Monday, March 26, 2012

Dogme in the BE Classroom. Really?

Returning from Glasgow I realized that the conversations I had in the corridors and over dinner were truly eye-opening and the real take away from the conference.  Definitely, the presentations were good and insightful, but the chance to speak with the most experienced and talented trainers in the industry has caused more reflection.

Of course, one of the issues on my mind was the Dogme trend in ELT.  It has appeared so often in blogs and online discussions, it is difficult to miss.  As a Business English Trainer, I am fascinated by the approach and how it could be implemented in the classroom.  My goal in this post to share my persecptions on Dogme and offer some solutions for how we can incorporate the best parts into our training.

I have had several problems with what I have read, even pinning down what exactly it is.  In my reading I have boiled it down to several what it is and what it isn't (but I could be wrong):

  • Extremly learner-centered.  Trainers should remove many (if not all) external materials and resources from the classroom which impose ideas, emotions, roles, and pre-formed learning paths.  As drivers of the content, the participants create the class and lessons through collaboration with the trainer and each other.
  • Focused on binding language to pre-existing concepts within the learner.  Through the self-expression created in the Dogme classroom, the students are more receptive to language input which helps to refine, clarify, and give meaning to their ideas.  Thus, the theory is that students will learn faster because we are not asking them to communicate through a pre-determined language structure, rather giving language to the communication goal.
  • Flexible.  Because learner self-expression is unpredictable, trainers must remain flexible to harness, highlight, and build upon emerging language.  Formal materials limit this flexibility.
  • Focused on emerging language.  Emerging language could be expressed language forms which should be spread across the class or could be when the expressed meaning is clear, but a language gap impairs clear transmission.  One example of the second case is when students are faced with trying to express regret without knowing past modal verb forms.  Even a quite fluent learner will hesitate, realize they don't know how to express it, try to translate it from L1, and find the best possible work-around.  It is the trainer's job to afford these opportunities, recognize them, and fill these gaps with a lasting learning point.
  • Superfulous conversation.  Goals do exists and it is the trainer's duty to guide topics and discussions which will lead to these objectives.  A focus on progress is built into every lesson, and learning points should be recycled to reinforce learning and demonstrate improved performance.  To this point, a lesson log is crucial for the trainer to record and prepare for the next lesson.  Otherwise, training points could easily be lost and forgotten.
  • All touchy feely.  While yes it is based on self-expression and interaction within the student group, it is not a group of people coming together and talking about their feelings and emotions.  That can happen, but it isn't Oprah's book club.  Learners are expected to learn and teachers are expected to teach (or rather facilitate learning).
  • Materials and technology free.  From my reading it seems that these two items are both welcome in the classroom, but we should be very selective about why they are included.  Do they afford and reinforce the process of self-reflection and communication?  Do they enable the learners to express what they want and need to express?  Or are we simply bringing in a listening because it is the next step in our off-the-shelf learning plan?
Now, I have several problems with this approach in the BE classroom.  And honestly, if done correctly, I feel task-based activities may be better suited to the needs of our learners.  But I think many of the elements of Dogme are already present in some BE classrooms.  First, our clients expect a personalized training plan.  They also expect us to help them refine what they are already using in their job.  In fact, I think it is difficult as a BE Trainer in the one-to-one or small group setting to ignore the Dogme approach.

But here are the challenges I see for Dogme...

  1. The Messi Analogy  There are many outstanding footballers, but there is only one Messi.  He seems to be able to do things on the field which defy explanation.  He can see moves before they are made, he is unbeliably quick, always calm, and gives every motion a flurish of creativity.  I tend to think that in order to pull off Dogme and make it effective, a trainer would have to be as talented as Messi.  The trainer would have to have the experience to see the dialog before it happens, guide this discourse through the students themselves, recoginze the emerging language and then have the supreme flexibility and creativity to set an activity to utilize the training point.  Wow.
  2. Too many levels of listening  As a trainer, I am quite adept at listening to my students at various levels.  What are they saying (content)?  How are they saying it (accuracy)?  What are they not saying (language gap)?  What emergent language are they using?  I know I can do all four levels of listening sometimes, but I have to be 100% in the moment.  Of course, I cannot be 'on' in every minute of every lesson .  The risk of Dogme is that if I drop one of these levels of listening because I am distracted, tired, or unmotivated, the progress aspect of the lesson deteriorates.
  3. It can't be taught  I am not sure how new trainers could learn such flexibility and language awareness.  I have digested massive amounts of activities ideas, approaches, tasks, and language features in my first three years of training.  I dove into the field with passion and enthusiasm.  I am still far from having the flexibility needed to make it work.  I am not sure how this could be taught in a course less than 6 months.
  4. How to create affordances which replicate BE situations?  I am struggling with the idea of creating a environment in which we can really practice the skills needed in the learners' jobs.  One of the benefits of TBL is that we can model what right looks like and work from there.  In Dogme, we are working together to develop a suitable task situation.  In some BE classrooms the desire to improve their job performance is less motivating than other factors.  I could see conflict here between the Dogme approach and what companies expect from the training.
So, these are the challenges I see.  I think they can be overcome.  For example, I think we can train the different levels of listening by using authentic learner discussions in the trainer development setting.  I think the internet provides a great opportunity for us to develop the flexibility to respond to emergent language.

Also, I think the approach is perfectly suited to BE, specifically in-company courses in which we are faced with the challenge of adapting training to meet a variety of specific needs.  And I would like to think that many of us in BE are using this approach well, particularly in coaching.  Therefore, we should add it to our training toolbox, but understand that until it is more-fully developed it has a certain place and certain time.

Dogme Resources:

Scott Thornbury  check out his articles under "Works"
His blog

Blog from Emi Slater, Phil Wade, and Dale Coulter

Outstanding paper from Martin Sketchley "Incorporating Dogme ELT in the Classroom"

Teaching Unpluggled co-author Luke Meddings

Chia Suan Chong, a highly skilled and innovative Dogmetician

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