As David French (not to be confused with the present David, Kellogg)
says, it's a very small group, and so we tend to indulge in too much
insider talk. Every once and a while, though, a salutory voice like
yours intrudes and brings us back to the real world.
Chicago is my hometown, but Puerto Rican high schools are a VERY
different and very welcome perspective for this discussion. In
particular, the issue of bilingual education, the problem of Spanish
language loss as a predictor of economic success (but cultural collapse)
in the States, all of these are very relevant to and thus far completely
untouched upon by, our discussions of minimalist, or "poor" teaching.
It's all very very different, even from Graham's overseas students, and
we are very interested. You will find that throughout our discussions
the key question is always, "can we generalize?", and a work environment
like yours is going to be a key touchstone for us.
In return, let me say that I think we are actually even more
interesting than DF makes us sound. Like any small sect, we have a
number of distinct tendencies. There is first of all pure dogme,
associated with the founder, Scott Thornbury. Scott remains truest of
all to the contradictory, cantankerous and contentious spirit of the
first "dogme" challenge to "take a vow of chastity" he wrote in IATEFL
Issues 153 (unfortunately not available on the Web); elsewhere on the
list you can read his radical "program", which (lest anyone take his
invitation to chastity too seriously) includes a ban on all teachers
incapable of a meaningful loving relationship with at least one other
human being of either sex. Then there is the liquidationist tendency
represented by DF himself, which would like to drop the name dogme, the
association with film, and perhaps even this list and become something
of a meditative staffroom or maybe even a cubicle for purely classroom
concerns (DF will undoubtely contest that characterization....).
My own tendency I would characterize (as Graham has characterized
it) as critical dogme; I am trying to find abstract principles
underlying the dogmatic proposals Scott originally made by a process of
finding ways to break the original dogme rules while still keeping the
Spartan, "poor teaching" spirit.
I do, however, cling to the original film metaphor: the revolt of a
few European minimalists against the Hollywood SFX Titantic III style of
directing. The "dogme" directors used no artificial light, shot on
location, held the camera in their hands, and even renounced anything
that did not involve the here and now. You can check out the website of
the "dogme" group at http://www.dogme95.dk
Translated into the language of teaching, this film making metaphor
means no CD ROM SFX, no Powerpoint presentations, no global coursebook
(or indeed any commercial coursebooks), classes in whatever location is
required by the class content, and (which point I have trouble with) no
role play or simulation. The teacher is a teacher. The learners are
learners. They interact as themselves.
But as DF said, dogme, or "poor teaching", has outlived the film
metaphor and battened on other ideas. In addition to the usual suspects
of British communicative teaching, these include rather unlikely
sources, for example, the Brazilian theorist of mass literacy Paolo
Freire. Queer theorists, like Sarah Schulman, who contest all "default"
categories and revalorize terms like "queer", "nigger", or in our case,
"teacher-fronted", "poor teaching", and "chalk and talk". My own
influences include Berthold Brecht, who believed that teaching had to
include a moment of alienation, in which all artifice is frankly,
cheerfully, exposed (the only genuine moment in an actor's performance
is when he bows at the end). Graham's latest, as well as the main topic
of this my "regular long posting which goes well outside language
teaching", is Dick Allwright's recent suggestion of "exploratory
Graham--Allwright was here in Korea last Saturday, giving his
exploratory practice talk. To recapitulate, and for Jesse's sake, his
argument boiled down to this.
Teaching is a public activity BUT
Learning is a private activity.
The two spheres do not visibly intersect; that is, there is no
direct way to link the learning in the private sphere with the teaching
in the public sphere. (This is clearly an extension into the classroom
of the agnosticism about learning Prabhu first raised...)
This does matter, because this false attempt to directly link them
is what "methods" and also administrators are constantly trying to do.
It is the underlying goal in reflective practice, it is what we mean
when we put the ACTION in action research, and it is the reason why
professional development programs put emphasis on trying to make people
better teachers. Plus teachers are made to feel guilty when they go on
doing what comes naturally instead of buying into the latest crazes.
Allwright argues instead that we need to abandon the desire to make
teachers better and instead concentrate on keeping them interested, or
at least keeping them from burning out. We also need to abandon the
desire to make learners learn better and instead concentrate on making
classes productive and active and visibly (that is publically) buzzing.
(Yes, you can see the dogme applications of this coming out!!!)
So: instead of research, he wants reflective activities that are an
integral part of the lesson. The example he gave was groupwork in
Brazil, where learners had a hard time staying in English on task or
staying on task in English. He asked if teachers ever had the students
discuss precisely this learning problem (instead of discussing
hypothetical prizes to non-existent worthy causes, or which of five
people should jump out of a balloon gondola). As an incentive, they
could be allowed to do so in Portuguese. When this experiment was tried,
however, the learners spontaneously (???) did so in English!
I attended Allwright's talk in the company of two Korean middle
school teachers I have been working with every since I arrived in Korea.
When I first got off the plane in Korea, I walked into a classroom,
looked at the size of the classroom and decided that the whole problem
was that learners had no time to speak, and teachers had no time to
teach, because the whole lesson boiled down to a gradually failing
attempt by teachers to ensure teacher-fronted teacher control. I
therefore decided that pairwork was the solution, and we developed a
whole book and a whole program around the concept (including, I am
embarrassed to say, an CD ROM with a movie).
At several times along the way, my Korean colleague, Seong
Seong-deong remonstrated with me. For example, he demanded (and I
agreed) that Korean synopses of each story in our materials should be
provided FIRST, because he pointed out that the story is only motivating
when you can get into it, and most of our learners just let it go by as
irrelevant, because, after all, if it were relevant it would be in
Korean. He also argued that my closed pairwork goals were too ambitious,
and that we should settle for the idea that the goal of each class was
to maximize activities that were in some way related with learning and
minimize those which were irrelevant (Allwright would deny that
distinguishing these is consistently possible).
Allwright points out that for most learners, and particularly for
children, the classroom is not primarily a place where learning takes
place. It is a place where they see friends and interact with them. Thus
he argues that learners often systematically mislead teachers and
under-report their competence; nobody wants to be the clever boy who
always gets it right, if only for fear of being displaced by someone
even cleverer. Better to be the clever boy's best friend. In one
classroom observation, the observer discovered that the central activity
for most of the learners prior to lunch was the reorganization of their
lunch-boxes, through trading the foods they did not want with other
children. From the learner's point of view (and this is why Holliday
refuses to use the term learner), learning is quite simply the least
important thing going on.
Thinking over this, I realize that my obsession with pairwork was
wrong; I should have listened to Seong and allowed much more scope for
small groups and even teacher fronted groups. In practice, of course,
this is what happened anyway. Now, could we have made the process of
coming to this realization an integral part of the lesson, instead of
making it a by-product of our classroom research (and hence a secret to
the learners to this very day)?
I don't know. Allwright is a brave man. I think it takes a kind of
bravery to despair, particularly at the end of a very long and
apparently successful career. It is all a bit like poor Bertrand
Russell, who wrote umpteen volumes of Principia Mathematica, then
thought of Russell's paradox, and had to write the umpteen and oneth
which wrote off all the previous ones. Allwright's schtick has been
founded on the assumption that we can learn something from our learners
by interacting with them; we can know their level better by talking to
them and looking at their interactions than by giving them tests and
running them through rat mazes. Now he says that the information
elicited through classroom interaction is not always reliable either,
and he appears to deny the possibility, upon which his whole career is
predicated, of generalization.All I can say is that he is a braver man
than I am, or maybe just nearer retirement age.
At first, I was inclined to reject "exploratory practice" as
sub-reformist complacency; why think about teaching if you are not going
to change it? On thinking it over, it clearly IS relevant, because it is
about understanding things first, and then maybe decided NOT to change.
This in fact fits very much into the classroom-staffroom level at which
DF and Graham approach dogme.
The problem for me (and I think also for Scott) is the "vertical"
dimension of the classroom, that is, the adminstrators, the school, the
community, the nation: in other words, the connections that the school
has with broader issues SOCIALLY and POLITICALLY. Allwright appears to
be virtually denying the possibility that we can generalize from learner
to learner, much less from classroom to classroom. But the vertical
structure of our education systems requires us to do this; if we don't
do it, then we find adminsitrators, parents, and vicious right-wing
know-nothing bigots like the Hayakawa and the US English movement ready
to do it for us. George W. Bush's comment, "The key question is, 'Is our
children learning?'" is in fact even more ignorant than it appears. And
yet we must somehow make answer.
PS: Just read Scott's reply to Rinvolucri and Arnold in the Teacher
Trainer SIG newsletter. He makes two points: his first one about
"plausibility", I half disagree with; Scott seems more concerned about
plausibility between colleagues than with plausibility with the
learners. The real problem is that these practices do NOT have
plausibility with learners; they often accept them for other reasons
(they paid for the course, they respect the teacher, they do not want to
make a public scene....) The second, though, about therapy, is spot on.
Scott is one of the very few writers around who has the guts to stand up
and say that the classroom emperor is practicing emperorship without a
licence, and with only the scantiest of clothes.