Kurt Kobain from Nirvana does his "thang" unplugged for MTV
Readers of this blog are probably already aware that Teaching Unplugged - Dogme in English Language Teaching recently picked up one of the coveted British Council ELTon UK awards for innovation.
I was genuinely happy to hear this, not just because I've read the book and found myself really relating to it on all sorts of levels, but also because it represented a great achievement from one of the relatively "smaller" ELT publishers out there (Delta Publishing) - at a time when publishers of all shapes and sizes appear to be scaling back their commitment to producing guidebooks focusing on methodology.
However, I can't help finding an award for innovation for a work of this nature somewhat amusing. Teaching Unplugged doesn't so much represent new findings or new ways to go about our teaching as it does a very logical (and perhaps even dignified) stripping away of so much of the "clutter" that has been built up around and become so much a hallmark of our profession. I think most teachers out there have had their fair share of "dogme moments" (as Scott Thornbury tends to call them) during their time, where things were relatively unplanned and lessons flowed out and on from the learners' own interests and contributions, without the coursebook page flipping or poring over handouts. For these teachers, Teaching Unplugged is likely to "reek of common sense" (as I so delicately put it in a very early review of the book here on this blog some time ago). Hence, I find it interesting and slightly amusing that a book advocating and demonstrating a return to this basic and uncluttered method of teaching should be called "innovative."
But not inappropriate, mind you. Perhaps some of the very "innovations" needed in the ELT profession are those that encourage us to get rid of so much of the unnecessary crap (sorry - I mean bells, whistles and thistles) we've surrounded ourselves with (and subjected ourselves to) and just get on with the basic job of teaching the language and using the learners themselves as the starting and finishing points for our lessons.
Dogme language teaching (in a very crude nutshell: teaching live on location, in a materials-light fashion, focusing on conversation and learners' own emergent language) is based on the avant-garde filmmaking movement of the same name. I didn't know much about either sort of dogme for quite some time, though I had been teaching "unplugged" in various settings for a long period - and I think this applies to a lot of other teachers as well.
Personally, I quite liked the term "teaching unplugged" when I first heard it. Before I ever had a chance to make connections between a language teaching approach and a group of gritty low-budget films, I was remembering the first time I saw a famous music group doing an unplugged gig on MTV. It was the very early nineties, and it was Nirvana. I recall being mesmerised and delighted as I watched this grunge band do their songs on accoustic guitars, up-close and personal with a small audience seated comfortably around them. Without all the huge amps - or, for that matter, a music studio - these guys were still genuinely good. No, they were better! The music felt warmer, more genuine, more... there!
I thought this version of "unplugged" would be great as an inspiration and ideal for a language learning classroom.
Now, without a doubt, my fondest memories of teaching the English language have all been "unplugged" ones in some form or another. There were the occasional (gradually becoming more regular) rebellions in highly systemized foreign language academies where I would declare to the students "put those books away - we're not going to need them today!" (which ALWAYS brought a glow to the learners' faces and often even a whoop of triumph). Then there was the entire academic writing course at a university based around the learners' own topics and emergent language. And the absolute pinnacle: a year-long business English course at one of Korea's foremost power and energy companies where one day I would find we were learning English around a discussion about the pros and cons of lean manufacturing, and the next there would be a whole lesson springing up out of a complicated negotiation-gone-wrong with a Chinese steel producer.
These were wonderful experiences that filled my teaching veins with the sort of fire that makes you love and venerate the whole teaching profession. Unfortunately, to some degree they also demonstrate quite clearly to me why dogme language teaching is probably going to be something that happens on the fringe of English language teaching - when we consider what ELT has become, what it represents.
In short, there is trouble with teaching unplugged, and teaching unplugged creates trouble.
Let's begin with the "trouble with teaching unplugged"...
In something of an ironic twist, to be good at teaching unplugged, you need to be pretty switched on. As a teacher, you need to be able to create relaxed and collaborate learning environments - in contexts where this can be culturally difficult or challenging on account of more practical issues (for example, very large classes of very mixed-level students). You not only need to be able to create the sort of environment where learners will feel they have something to say and actually want to say it, you need to be able to "let go" at the right times and let the learners direct the play. The notions of "leadership" I see promoted in many teacher training courses don't always quite prepare teachers for this more subtle skill set. Likewise, the emphasis on lesson planning in many teacher preparation courses doesn't often promote the idea of going in and "gliding" - letting the lesson unfold in a more organic fashion (which I differentiate from the more negative connotations associated with "winging it"!).
And let's not forget the important facts that (1) there are a voluminous number of English language teachers out there with no formal training whatsoever, and (2) there are a considerable number of teachers who have not yet actually mastered the language they are supposed to be teaching. Creating conversation-driven classes without predetermined topics and clearly signposted key language items is always going to represent a challenge to a majority of the world's current English language teachers.
Most challenging, however, is the intuition and language knowledge required to be able to understand, pinpoint and work with emergent language "on the spot" - which I might go so far as to say is an important prerequisite skill if you are going to reap the full benefits of teaching unplugged. You really need to know the language you are teaching inside out (at least to a fair degree). It strikes me as no coincidence that the "father" of Dogme ELT (Mr. Thornbury himself) is also one of the most recognised experts and prolific writers when it comes to grammar and how it relates to language teaching. There is no doubt in my mind Scott could sit down with any group of learners anywhere in the world and, working from a warm conversation, gently tease out interesting aspects of the language and explain them in logical and practical terms for the learners. Even in my own case, I generally believe that my background in linguistics (my minor at university), history and structure of the English language and a variety of foreign languages before becoming a teacher gave me the grounding I needed to go into any given class and deal with pretty much any language that came up/out in a way that could help the learners use and understand it better.
But not many teachers coming into the EFL fold have these backgrounds or skills. Ironically enough, many teachers develop their 'specialised' knowledge of English grammar and lexis over time... from the coursebooks they are using in class! In other words, it takes 3-4 years of learners acting as sort of guinea pigs while the teacher learns the real ins and outs of the language he/she is supposed to be teaching. After that, a teacher might be more or less equipped to start handling emergent language in the classroom without too many embarrasing pauses or re-casts, but there is also a fair chance a teacher will be so hooked on coursebook-oriented instruction by that point that he or she will be quite loathe to go into the classroom without books or highly pre-planned lessons.
Basically, for all its beauty and merits, teaching unplugged is still pretty inaccessible for most of the world's current teachers. That's not to say that it has to stay that way, and I should also point out that the wonderfully practical approach to Dogme ELT portrayed in Teaching Unplugged can hopefully inspire more teachers to at least try out some "dogme moments."
However, then there's the trouble caused by teaching unplugged...
ELT has more or less become highly institutionalised and systematic in many if not most of the contexts in which it is offered. It is dominated by chain schools, fed by publishers offering highly organised and well designed coursebooks, and driven by all-important international and local tests that focus primarily on reliability (and claim to represent validity - but this has always been a sticky point of discussion for me, considering cultures and contexts). There are, of course, exceptions to this probably quite sweeping generalisation, but I doubt there are many who would seriously challenge that this is (and has been for quite some time) a fair characterisation of the ELT "industry."
The syllabus is the defining foundation in this system, and the meticulously laid out and pre-prepared suites of language courses are the ones learners (or their parents, in the case of younger learners) most often opt for. Language courses are generally judged in advance, based on the planning demonstrated and the 'evidence' represented in the coursebook content.
Pre-set tests. Levels. Predetermined syllabi. Coursebooks. Teaching Unplugged.
Choose the odd one out. Or, put another way, see if you can spot the giraffe with sunglasses trying to bluff his way into a "polar bears only" night club...
Dogme ELT offers a 'product' at the end of a language course, not in advance - because the whole approach takes the learners as the starting point (not a predetermined syllabus), assumes a lot of the content will flow from the learners themselves (not from a coursebook), and works with language as it emerges from the learners and their interactions (not from a grammar syllabus). Hence, there's not much room for flashing neon signs to advertise the merits of dogme-based language schools. You'd have to put the sign up at the end of the course rather than the beginning - and even then, the sign wouldn't be representative of the next course to happen anyway. A new group of learners means a completely new course and language learning experience.
In many ways, teaching unplugged is at apparently complete odds with systematic ELT as most of the world currently knows and experiences it.
I mentioned above some of my own experiences with dogme language teaching. In almost all of those cases, my unplugged teaching either didn't threaten a pre-existing system in which dozens of teachers catering to hundreds of carefully-leveled learners operated, or I could (for a variety of reasons) "get away with it" and not cause (too much) unscripted pandemonium within a well-oiled, highly consistent and "reliable" ELT machine. My unplugged teaching happened independent of, or at the fringes/between the cracks of broader more mainstream ELT courses.
As a school director, I once tried to take some of the characteristics of dogme ELT and embed it into a schoolwide approach for almost 30 teachers catering to close to 1,000 learners. I stripped back a lot of the coursebooks, had conversation classes focus on learners' own Q&A prompts, and used these conversations plus students' writing (with all its emergent language) as the basis for an ongoing grammar syllabus for each class. The changes were planned well in advance and rolled out gradually, teachers were trained extensively, and a robust support network for the teachers put in place. Everyone saw the logic in it, apparently, but overall the system failed. Parents of students complained that there was no pre-set grammar book, and the writing and conversation books were BLANK at the start of the course (heaven forbid!). Grammar teachers complained that it was too hard to design lessons based around learners' own mistakes, or that it was too hard to teach this grammar in English. The fact that each class (even within the same level banding) used different content and language constructions - based on the language that had emerged in that class over the course of the term - gave rise to accusations of inconsistency (from parents) and too much work (from teachers). Generally speaking, unplugging from coursebooks and plugging in to learners' own output was causing a lot of headaches and even a bit of a hit to our enrollment numbers. A vote amongst staff at the end of the term resulted in a clear preference for a fully coursebook and pre-set tests oriented curriculum, and that was my last major foray into doing the "teaching unplugged" thing at a language institute.
Based on all this, my own take (for now) is that institutionalised ELT as it currently stands can tolerate some "dogme moments" from teachers, but not a wider and more robust unplugged teaching approach per sé. Perceptions about ELT from its learners and teachers and the risks to the many stakeholders who make enormous amounts of money from ELT the way it is now mean you can expect to see dogme ELT nodded at nicely from time to time - so long as it stays on the sidelines.
I'm sure anyone who got to sit in on the Nirvana Unplugged gig would say it was the most fabulous experience possible with that band's people and music. But everyone would also agree that a studio recording that can be mass-produced and mass-distributed is by far and away the best way to reach the widest possible audience and - of course - make the most amount of money.
I'd like to finish this off with a recollection of a conversation with my wife, who at the time was floating the idea that we return to South Korea and open our own language school there. "Sure," I told her, then elaborated my requirement that we call the school REAL (Renshaw English Activation for Learning) and base our whole approach on teaching unplugged.
My wife sighed and said, "Guess we're not going back to Korea any time soon, then... We'd be broke within three months!"