Today, I get to have some fun!

Last week, Willy Cardoso wrote a fictional conversation that he might have had with Karenne Sylvester about the use of materials in ELT. Karenne wrote previously about “materials light” or Dogme teaching.

When I read Willy’s post – I definitely had to respond. Respond with my own views on how materials / content should be used in our classrooms – respond with my own thoughts about what I feel is the best way for students and teacher to come together and learn/practice a language.

So here it is – same conversation but I replace Willy and this time we are in the British Library whispering away.

britishlibrary“Dogme is about teaching
materials light”
(Meddings & Thornbury)

Karenne: What does it mean to us as teachers to go into a classroom materials-light?

David: KISS – Keep It Student Simple.  One of the strengths I find new teachers have over “experienced” teachers, is that they many times don’t overthink lesson delivery and content. They don’t throw so much at students, so students are learning more about English instructions than the actual lesson goals. We have to keep it simple – academics tend to obfuscate and make this “teaching language” thing into something so complicated and elaborate. It really is just about getting students to:

a) open their mouths and say meaningful things (communicate)

b) getting students to notice language and be aware of the learning process.

I totally agree with Dogme teaching, if it is about being “materials light”. However, it tends to become dogmatic (forgive the pun) and stray from this. This is how I’ve read the message boards and unplugged articles.  It focuses energy too much on “Don’t” rather than “Do”.  I’ll also add that I think “materials light” should mean that it is the students’ that create the content and lesson material. In and of and from their own level and world. The teacher provides a format for which this play will unfurl.

In teaching – teachers should “tread softly and carry a big piece of chalk.”

K: Where should all these  light materials magically come from?

D: I answered that above – from the students. The teacher prompts and records the content from the students (whole group)  and then has students do the same in pairs/groups (small group), using their own language/ideas/thoughts. Also, authentic materials are wonderful for this too. Let me give you an example of this  in action.

Let’s say the lesson objective is: “The students will practice asking about the price of typical grocery items.”

1. The teacher puts up on the board, pictures of various grocery items.  Also, the controlled language, “What’s the price of the ……..?   How much is / are the ……………..?   The students ask either the teacher or even better, a student who is chosen to come to the front of the classroom.

2. The teacher gives out a nice handy pdf of a REAL grocery flyer. Also, a list of items for each that the student must find out the price for.  They ask and answer, recording the price.  The teacher takes up the answers by prompting the students.

3. Students create the content. Students cut up the flyer onto an A4 without recording a price. After, in pairs/small groups, they ask each other about the prices and as they are asked, write down the price beside the items. (gaining awareness of how to state about packages/containers/bunches and also what the actual value of grocery items are).

One important caveat to this lesson – if possible, use a flyer that is culturally appropriate and local. If in Thailand, print off a flyer that is in baht, for example.

Sorry for being long winded but I think a practical example is important, so teachers can visualize and clearly understand just how “non textbook” and “light” this kind of teaching is. AND it can be done for any level and any language objective.

K: What do you think that Paulo Freire meant when he said that liberating education consists of acts of cognition, not transferrals of information?  Does going in light, as opposed to heavy,change this?  And, what in your opinion, might teaching materials-heavy look like?

D: I really admire Freire but at the same time understand how his “polemic” and language is too political for many. However, if you read some of his interviews, you get a better understanding of how much he wanted to decrease the power imbalance between student and teacher. That at the core, is why his thinking is revelatory and revolutionary. He thought dialogue was the way to do this – dialogue that our traditional school systems eschew except when writing fancy academic treasties or new policy documents. Dialogue is “light” and about change/praxis and thought. It isn’t about the “thing”.  Freire is on the side of Fromme – to be, not to have. You “be” a language, you don’t even acquire a language. Like Chomsky’s notion that we “grow” a language. “Light” to me, means keeping things organic and natural.

I know I’ve skirted around your question but it really doesn’t have a clear answer. Teaching is all about the art and “HOW” it is done. You can teach “heavy”, with a textbook etc… and be effective. Skipping through a million small activities designed in rooms across the ocean. Commanding learners to repeat and read etc… We all know that “heavy” drill of a teacher as a commandante. You can be a successful teacher in this fashion. However, what have you accomplished beyond learning a language? That is the rub. I see a teacher’s job as far more than just the content. It is a sacred relationship and we should be vehicles of change. Subversive, in a word.

K: How could teachers approach teaching with coursebooks dogmeicly*?

D: Well, I’ve already touched on that a lot. As I see it, the textbook is unauthentic, so too the classroom. How can we make it more authentic, organic, natural? That is the original call of the Dogme movement in film and it should be the call to us teachers in ELT or anywhere.

So how? You can’t really take your class to the grocery store (to teach my example lesson above). But you can use more authentic materials. You can decrease the power between teacher/learner. You can use technology effectively to bring the real world into the classroom. You can give students choice and involvement. You can take the good from a textbook (what addresses learner/teacher needs directly) and reject the filler. You can be subversive in the classroom while still giving the appearance of being “a teacher” (and we have to do it like this, because of the demands of the traditional educational system).  At the end of the day, a teacher still gets to close the door and “be” with his/her students. There is a lot of time/possibility to teach light and simply while still cosmetically “dancing to the piper’s tune” too.

K: Thinking about your colleagues and staffrooms along with your classrooms – do you think it is the teachers or students who favour most grammar based curriculums?  For either, why? Do we need to unlearn them?

D: Good question!  I really think it comes down to control. It is human to want to find “the ghost in the machine” as Koestler might have put it. However, we’ll never be able to, language IS NOT mechanical.  But still, grammar is necessary given this need and I think all teachers have to teach some grammar at some times – it helps many students and gives them control and structure. It allows them to see the trees from the forest. So, I’m not against grammar in the classroom – I’m just against how it is done – too overtly and systematically. Also, without attention to whether the student’s would benefit or not. It is just done blanket fashion and that kind of lesson delivery and curriculum planning isn’t progressive.  I had long conversations with my grad students about the “enacted curriculum”. I felt most didn’t fully understand this term and how much it can and should differ from the written/planned curriculum. Most teachers in their heart of hearts, don’t fully appreciate this distinction.

I do think most grammar should be learned in use and in context. Covertly. I think this is what most teachers feel and it is pretty standard in our biz. Or am I out of touch?

Can we unlearn? I’m not sure about what you mean here? We can change, if that’s what you mean.

K: In Meeting of Minds, Stuart McNaughton challenges us with the idea of ‘a curriculum that promotes only segmented, isolated, and elemental learning tasks reduces the students’ degree of learning (including incidental learning) and also their preparedness for future learning.’   Have you seen this?  Felt it?

D: Oh yes!  That’s why we need to look at teaching as being much more than “content” and make it more humanistic. We should be as much motivators than experts. George Siemens constantly talks about this preparation for a future of connectivity and looking at learning as something multidisciplinary and multiskilled (see a nice interview with him below).  I’m a big one for promoting “thought” in our teaching. I think a lot of our language classes are “boring” because of the simple fact we don’t ask our students to think at all. Remember – this word is about putting together to create something “new”.  Let’s,  re  member that.

K: How do your students cope when the real-life need to speak in English crops up in their lives: can textbooks ever prepare them adequately for these experiences? Can being light?

D: I think teaching “light” prepares them much more for the “ambiguity of language” (which is what the real world presents – there is much more unpredictability of language in the real world).  We can’t control everything and have to create classrooms that allow for ambiguity and train/teach our students to tolerate it. Ambiguity tolerance is a notion all teachers should understand and think about. In a few words – it is the reason young children learn language so much quicker (IMHO).

A textbook is the most extreme and farcical distance from “reality” and preparation for the practical use of language in meetings, at the barber shop, listening to a song and telling a story etc….  Thank god technology allows us to blend into our lessons, real language, real people, real, real, real…….. I’ll leave it at that – but that’s the god send of technology in our classroom – bringing the world into our classrooms.

K: Are you bored?

D: Never! But I could do with an espresso.  Let’s get out of here?

K: Sure. Let’s let the colorless green ideas sleep furiously……