Dogme Is an Elitist Anti-Construct

November 2011

Dogme, or [dogmə] as it is pronounced, has become a well-worn term in certain circles of the ELT industry. It is the practice of conducting a class through what is supposed to be free-flowing conversation without the use of books or materials. The idea has gained a bit of momentum but in this post I’m going to pop the balloon of Dogme because underneath the hype, I see it as a vacuous, anti-educational, and bourgeois approach to language teaching.

I’m sorry dogme fans if this sounds harsh but I feel it has to be said. I have seen so many teachers fall flat on their faces using the dogme approach. The amount of thinking on your feet makes it just too difficult for most people to do well without any direction or structure. Dogme classes inevitably descend into a lame string of stilted and repetitive teacher-led Q&As and a lot of awkward silences, resulting in an unsure performance by the teacher and sheer boredom on the part of the students. The amount of student talk it generates is inversely proportional to the size of the class and so with larger classes it is nigh on impossible to implement properly, while the teacher always has a propensity to blabber in order to fill the spaces.

Crash and burn: what happens to most teachers
in a dogme class.

Small talk is an extremely important skill and one that doesn’t come easily to a lot of people. It certainly needs a lot of practice but the weakness of dogme is that students also expect to learn and practice something specific, not just have a coffee chat. Beyond the first fifteen-minute warm-up Dogme is essentially a lazy option. After the warmer, conversational momentum dries up and learners need a more complex class dynamic with a deeper language focus.

High and dry: dogme is a rudderless approach.

In the pure form of dogme there are no performances, no role plays, no games, no tasks, no texts, no activities, no exercises, no drills, no challenges, no creativity, and often no pre-planned learning points. Just spontaneous and voluntary small talk. This is why I feel dogme needs to be exposed for what it is — a lot of hot air.

heath Robinson
Bodge job: the main use of materials by dogmeists is to paper over the cracks in their own constitution. In other words, covering their derrieres…

I think dogme was born out of a need by Scott Thornbury to create his ‘big idea’ in the ELT industry. The idea that dogme is in some way special because it deals only with emergent language is a complete fallacy. Dealing with emergent language is what you do, or should be doing, in any class. It’s just a lot easier if you have a structured activity to stimulate that language.

The basic truth is that dogme is a hollow non-method and it does the learner a great disservice over the long run. Learners deserve something more than the teacher coming in without any materials or solid ideas and simply trying to instigate some sort of inductive conversation. Dogme in its pure form is anti-pedagogical, anti-intellectual and at its heart, it’s a cop out.

As bad as course books may be, there is a good reason for their existence. They are there to help people. When people say they don’t like using books, what they really mean is that they don’t like using bad books. Unfortunately, there are too many of those around. But this is just a fact of life — Sturgeon’s Law in effect; a universal rule which states that 90 per cent of everything is rubbish. But this is more the problem with any kind of improv solution to something.

Metaphorically throwing the course book out of the window, unless you are a very experienced extemporaneous teacher is an irresponsible attitude because by doing so you are ignoring educational standards, setting the wrong example to fellow (perhaps less able) teachers, and interfering with the students’ needs.

Books, even course books, are not inherently bad, even in light of the communicative approach. They are what took us clear of the dark ages and we would do well to continue to cherish them in educational contexts. The issue I have with books regarding language competency is that over reliance on textual input stunts listening skills but beyond that, they are very much needed especially at, and to achieve, an advanced level.

Where dogme fails (and this is something actually acknowledged by Scott Thornbury recently) is that most of the world’s English teachers are non-native speakers / ESL learners themselves. Most of the world’s teachers haven’t had the benefits of training that comes with living in a first-world country and they usually don’t have the skills to teach without solid materials, solid activities, and clear direction at hand.

That’s why dogme is elitist. It is only good for the few who have the means to obtain in-depth training; who work in wealthy organisations (which charge correspondingly high tuition fees) where they are allowed to get away with wasting an hour in a coffee chat, where they reap the benefits of tiny class sizes, and where they have access to and can afford a plentiful supply of native-speaking teachers.

But beyond all this, Dogme is dull. It is difficult and unstructured. What I want to see instead of endless dogme talk, is a genuine improvement that doesn’t require recourse to textbooks but utilises printed materials and handouts. This is a more rigorous approach that calls for teachers not to go in blind but to occupy an empowering and substantial middle ground where teachers use lesson plans containing scenarios and games which bear fruit in class, which challenge the learner in a competitive situation, which build on the lessons learnt from constructivism and the traditions of language teaching going back to the Direct Method, and which give the students something stimulating to work on and something to show for their study.

Teachers have not just a communicative responsibility but an intellectual as well syllabus/examination-based responsibility. Denying this to students is a recipe for failure. Both teachers and students have to dig a bit deeper into issues, even if that means plenary and set-performance at some points of the discourse. It is this mixture of developing skills and knowledge which makes language classes infinitely more interesting and dare I say it, fun.

So this post is not about a gimmicky non-idea dressed up in the clothes of serious pedagogy. It is a call to common sense, proper standards, better resources, and greater purpose. And to that end this blog exists to help teachers enact and execute with real effectiveness.