Teaching Unplugged (?)

Let me share with you a brilliant lesson plan. It begins with the preliminary thinking which seems to be its background logic. Mobile phones, it goes, are increasingly part of everyday life around the world. If everyone in your class has a mobile phone (most over 11-year-olds do!), why not make use of them? But the principle of using a phone to “snap” something can be extended to note-taking, so the technology is not essential. Then, it explains, that everyone, in the class, will be contributing to a visual diary of the time between classes, by taking a “snapshot” of something they do, or a place they go, and bringing it to the next class (an easy and very pleasant task that also includes their choice). They can collect some physical evidence of something they have seen (such as a leaflet) or take an actual picture on their mobile phone.

When learners come in class, you ask them to get their “snapshots” ready. In turn, people show the class what they have snapped (a favourite activity whatsoever). If possible, hand it round the class. People ask questions about it (it comes natural to most of us), finding out when and where it was taken. You make notes, help with language and generally encourage, as appropriate (this is a set of teaching tasks learners appreciate a lot). Then, divide the class into two groups (or ask them to make their own grouping, let’s say, according to the photo theme) and ask them to put their snapshots in chronological order and to write a narrative of the time between classes. Let them work and ask them to read out their narratives and answer any questions from the other group. You feed back on the learner language you noted earlier. 

Text by: Dimitris Maroulis

That’s all. I am sure you are puzzled. Where is the grammar section? The homework correction or the vocabulary drilling? Answer: nowhere and everywhere at the same time. Think about it for a while!

This sample lesson plan comes from Meddings and Thornbury’s book “Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching”. Dogme is Thornbury’s idea about language teaching in a modern, coursebook-free classroom. He inspired the name by a film, Danish film-maker Lars von Trier, shot with the title: Dogme 95 for which Trier claimed that the focus was on the filming and its nature and not on its aesthetic or artistic version. Purity in film making means truth, truth means self-expression.

For Thornbury though, real language learning takes place when teaching provides three basic conditions: it is conversation-driven, materials-light and it focuses on emergent language.

If you look back at the sample lesson plan, you can identify these three conditions. This plan and the others you can find in the book, offer an easy-going, highly class-engaging experience. If you think carefully about this experience, it is clearly more preferable and learner-centred than any other you may have tried to impose. Why’s that? What’s wrong with the coursebooks?

There seems to be a distance between the discourses younger generations develop and the discourses older ones try to inspire. Most of the classroom materials insist on a more passive, prescribed syllabus that spoonfeeds rather than invites to critical thinking and independence. The way they are, coursebooks elbow human initiative and reduce it to a responsive reaction. Learners feel neglected and voiceless.

Describing the language instead of producing it, is another limitation. The cover-to-cover policy, at any cost, in most of the times, bargains with learners’ creativity, enveloping it. There is no participatory, dialogic process, it is just a meaning negotiation struggle that in most of the times leads to the progress test.

Vital skills are ostracised, and other skills are overemphasized, usually grammar and testing are prioritized while listening and speaking are squeezed at the end of the lesson. Language acquisition is stigmatized as an unnecessary process whereas more “visible” processes such as vocabulary drilling and testing become the regular diet. This routine neglects learners’ voice. However, learners’ voice means accepting the learners’ beliefs, background knowledge, experience, concerns, and desires and these are valid ingredients in the language classroom. 

There may be objections though. What about syllabi? What about exams? Isn’t there a learning order of things? What about inexperienced teachers that need a guide to teach?

Firstly, we need to consider that the current paradigm, communicative approach, and its versions, have not provided the answers we were expecting to get. Learners still make mistakes, many items are not learnt or acquired, fluency comes late or even never, and generally speaking, the cognitive theory seems not to accelerate learning but more to slow it down, making it a painful process. At the same time, teaching based on coursebooks cannot compare with the current, newly found social, psychological and technological turn of ideas, especially of the younger generations, and it clearly does not gel with their dynamic and independent nature.

Secondly, materials-light may not necessarily mean no materials at all. What it means is materials designed and compiled from learners to learners. A kind of an open coursebook that learners would have more to say and do. If you make a list of such materials then you may reconsider the unpluggedness: podcasts, vlogs, you-tubing, e-books, news-sites, social media posts, commercials, stand-up comedy, play scripts, group therapy, TV shows, film watching, song lyrics, plays, audiobooks and so on and so forth. These ideas can engage learners, offer a far more interesting classroom interaction, and enhance creativity and foster critical thinking. Employing cognitive and non-cognitive elements in teaching can be a huge social and educational change. Learners can also get the language items and create the lesson content, it is more democratic, dialogic, and productive.

Is Dogme right then? Should we teach unplugged? There are no answers to these questions, the only way we can get answers is to give Dogme a chance or to adapt Dogme idea to our context. It seems though that Dogme could work in contexts that are materials-poor, where there are no materials available for all sorts of social, economic, or political reasons. Is this a different kind of teaching then? If you need to teach a classroom without any materials for all sorts of reasons, would you remain silent? Would you just wait for the “proper material” to arrive? Wouldn’t you improvise? Wouldn’t you become more resourceful and creative? Think about it.  



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