Monday, 30 May 2011

Suspicious of Unplugged?

once again,  I find myself not writing as much as I'd like to, simply because of work, work, work. I've already mentioned a few details previously aof what is going on in my workplace, and right now I don't feel at liberty to divulge more, as my position is rather precarious at present. So allow me to go on about something completely different.
I think I've already spoken before about my scepticism regarding Dogme, or ELT Unplugged, as I suppose we should now call it. Certainly, I've mentioned it during the weekly twitter debates on #eltchat, which I thoroughly recommend to anyone who hasn't participated as yet, and also over on David's ELT World, which is far better than Dave Sperling's increasingly tatty and authoritarian ESL Cafe. Yet I, as an ELT practitioner of 18 years, should embrace this particular approach, especially seeing as I do it half the time anyway, and seeing as I currently teach ESOL students, for whom this democratic, empowering approach could, and should, have been designed.
So why do I still regard it with suspicion?
I think, first of all, is the fact that I can't honestly see any difference between Dogme and 'Strong' CLT, in terms of the actual practice of each within the classroom. Krashen and Terrell say pretty much what Thornbury and Meddings say in many respects. This leads me to suspect that Dogme is just a 'sexed up' version of CLT, and I am naturally suspicious of any and all advertising - after all, as Thornbury somewhat ruefully admits, he spends a significant amount of time flogging the Unplugged Approach, and Luke Meddings I suspect will only have Dogme wrenched from his cold, dead hands.
However, this approach to this, er, Approach, has been spectacularly successful - just look at the number of CELTA, DELTA and MA essays on Dogme, to the point where teacher trainers and lecturers have an almost Pavlovian urge to beat something to death whenever they see the word Dogme. Of course it's appealing - communitarian, embracing, materials-light, student-centred - who wouldn't love it? The trouble is, of course, that a lot of people will misunderstand it, in particular newbie TEFLers, hence my second doubt - the teacher's approach to the Approach.
Any fool can walk into a classroom. Any fool can stand in front of a whiteboard and say, 'I'm the teacher'. Any fool can write things on a board, and play a CD, and get students to follow from a book; Hell, a good fool can even get their students to write some stuff down. Only a Teacher actually makes a difference, and becoming a teacher is something that, in all honesty, takes far longer than a CELTA or DELTA (for our profession, anyway) actually gives.Dogme is a dangerously attractive approach, simply because it suggests that anyone can simply walk into a room, say something, and call it teaching. I would like to know how many people have claimed to be teaching Dogme-style, when in fact they are doing something that has (somewhat unfairly) been levelled at Dogme, namely 'winging it with a label'. Certainly, I have watched a video of someone proudly claiming to be doing an Unplugged lesson that in reality consisted of the teacher simply feeding vocabulary to students, completing their utterances, writing down his thoughts on the board, speaking a bit more, and never attempting to check what the learners can actually produce (I'm deliberately not going to post a link to it here, as I don't want to embarrass the teacher) - in other words, it looked like a totally winged lesson. The teacher might want to engage this approach, but unless teacher and learner work together, how can it work? Which leads to suspicion three - motivation.
I suggest you read Chiasuanchong's excellent blog, especially the post about making student-centred teaching student-friendly, before reading this bit. The impression one gets from teachers who employ the Unplugged Approach is that it unfailingly works. Reading various journals, blogs and tweets about it suggests that students are enthusiastic about it. It also suggests that students are highly motivated - look at the blog post I mentioned above for examples, such as transferring notes from one book to another. It seems to me that a lot of the work in Unplugged is actually about motivating students to learn, rather than teach language itself. As study after study has shown, motivated students learn faster and better than ones who do not feel any particular impetus - in fact, Krashen called it the 'affective filter', which is, of course, a pretty discredited idea these days, yet seems to be a key factor in Dogme. So, does Dogme make the motivation, or does the motivation drive Dogme? And if you took the same degree of motvation but with a different approach, would the students learn equally as well? And, in order to motivate students, the teacher must also be not merely motivated by their desire to teach English, they must be immersed in it - fully cognizant of the range of learning needs that may appear in their classroom, but also of the full range of skills the learner needs (or wants) to acquire. This leads to the question - how can a teacher doing 24-30 contact hours per week, plus all the tutorial and pastoral work that surrounds it,  stay motivated enough to guide a student-centred syllabus?
Which leads to a serious point that is somewhat overlooked. Meddings and Thornbury, through ELT Unplugged, make it very clear (albeit somewhat unwittingly) that ELT is perhaps the grossest example of commercialization in education. Ever since the rise of the concept of teachable standards, and of standardization of teaching systems, and of standardization of quality in language schools, we have actually been witness to the effective industrialisation of ELT. Now, schools must be of a certain, measurable, standard; Now, students must have a certain, quantifiable, testable standard of English; Now, teachers of English must have certain, quantfiable, testable qualifications; And to assure all this, you have institutions like Cambridge ESOL, and exams like CAE, IELTS and TOEFL, and to feed all this, publishers like OUP and Pearson, all of whom profit from what is in reality a semi-created addiction to learning English.
For this reason, ELT Unplugged should be thanked - it's a reminder that we TEFLers aren't (or at least, don't want to be seen as) corporate, buttoned-up shills. It appeals to the rebellious spirit of the person within us who was once captivated by a newspaper advert to 'Teach Your Way Around The World!!'  Which all goes to show: never trust an advert that uses exclamation marks....

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