current training of teachers. Surely, I thought, by now a generation of new teachers will have matured into teacher-trainers, and surely this must mean that there will be more Dogme-influenced trainers out there, passing on the torch to their own trainees?
I didn’t find an answer then, and I almost forgot the question in the years that followed. But then fate took a turn and I finally got an answer of sorts in a commensurately elegant manner.
In September last year, I was contacted out of the blue by Khanh-duc Kuttig from ELTA-Rhine, asking me if I would give an introduction to Dogme ELT to their members online. I was surprised and flattered to be invited, and gladly accepted. But then I got cold feet.
Who the hell was I?
When was the last time I had written anything of value?
When was the last time I had given a talk?
What could I possibly have to say?
How could I in any way be qualified for this?
The Imposter Syndrome is real and very powerful. I managed to get it under control however, and in a moment of inspiration I decided that even if I felt unqualified to talk to my peers about something that had been a part of my life for 20 years, I knew someone who was eminently qualified to do so.
I emailed Scott and asked him if he wouldn’t mind stopping by in the session to say hello and maybe answer a few questions, and he said yes.
In the end, I think the session was a good exchange of questions, stories and ideas. For me personally, though, the best thing to come out of it was the idea to take part as a participant myself in a month-long CPD course on Dogme ELT that Scott was just about to run for iTDi.
Initially I just thought it would be a fun way to chew the fat with Scott about a topic we both cared about during a month where I had nothing much else to do (thanks, Corona…)
But what I actually got out of the experience was so much more.
Many of the almost 40 course participants had something interesting and surprising in common. When they were asked when they had heard about Dogme ELT, the overwhelming response was my trainers on my initial teacher training course told me about it.
How this happened in detail varied, but what it told me was that I had simply been a little impatient back in 2014 in Barcelona. It takes time for ideas to mature and take root in the world. It takes even longer for those roots to generate blossoms. And it takes even longer still for those blossoms to spread their pollen and take root in pastures new.
It seems to me that, twenty-one years on, Dogme is coming of age in the mind of the profession – and so I raise a glass to this… what exactly? This radical, revolutionary idea? This punkish, unruly brat of an idea? This unoriginal, underwhelming fluff of an idea? Whatever, I raise a glass to it, and look forward to catching up with it again in another twenty-one years, when - with any luck - I will be old enough to retire to a shack by a lake in the woods, and reminisce.
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