There comes a point in every TEFL teacher’s life when we reach a fork in the road. We begin asking ourselves questions: Should I start looking for ‘a real job’? Where is my career going? Should I continue teaching or change careers?
If we choose to continue teaching, the road forks even further. We could just muddle through the daily grind, watching our courses steadily trickle to a stream of the same rehashed-but-reliable lessons. Or we can see the road before us as the opportunity to build ourselves into better teachers.
One simple way to enjoy the path we walk during our career is through experimental practice, or EP. This basically means testing something new with your learners then reflecting and evaluating what happened as a result of the new practice. Maybe the experiment will simply add a new tool to our ‘teaching toolbox’. Maybe it will show us that we still have lots to learn. Maybe it will strike so deep that it changes the way we teach.
This happened to me after a semester-long experiment with Dogme.
If you aren’t sure what Dogme ELT is, the nutshell definition could be: teaching that is conversation-driven, materials-light, and focuses on emergent language, (Meddings and Thornbury, 2009: 8). If you’re interested in learning more, the book Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching and Adam Beale’s “Teaching Unplugged Week” are two fantastic resources.
I learned about Dogme in 2011, soon after finding myself at that second fork in the road. I’d been teaching for 7 years, but the spark had dimmed. Wanting to embark on the path that would lead to teaching as a stimulating career, I enrolled on the Cambridge DELTA course organized by ESOL Strasbourg in France. The second module of DELTA requires candidates to carry out a highly-structured EP assignment. As Dogme was one of the hottest topics in ELT at the time, the choice seemed natural.
First, it was necessary to research Dogme. Though I was working on a formal assignment, research is the key first step in any EP project. Spend some time exploring the theory behind the practice. Watch or read about lessons already carried out by other teachers. Some online resources for researching Dogme include:
• “Dogme ELT: Teaching Unplugged” video lesson by Martin Sketchley
• “Doing a Dogme Lesson” video by Scott Thornbury, discussing the question “Should I do a Dogme lesson as part of my DELTA course experimental practice?”
• “EFL Experiment 2: the ultimate Dogme criticisms and responses”, discussion posted on Phil Wade’s blog “EFL thoughts and reflections”
• Posts in the Dogme category on my own blog
In learning about the practice in question, we can begin thinking of any specific aspects we want to explore. This helps make the most of what happens in the classroom, as you know what you hope to learn.
After doing research, decide how to implement the EP. One of the great things about EP is that it can be as formal or informal and large- or small-scale as you choose; as simple as trying a new type of listening activity or it can be as in-depth as a whole course taught using a particular method. In the latter case, dialogue with your students is crucial, as you don’t want to hijack their English course (that they may be paying lots of money to attend) for the sake of your own development.
In my case, I decided to dive in at the deep end of Dogme: a full semester, no materials, no heavy lesson planning. Of course, the students and I discussed this adventure during the first lesson—why I was doing it, what it meant for them, how it might affect their course, what would happen if they didn’t like Dogme, etc. The students agreed to the experiment and I decided how I would record my own development (by blogging about the lesson each week). These were all parts of the EP process: dialogue, deciding how to record your EP, then recording and reflecting. (If you want to know what the students thought, read the full report of this EP on Adam Beale’s blog, in a six-part guest-post series titled “Dogme through the students’ eyes”.)
If you’re thinking about experimenting with Dogme, I would offer these tips, based on my own experience:
• Talk to your students about what Dogme is and why you want to try it. Discuss your objectives for the lesson and ask them to create their own learning objectives too
• Don’t confuse Dogme with unprincipled ‘winging it.’ As you move through the lesson, know why you have chosen the activities you have. There should be method to the madness.
• At the end of the lesson, dedicate a decent amount of time to recapping, reviewing, and recording what was done. This helps learners see the method to the madness mentioned above and is also a life-saver in creating coherence across several lessons.
• Go to Experimental Practice in ELT and download the free lesson plans. It includes one for Dogme, inspired by my semester of unplugged lessons. Just don’t think you have to follow it to the letter!
Thanks to this EP project, I came to realize that the amount of lesson planning is not directly proportional to lesson quality. I became more comfortable with what Adrian Underhill calls “the dark matter” of teaching: the interaction, the improvisation, the here-and-now of lessons. Nowadays, I tend to base much more of my lessons on this dark matter and my students seem all the more satisfied for it. When we come to forks in the roads of our lessons, we decide together which path to taking the opportunity to build ourselves a better lesson. And I know I took the right fork in the road.
Christina Rebuffet-Broadus is as a freelance trainer and writer based in France. She blogs about EP, classroom ideas, and ELT issues at iLoveTEFL and has a YouTube channel for Business English learners. She recently co-authored Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side with Jennie Wright. The book is available at the-round.com.