"Old School" by Move the Clouds

The ‘unplugged’ TDSIG conference, which will be held in Barcelona on Saturday, 21st May, will retain the Open Space format used in last year’s pre-conference event to explore unplugged teaching and its implications for teacher development.

Open Space is a particularly apt way to run a conference devoted to unplugged teaching, as both approaches emphasise the interaction between the people in the room, the face to face and the here and now.

In fact, we used Open Space for the first ever dogme conference in London in 2000 – grandly named, given its modest scale, but animated by a passion and curiosity that have driven experimental practice in a growing number of teaching and training contexts ever since.

There’s an appealing sense of continuity in this, not only because I met Scott Thornbury for the first time at that mini-conference, but because Lindsay Clandfield, who co-edited our book Teaching Unplugged, and Anthony Gaughan, whose presentation of ‘Teacher Training Unplugged’ with his colleague Izzy Orde at Iatefl 2010 made such an impact, will be participating too.

I first experienced Open Space when I was co-running an experimental language school and attended a conference on managing change. I had modest expectations of the event, anticipating that my lack of business and executive experience would leave me floundering. In fact I found the approach inclusive and stimulating, and immediately identified parallels with the classroom challenges to which I was trying to find solutions.

These challenges included the constantly changing make-up of our classes, in which the impact of continuous enrolment was compounded by our students’ shift work patterns. We really didn’t know who was going to be there for a given 3-hour lesson, or even for what part of a lesson. It made orthodox lesson planning and coursebook use difficult (and ensured that any teacher doing the Delta had to cross their fingers very hard indeed when it came to external assessments). I wanted to turn this ‘problem’ on its head and present it to colleagues as an opportunity: instead of disruption, constant renewal. Instead of frustration, freedom.

The solutions that presented themselves were to treat every lesson as an experience in its own right, one which could not be anticipated in minute detail, and in which the people present were, by definition – like the participants in Open Space – the ‘right’ people.

Like unplugged teaching, Open Space is dynamic, fluid and driven by the participants – but it is not without structure. Delegates may choose to start their own discussion topics, but anyone doing this is tasked with noting outcomes and reporting back to the wider group. This echoes another of the processes I advocated in class: reporting on the lesson after it had happened, rather than mapping it in advance. I called it post-planning, and it was another of the techniques that fed into what was starting to emerge as a body of shared dogme practice.

Next week: Generation H?

Luke Meddings has been teaching, writing and training in ELT for 23 years. In 2000 he co-founded the dogme in ELT group with Scott Thornbury, and in 2009 their book Teaching Unplugged was published by Delta. In 2010 it won a British Council ELTon Award for Innovation. His current interests include the application of unplugged approaches, the ways in which English changes in different contexts (and the implications of this for teaching), and music.