Isabela Villas Boas: Hi, Luke. It is a pleasure to have you as our interviewee. First of all, could you tell us about your professional background? How did you get into English Language Teaching? What drove you to our profession?
Luke Meddings: Hi, Isabela. It’s my pleasure and thank you for inviting me! It was quite accidental really, a friend of mine at uni had heard about the CELTA course at International House and suggested we give it a go – it all started there. But my mum was a teacher, and late in her life I learned she had also taught ELT in Paris in the 1950s. So I guess life makes sense of us, even when we can’t make sense of life.
IVB: You are well known for your work with Scott Thornbury in proposing Dogme in ELT. What is Dogme? Is it a method, an approach, or a teaching philosophy? What led you both to propose teaching unplugged? What was bothering you about communicative language teaching and the like?
lm: I’d say teaching unplugged is an approach which draws on a rich heritage of unorthodox teaching philosophy. It isn’t directional (or restrictive) enough to be a methodology, but it can certainly influence your evolving practice as a teacher. It might encourage you to make changes to your methodology, even if you don’t adopt it more fully as an approach.
Anico Perfler: Hi, Luke. Would you say that one-to-one lessons benefit from DOGME/teaching unplugged more than groups?
LM: Hi, Anico. No, I wouldn’t say that – sorry! I believe teaching unplugged works really well in groups, as there is a complex interactional dynamic and a wide variety of input from students and teacher as a result. But one-to-one lessons can also be great unplugged. One important thing to ask in any context is this: what is the direction of pedagogical travel? Is it top-down, or is it bottom-up? Is it top-down, so the teacher is administering pre-prepared content and the student is navigating it – or is it bottom-up, so the student is generating content and the teacher is mediating it?
LM: Yes, the learners’ autonomy is critical. It needs to be talked about and trained and nurtured. Autonomy means being active in the learning process, taking responsibility for recording language and questions about language, creating and choosing texts, looking stuff up. It means being constantly curious. And you’re right to add the teacher’s autonomy to that – we become more responsible for what happens in class, not as administrators or managers, but as participants and facilitators. Teaching unplugged makes us curious too – and that’s the best way to be! Teacher’s and learner’s autonomy go hand in hand, and each can help the other develop.
AP: Are only experienced teachers supposed to work with teaching unplugged? Is there a way a “newbie” can use it appropriately?
LM: I’ve got two answers to this question. Firstly, let’s not forget that without being trained, a newly-qualified teacher can‘t use a coursebook appropriately. So how can they unplug appropriately without being trained? If we built more teacher autonomy into pre-service teaching courses and teacher training qualifications, this would be a normal part of our teaching practice from the start, to be developed alongside everything else. Secondly, teaching unplugged is about using your human instincts as well as your professional knowledge. It’s about listening to the learners and showing a real interest in them as people, not just in how well they are making sentences using the present perfect. Newly qualified teachers can do that just as well as old hands like me – but we need to encourage it, and place it at the heart of how we imagine and develop teaching.
AP: How does planning for a DOGME lesson differ from planning for a lesson with pre-selected resources and materials? How to be prepared to deal with the emergent language needs of students and expect the unexpected?
LM: I think of this in terms of being prepared (in the traditional sense of having a detailed plan and materials), and being ready for what could happen. Planning for dogme might involve creating an outline plan (which includes stages for the lesson, but allows for flexibility). You might be using a coursebook anyway, or preparing for an exam. Really dogme is about noticing and shaping opportunities for students to take language and content in the directions that interest them, and helping them with the forms they need to express themselves. To do this you need to be ready – attentive, engaged, curious.
Teachers deal with the unexpected all the time – it comes with the job! As you embrace this in the language classroom you will learn strategies that enable you to make better decisions on the spot. For example, what should we do with language that emerges organically in class? Do I highlight a piece of language or let it go? Do I highlight the form and move on, or highlight the form and do a bit of drilling, or highlight the form and do some drilling and set a little activity where they reproduce the form? Do I decide to look it up after the class, and come back the next day with an explanation and some ideas for practice?
AP: I’ve read in different materials that one technique that may be used in the unplugged classroom is “live listening”. We do not have a script that should be followed exactly as it was written, and the students can only listen to it once. How should we prepare appropriately for live listening sessions? With that, I’d like to know more about how we can prepare the script for the lesson and the task for the students. If the content is emergent, how can I create appropriate live listening opportunities?
LM: Here are two ways to use live listening. The first you can prepare for, and the second you can be ready for (just like I mentioned in the answer to your question about planning above).
In the first case, you tell a brief anecdote to the class, ideally based on something that recently happened to you, or something you noticed nearby. It doesn’t need to be something amazing, just something real that will engage the class. Tell them to listen to what you’re going to say, and record yourself as you are speaking. Then, when you finish your anecdote, tell them to get into groups and reconstruct the text. They might be surprised by this instruction the first time you do this, but they will get used to it. Help each group to make their text as good as they can, and then share and compare. Treat every group’s text as a valid artifact in its own right: the differences between the texts, from verb forms to vocabulary choices and even basic meanings, will be fascinating. Then play the recording and try and listen back to what you said in the first place – this could be a way for them to correct their own texts, or to work together on a new version that is closer to the original; you could lead this by writing down their suggestions on the board and working with the language as you go along. (You can vary this activity in different ways – for example, you can write down your text in advance, or not. You can ask the students to take notes the first time they hear it, or not. But try and resist formalising the activity too much so that it turns into something you would find in a book. It’s called ‘live’ for a reason!).
If you want another reference point for this kind of activity, think of a Dictogloss, where the emphasis is on reconstructing a text focusing on meaning and textual coherence, but not on reproducing the original text exactly as it was written or read out.
The second type of live listening is very spontaneous. If you hear someone say something that is interesting from a linguistic point of view – it could be you, it could be one of the students – stop and ask: ‘what did X just say?’ The more you do this, the more attentive you and your students will become, and the better they will get at decoding language outside the classroom. Remember, there are no pre-tasks in real life.
AP: There’s an interview in which you and Scott Thornbury explain that DOGME isn’t about not using materials, but using them lightly, exploiting them more than one would usually do. How can one do that? Is it possible to do it in (language) school contexts, where parents pay high prices for materials and there is a standard curriculum to follow?
LM: This is a bit like the question about newly qualified teachers above, as it has implications for how we structure the education economy. Ideally, the standard curriculum would be less materials-based and would allow teachers and learners more autonomy. I would certainly seek to change this if I could. But if we can’t change it, maybe we can change the way we think about it.
I like comparing the curriculum to a map of the city. It tells you where everything is in relation to everything else. But it doesn’t tell you where to go. If you think of the curriculum as a map, all the language that emerges in class will have a place on that map. By following the materials, you encounter language in a certain order. By working unplugged some of the time, you will encounter pretty much the same language – just in a different order. As for the materials, use some of them. You don’t use all the salt in your cupboard to season a dish. You use enough for the dish to taste good.
Gabriel Ribeiro: Hi Luke! We were plunged into online classes due to the pandemic. While many aspects of them were improvised, there are many others that are likely to continue to be used in classes around the world. How can we expect the principles of Teaching Unplugged to be applied in an increasingly more technology-based and, fundamentally, more asynchronous classroom?
Isabela Villas Boas, Anico Perfler and Gabriel Ribeiro are all part of the Troika team.
Luke Meddings has been a teacher, author and teacher trainer in ELT for over 30 years. In 2000 he co-founded the Dogme in ELT movement with Scott Thornbury; their book, Teaching Unplugged (Delta, 2009) won a British Council ELTon Award for Innovation in 2010, and he has trained extensively since then, sharing ideas with teachers around the world.