The Teach-Off – The Observer’s POV Part 2

During this entire Teach-Off, we’ve decided to implement a open-door policy in which any teacher who wanted to watch the class could walk in at any time. As a result, we’ve had Shelly Terrell, Adam Beale, Emi Slater, several of colleagues at IH, and my DOS, Varinder, who will be teaching the coursebook lessons in the second half of this teach-off, come watch the class unfold.

Emi Slater sat in with me for the whole three hours, from 9am to 12noon, when I did one of my Dogme lesson and kindly wrote a guest post on what she saw.

Last week, on the day I taught my coursebook lesson, the day Varinder taught her Dogme lesson, and Varinder’s Coursebook Day 7, Emi came to watch us on all three days in the spirit of fairness.
This is Emi Slater’s account of what she saw last week.
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Observation of Chia and Varinder’s Teach Off. May 1st, 2nd and 3rd 2012.

Well I’ve had a fascinating week. As I’ve already said, this kind of teaching “experiment” should surely be undertaken more often if we are ever going to develop more quality teaching and adapt to the ever-changing needs of our students. The language that was English is not the same as it was when the first course book was written or the first CELTA was taught – our teaching methods must surely reflect that.

It is testament to Chia and Varinder’s determination and enthusiasm (no, they don’t pay me to say these things) that they have undertaken this project off their own back and it is exciting that it has been able to take place at International House. It reflects very well on IH – making them seem at the cutting edge of teaching research. And I am so jealous of their wheeley chairs!

I should remind everyone at this juncture that I am, you might have guessed, totally biased. I make no apologies for this and I cannot attempt to be very objective when I just have a feeling about Dogme that is instinctive. It is difficult to intellectually justify anything about teaching methodology when there is always someone who will come back and say “no, but I must disagree, if you look at the research here … “ Of course if can be said that there hasn’t been enough research done on Dogme yet to justify teaching in this way. Perhaps not, but there certainly has been plenty of research done on SLA, and so much of it leads towards Dogme. All I can say is it feels right to me, and as I have said before, if it feels right, do it!

So with this in mind I will attempt to summarize what I saw this week and last. I watched four lessons – one of which I have already described on this blog. This week I saw one with Chia teaching with the course book, one with Varinder teaching without the course book and one with Varinder teaching with the course book. So including last week’s lessons, I have watched both teachers teaching 2 lessons each (one with and one without the course book) – does that make sense?

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Learner Autonomy

The students involved in this project have been, from what I have observed, incredibly motivated and involved in it. Many managers and DOSes’ are afraid that if students are paying (yes we know, loads of money) then it is almost “dangerous” to expect them to take part in what amounts to an experiment. In this case, the students seem to really enjoy being part of it, making jokes about course books and no course books, etc and rising to the challenge incredibly well. They are, by agreeing to this, taking more control over their own learning. It is their response at the end after all which will tell us all how effective the project has been. I think it is patronizing to assume that students can’t be involved in decisions made about how they are taught and it is fantastic how involved they are in this. It is further developing learner autonomy and is indeed Jim Scrivener’s High Demand ELT, is it not?

So here goes.

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Conversation is an art form

It is impossible to avoid the fact that teaching is such a personal thing. Teaching is a group of people in a room with one person facilitating the actions of the rest. In whatever way the learning that takes place depends on the students. The environment created to facilitate that learning depends on the teacher. Either way, it is personal – very. So it is very hard to separate “techniques” and “styles” of teaching, and even methodology, when at the end of the day, for me, it all depends if the students are inspired or not. Some would say motivated but I would say the really good learning takes place when the students are inspired, and inspiration usually involves imagination.

Anyone who saw Nick Bilborough talk at the Cambridge University Press Day in London last Saturday will agree that it is very hard not to link memory (or language retention) with imagination. Neurobiologists are researching this as I write. So there we have it, perhaps you can’t remember anything without using your imagination. Indeed it is very hard not to link creativity with learning overall (Chaz Pugliese). So the point is creativity must be a large part of good teaching also.

Conversation is an art form, so much so that we teach our students speaking skills in order for them to get better at it. But do we teach our teachers conversation skills? Surely with or without a course book, conversation will always take up a large part of any language class, by definition. Our teachers therefore should be highly skilled at keeping a conversation going, asking follow up questions, back channelling, showing interest, turn-taking, fillers and so on. Any teacher needs to be highly skilled at the art of conversation.

In a Dogme class this comes across even more because there is nothing – no book, or list of speaking questions in the book, to fall back on. Without these skills, a Dogme class will not work. During my observations this week, the teacher who asked “Why?”, leading open questions, pushed the students to justify their answers, showed interest in the students’ answers when they did speak, and generally appeared curious to know how the students felt about things was the more successful Dogme teacher.

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Being present in the classroom

Exploiting opportunities for conversation is key to a good Dogme class and when Chia was teaching with the course book, she did this noticeably less than in the “no course book” lesson.

In the “book” lesson, she quite often missed opportunities to reformulate student’s language, missing giving them opportunities to practise the target language. I think this was because she was too busy checking that the student’s were on task doing “book” activities. It felt as if she was distracted by the book.

In the “non book” lesson she seemed to be paying much more close attention to students and seemed more able to really listen and scaffold and reformulate their language. She didn’t feel as present generally in the “book” class and did noticeably less monitoring.

Like I said it’s a personal thing, and Chia is clearly a Dogmetician at heart, not that we didn’t already know this, but it was very interesting watching her trying to teach with a book. (How many times will I say “book” in this blog post?)

There were a number of moments in her class when she had to resist exploiting potential Dogme moments by bringing us back to the book. For example, there was a great moment when the students (in relation to the topic in the book about doctoring and manipulating photographs) started talking about Tom Cruise, Princess Diana, Hitler and a famous old model in Brazil who have all been photoshopped for different reasons. They were using examples relevant to them but Chia had to bring the conversation back to Abraham Lincoln because the reading and the following grammar exercises in the book were related to him and Stalin. None of them particularly related to Lincoln but talk about Lincoln we must – it’s in the book!

It must be said that the first of Chia’s “non book” classes that I watched was a much smaller class. Perhaps for this reason and no other, she was able to monitor more closely and perhaps for this reason and no other, it felt like the conversation flowed so much more easily than in her “book” class. Perhaps it was nothing to do with book or non-book.

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Contexts

In Chia’s “book” class a lot of time was spent by Chia trying to create contexts for the lexis that was in the book. With Dogme, this context would have already been created and therefore the teacher can focus on reformulating or supporting the students in other ways. In Varinder’s “non- book” class, there was a lot of time spent on creating contexts for phrases connected to bad driving leading to some lexis about White Van drivers in London.

With Dogme, the contexts have been created by the students so there is less danger that they will not relate to them. Of course, it is always the case that what is relevant for one student will not be relevant to another in the same way that what is relevant for the teacher may not always be relevant to the students. Likewise, what is relevant in the book to some may not be relevant to others. In a conversation driven lesson, the teacher can use the art of conversation to swiftly move away from a topic that is not interesting or relevant to all the students.

This is easier in a Dogme lesson than in a course book lesson because in course books, the topics last for a whole unit and are often (not always) interlinked with the grammar focus and so on. If you are a student and you are not interested in the topic then too bad. In both Varinder and Chia’s “non-book” lessons, the range of topics, and therefore lexis discussed, was much wider than in both their “book” lessons, creating a much bigger chance of engaging a larger selection of students. I think both lessons covered at least four different topics – is this by definition not more useful for the students?

Tasks and Truth

Chia has already commented that students who are used to learning with books and in a very linear way are more likely to say “I’m finished” when they get to the end of a task and not push themselves to speak further. Without a book, this problem is taken away. Chia told me in the break of her “book” class that she stopped the students talking a few times because they were “going off task” and talking about something else. Varinder also in her “book” class told the students to stop talking because they had “started talking about something else”. Take the book away and you don’t have that problem!

I could almost see the students grappling with “tasks” rather than the actual language during both “book” lessons. Does this mean that very cognitively engaging tasks are not always the best way to acquire language? With a book the teacher spends a lot of time up in the teachers room working out themselves how to do tasks in coursebooks. They then need to make sure the students know how to do the task. This is all very time consuming and is not about the target language but how to do tasks. Take the book away, and you can focus on the language itself or do tasks that lead naturally on and so have a context for the students.

It is also interesting to note that the sentences that the students wrote in the “book” classes were often not true. Is this because learners really don’t like sharing true things about themselves or is it because in a typical “make a sentence” exercise (Check out Paul Seeligson on this). it does not occur to students that if they write a sentence which is true, they may be more likely to remember it?

Nick Bilborough would say that actually the more unrealistic and crazy the sentence is the more memorable it will be. Either way, I would venture that in a Dogme class, you are more likely to get memorable language and contexts from students and very often they are very happy to share things about themselves when they are having what amounts to a natural conversation.

Best moments

For me, the best moment of Varinder’s classes was when she demonstrated “gossiping”. She acted it out and the students completely understood her context and laughed a lot and it generated more speaking and they wrote it all down in their books. This was a spontaneous and improvised moment. Creativity and imagination at work.

I had a little chat with one of the students in the break when Chia and Varinder were not in the room and I asked her if she was enjoying this ‘experiment”. She emphatically said yes, and said how interesting it was. She said she generally preferred not using the book because she speaks more without the book, and she said most importantly for her, she learns more vocabulary without the book but she said it was “necessary” and “good” to have the book for the grammar. She said she wasn’t sure why, but would think about it. For me, this was one of the best moments, hearing a student very engaged with working out for herself the best way for her to learn.

Perhaps Learner Autonomy is likely to be more prevalent in a Dogme classroom because the students do not have the book to rely on – they have to work it out for themselves.

The same goes for the teacher.

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