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Dogme: nothing if not critical

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This is Scott Thornbury's second article for TeachingEnglish.

Dogme: nothing if not critical - methodology article - guest writers

The postmethod condition
The 'postmethod condition' (Kumaravadivelu 2003; Kumaravadivelu 2006) that I described in my previous article, and its rejection of top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions, has suggested, to some scholars, the need for a more socially responsible, even transformative, pedagogy. Pennycook (1989), for example, argues that methods are never “disinterested”, but rather instantiate relations of power: “Method is a prescriptive concept that articulates a positivist, progressivist, and patriarchal understanding of teaching” (p. 589). He urges that “teachers start to oppose those forms of knowledge that are being thrust upon them under the guise of scientific objectivity” (p. 612). Canagarajah (1999), among others, has pointed out how imported materials and methods enshrine postcolonial values, reinforcing the dominance of the Western, more technologically advanced “center” over the “periphery”.

Using locally produced materials might be one way of responding to the threat; another might be for local teachers “to adopt creative and critical instructional practices in order to develop pedagogies suitable for their communities” (p. 122).  And Holliday (1994; 2005) has argued that methodological prescriptions generated in “BANA” contexts (i.e. British, North American and Australian), may have little or no currency in other contexts, and has argued for more contextually sensitive and hence more appropriate methodologies, which are locally generated and validated.

Pedagogies aligned to beliefs such as these are generally labelled “critical” and share the common intent to challenge existing power relations insofar as they impact on education, and, in our particular case, on second language education. Norton and Toohey (2004) define this position:

Advocates of critical approaches to second language teaching are interested in relationships between language learning and social change. From this perspective, language is not simply a means of expression or communication; rather, it is a practice that constructs, and is constructed by, the ways language learners understand themselves, their social surroundings, their histories, and their possibilities for the future” (p. 1).

Critical pedagogy
Critical pedagogy traces its roots back to the Brazilian educational reformer, Paulo Freire, whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) is a foundational text. Freire took issue with the prevailing positivist educational paradigm: positivism is the belief that knowledge exists, independently of the learner, as a body of facts that can, and should, be transmitted from teacher (and textbook) to learner. As Freire puts it: “Liberating education consists of acts of cognition, not transferrals of information” (1970, p. 60). Freire contrasts two opposing models of education: on the one hand, the “banking” model in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiqués and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat (p. 53).

As an alternative, Freire advocates a ‘dialogic’ pedagogy, in which the learners become not simply the objects of the teaching process, but agents in their own education:

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with student-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach (p. 61).

Freire’s dialogic
Freire’s dialogic model grew out of his experience teaching literacy to Brazilian farm-labourers, where it was apparent that the materials imported from the educational “center” lacked any relevance to the lives and needs of the learners. Instead, Freire proposed that the educational process should be grounded in the local needs and concerns of the participants. “Whoever enters into dialogue does so with someone about something; and that something ought to constitute the new content of our proposed education” (Freire, 1973, p. 46).

In challenging the hegemony of coursebooks, especially those written outside of their contexts of use, the Dogme ELT movement (Thornbury, 2000; Meddings and Thornbury, 2009), positions itself in the Freirian tradition.  Moreover, it explicitly identifies itself as having “critical” credentials: Thornbury (2006), for instance, asserts:
Proponents of a Dogme approach argue that they are not so much anti-materials, as pro-learner, and thus align themselves with other forms of learner-centred instruction and critical pedagogy (p. 70).

Is Dogme critical?
But in what sense, if at all, is Dogme truly “critical”? Does the fact that it derives its content from learner language, rather than from coursebooks, make it dialogic, and hence critical?  Probably not. After all, as Pennycook (1999) warns, “a critical approach to TESOL is more than arranging the chairs in a circle and discussing social issues” (p. 338). To answer this question, I extracted and collated a list of criteria from some of the current literature on critical pedagogy (Pennycook, 1999; 2001; Norton and Toohey, 2004). According to these sources, a critical pedagogy
1. is transformative, and seeks social change
2. foregrounds social inquiry and critique
3. challenges the status quo and problematizes ‘givens’
4. devolves agency to the learner
5. is participatory and collaborative
6. is dialogic
7. is locally-situated, and socially-mediated
8. is non-essentialist, i.e. it doesn’t reduce learners to stereotypes, but rather legitimizes individual identities
9. is self-reflexive

In the light of the accumulated postings on the Dogme discussion list and the few articles that have come out describing Dogme theory and practice, it would seem that Dogme scores fairly highly on criteria 3 to 7, and possibly 8. More questionable are its “transformative” credentials: does Dogme have a political agenda, and does it really seek social change?  When I put this question on the Discussion list, the response was varied, and often vociferous. To give you a flavour :

Surely, by embracing the idea that teachers can be learners and that  learners' lives are of much greater value than anything the  publishing houses have to offer, dogme IS transformative and does  seek social change. After all, these things are not typical of most  classrooms. (Gordon)

How, how, how can a different way of teaching/enabling learners to learn EFL possibly bring about social change? EFL, a la dogme or not is too limited an activity to become an engine for social change. To effect social change you've got to get at power structures, the ownership of land, resources and the means of production and control of the police and military. It's clearly mad and daft to suggest dogme can do that.  (Ian)

What takes place in a classroom is taking place within society and is therefore social. When what takes place within a classroom is different than what usually takes place within a classroom, social change is affected.  (Gordon)

You may find that some of us have used dogme to bring about a type of social change, for instance radically changing failing teenagers' attitudes to learning as a whole, as well as to learning English. It's a small change at individual classroom level, but it's a significant change for those teenagers involved  (Melissa)

If dogme is to become more of a force for social change within the very small goldfish bowl that we inhabit … it has to nail its colours to the mast.  ….  Is dogme to be more than just a rejection of meaningless tasks and bland stodge from the publishers? (Gordon)

I think dogme is radical within its own context, and the potential application of a dialogic approach within the wider school curriculum and education system is more radical (and challenging) still. But I don't think a specific notion of social change necessarily follows from dogme. … Changing the paradigm for learning doesn't necessarily change the views and concerns of the people in the room. (Terry)

Language learning is part of the educational agenda of the new capitalism, and if dogme doesn't look at how this is true, pick it apart - and DO something about it... well, is another group going to?  (Jim)

Any teaching can be social and can bring about social change, only we cannot see the end result from the classroom's window…. But my students sometimes write to me years later and tell how they helped change some stifling or ineffective structures at their universities and they will say: "Partly it was in your classroom that I learnt that what I say and think is of value".  (Natasha)

In the end, the point is not whether Dogme itself is critical, half-critical, or not at all critical. Rather it is to raise the question: how exactly would a critical pedagogy manifest itself?  That is to say, if Dogme – with all its ‘anti-establishment’ posturing – is not critical, what is?

Canagarajah, A.S. (1999) Resisting linguistic imperialism in language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Freire, P. (1973). Education and conscientização. In Freire, P., Education for Critical Consciousness, NY: Continuum,

Holliday, A. (1994). Appropriate Methodology and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holliday, A. (2005). The Struggle to Teach English as an International Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2003) Beyond Methods: Macrostrategies for language teaching. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006) Understanding Language Teaching: From method to postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009)Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching. Peaslake, Surrey: Delta Publishing.

Norton, B. and Toohey, K. (eds.) (2004) Critical pedagogies and language learning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1989)  The concept of method, interested knowledge, and the politics of language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 23.

Pennycook, A.(1999) Introduction: Critical approaches to TESOL. TESOL Quarterly, 33.

Pennycook, A. (2001). Critical Applied Linguistics: A Critical Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Thornbury, S. (2000). A Dogma for EFL. IATEFL Issues,153.

Thornbury, S. (2006) An A-Z of ELT. Oxford: Macmillan.