Dogme has endured, and I now find myself going into other schools and teaching departments to share the ideas advanced in Teaching Unplugged. What’s increasingly apparent to me is that – while there is a genuine appetite for ‘opening the space’ in language classrooms – heads of department sometimes view this with more confidence than the teachers they manage.
This is partly because teacher managers tend to be experienced, both in the classroom and when it comes to ticking the ever-multiplying boxes for external assessment. But I can’t help detecting something like a plea when we discuss unplugged workshops – a yearning for a less rigid, more spontaneous approach in class. And I’m starting to think that this relates to the fact that at least some of them can remember a time before Headway.
It is only fair to pay tribute to the success of the Headway series in the year that its authors, John and Liz Soars, were awarded the MBE. But one doesn’t have to be a dogmetist to question the impact of their brilliantly conceived books on the willingness of teachers to go with the flow, or the ease with which coursebook units can be adapted.
An editorial masterstroke in the Headway series was the use of blue ink for the grammar sections. This served to set the grammar apart, or – in the eyes of notional/functional syllabus sceptics – to restore grammar to its rightful place at the core of the curriculum. George Harrison once quipped that the Beatles’s MBEs had been awarded for services to the corduroy industry, and one could argue that Headway saved the grammar business – although it’s interesting to note that Raymond Murphy’s English Grammar in Use appeared a year earlier, in 1985! The two books were certainly used in tandem in many classrooms, and each implicitly reinforced the other: in terms of everyday classroom practice, it was against this powerful alliance that the standards of task-based, lexical and dogme approaches would be raised.
Scott Thornbury has referred to the dawn of the communicative approach in the 1970’s as a blissful time, a notion that was echoed in February when I led an input session on a Delta course at the invitation of one of the tutors on my own Delta. When conversation ahead of this session turned to the impact of Headway – a book whose influence in terms of syllabus weighting, seamless organisation and visual style is arguably apparent in every coursebook published since – she made the point that many teachers have never known anything different. They – and I include myself in this, as I did my Celta the year after Headway appeared – are generation H.
Scott is not alone in having rescued a volume of Strategies from a staffroom recycling bin: when I started teaching in 1987 the trailblazing books of ten years before were as ghosts on the shelves, assuming the status of scandalous relatives to whom reference is rarely made.
We need to advocate spontaneity in classrooms so that teachers and learners can at least have a choice. We need to offer principled support to colleagues if they conclude that the best way to adapt the coursebook is to set it aside. I believe that dogme ELT, as outlined in framework form in Teaching Unplugged, represents a workable alternative. It does not oblige the teacher to replace one orthodoxy with a new one; neither is it a new age approach that demands expertise in a branch of psychology. It is fundamentally pragmatic, concerned with the substance and the detail of everyday life and language.
Register now for the Unplugged Conference, Barcelona, featuring Luke, Scott and others. More info.
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.