Yesterday my copy of Teaching Unplugged (Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings) arrived. It's a brand new publication from Delta Publishing in what looks to be an exciting new line of teacher development books. I had to order my copy here in Australia through Delta's Melbourne-based distributor at the Bookery in Carlton.
Like probably most teachers, I've been interested in the basic idea of teaching "unplugged" (as in, with a minimum of peripheral materials or teaching aids - with the learners and teacher themselves being all that is essentially required for a language learning lesson to happen) ever since I first stepped into a classroom, but perhaps didn't quite realise it!
This is a brief introductory preview for a full review of Teaching Unplugged that I plan to add to the blog a little later. However, just at this point (having spent half a night sinking my teeth into this great book), I can't help but comment on what the concept of the book (and Thornbury's broader Dogme ELT) evokes in a teacher.
I recall my very first observation of a young learner English class in Korea (going back a good 10 years now...) - a group of little 5-6 year olds being taught by some Canadian bloke who had all of 4 months ELT experience at that point. I was especially curious (and attentive), because the observation was happening as a prelude to me taking over this particular class the very next day (I'd been in Korea for less than 24 hours, and I was about to start teaching YLs in little less than another 24 hours! ~ passes for "teacher training" in the South Korean ELT context). Most of the other teachers I'd observed had kids doing acrobat stunts off tables and chairs or else were attempting to glue the children's chins to their textbooks - but this guy... his kids were calm, happy and talkative.
I asked him how he managed to teach little kids with so little previous training or experience, and he said: "It's actually easier than you think. You bring in some paper and pencils, because the kids like to draw, and you just - well, you know - talk with them. Ask 'em stuff - they'll ask you some stuff, see where it goes." ELT (and in particular YL) specialists out there might be quick to state this is an oversimplification, but in fact it is a highly USEFL simplification that goes straight to the heart of enjoyable, effective and relevant language teaching! And note that he said "talk with them" - not "talk to them."
This was, and remains to this day, the best advice anyone has ever given me about how to teach English to children. The Canuck bloke involved was Dean Stafford, who has since become a lifetime close friend and colleague. He's gone somewhat beyond using paper and pencils as his whole lesson plan since then (he has a Pearson Longman coursebook coming out soon, and as I write this he's working his teaching wonders in public elementary school settings in Korea), but he's one of the most effective teachers I've ever seen in any classroom. I think that has a lot to do with the mentality he started out with.
In the years since then, I have to admit that the very best lessons that I can recall - and certainly the most interesting, entertaining, and interactive - usually involved little or no materials (and/or materials that were very open and blank - ready for the learners to turn into something). A lot of teachers go into a sort of induced panic if they are called on to teach a class with no coursebook or lesson plan. This is the rather detrimental effect of working in a profession that has become indoctrinated with the idea that coursebooks and detailed lesson plans are the bread and butter of professional and effective language course delivery. What teachers really need to know is that, when walking into a classroom, by being there and having learners to interact with and guide - all the essential ingredients of an effective lesson are already there in the room... if the teacher remembers to bring along the right mentality and philosophy.
If this sounds appealing to you, then this new book on teaching unplugged will be a revelation, a comfort, and an encouraging guiding influence. In adding to the already heavy corpus of teaching methodology and teacher development tomes, the refreshing thing about Teaching Unplugged is that it is relatively simple, very approachable, and positively reeks of common sense - you get a real sense of already knowing what this book is telling you (you just forgot it somewhere along the way)... which I'm sure was Thornbury and Meddings' goal from the start.
Part 2 of this book review, providing more detailed information about the content of the book and my reactions to it, will be along very soon!