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Teaching Unplugged

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Teaching Unplugged is the term used for a teaching method and philosophy which has three primary aims: teaching through conversation, taking out external input such as course book and technology and letting the lesson content be driven by the students rather than being pre-planned by the teacher. Based on the ‘Dogme ELT’ approach to teaching, its origins lie in an article written in 2001 by Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings called ‘The roaring in the chimney’. They later wrote ‘Teaching Unplugged’, a comprehensive guide to this type of teaching and winner of the British Council ELTons award for Innovation in 2010.

The ‘Teaching Unplugged’ or ‘Dogme ELT’ movement has a very strong following amongst teachers.  In fact, the Dogme ELT discussion list, which was originally set up in March 2000 by Scott Thornbury to help bring this style of teaching to the fore, has now been disbanded,  not due to lack of interest but because he felt the support had become so strong the method was ready to stand alone. 

The main reason it’s become so popular is that the main focus is one hundred per cent on the students’ actual language needs.  Take for example the elementary student who comes into class and says excitedly ‘ see….fifteen years!’  Instead of saying ‘Oh, that’s nice! Now open your book at page twenty seven, we’re looking at the past simple’, the teacher constructs the sentence on the board:  ‘I’ve just seen a friend I haven’t seen for fifteen years!’  The beauty is that, even if this use of the present perfect doesn’t come up in your course until pre-intermediate, you’re confident that the student knows exactly what this means as it is her own sentence and you’re absolutely sure you’ve just taught her something new as she definitely couldn’t say it before.  The teacher then encourages other questions if students take an interest.  ‘How.. you…know?’ ‘Where…’  ‘What..he years?’ ‘ He change?’ The teacher now has a board full of great questions and a topic which can then be used as the basis for the class. 

Another benefit of the teaching unplugged method is that it takes out all external input.  This in turn brings down barriers that exist between the teacher and students. There’s no hiding behind texts and media content.  You sit openly with your students, not being afraid of silence in the classroom, and allowing students time to collect their thoughts.  The situation is no longer ‘them’ and ‘us’ but everyone working together as a group with the teacher as facilitator and resource rather than director of the class.  A teacher who began using this technique half-way through an academic year suddenly found out that his pre-intermediate class included, amongst other professions, a concert pianist and a comedian.  Until then they had been a group of people who had worked through exercises and didn’t speak English very well.

On a practical note you never waste time on annoying technical difficulties that can take up a surprising amount of class time, (the sound’s not great on this CD player, I can’t get the DVD to work, the internet’s down again), and there are a large number of students who spend all their day staring at screens who find it a welcome relief to ‘get back to basics’.  It’s a method that is great for teachers working in difficult circumstances as you don’t need any equipment, course books or photocopies, which, of course, makes it very ecologically friendly too.    It also means that whole lessons can be planned anywhere, anytime; or planning can be done away with altogether.  Teachers can spend their time learning about the language they teach rather than learning how to use a photocopier.

It’s quite easy to see why a method that focuses so well on the students and their needs and means little or no preparation is going to be popular with teachers, but what about the drawbacks?  Probably the biggest disadvantage is related to student or parent expectations.  Many students pay for a teacher whom they expect to direct the class and make the decisions about what is learnt.  They expect a syllabus and a course book, or at least pieces of paper with work or notes on.  If this kind of teaching is introduced without proper care students might just feel that the teacher hasn’t ‘bothered’ to plan a lesson and is in fact ‘winging it’ rather than involving them in a whole new learning experience designed to perfectly suit their needs.  They may feel that this kind of learning puts the onus on them and, if they are tired after a long day of work or studies they may simply prefer someone else to take charge of their learning.

The other disadvantage is that it’s a course without technology.  While this may have the previously mentioned benefits, it also means a course that ignores an amazing resource.  A teaching unplugged course could appear outdated and old fashioned to some students who have become used to judging a service or product on the quality of its technological prowess.  This is also a course without a course book and less experienced teachers can feel nervous about not knowing what they are going to teach in advance and they certainly won’t have teachers’ notes or answers.  In an unplugged lesson anything can come up and if the teacher seems unable to deal with the unplanned emergent language, the students could lose confidence in them.  Furthermore, if you take away the course book, the internet, articles from newspapers and magazines and all the other language input that we bring into class, the teacher may well feel a little exposed.  What do I do if things run dry?  What if nobody has anything to say?

So, if you’ve never tried this method, many teachers will whole-heartedly recommend that you embrace it and never look back.  There’s also no need to take the purist approach to Dogme ELT or Teaching Unplugged.  Rather than banning technology from your classroom and binning the course book that students have spent their hard earned money on, you can always plan in an ‘open’ part of the lesson where you introduce a subject and react to the language that comes up.  You could also consider some kind of awareness raising activity first to prepare your students so they don’t think you’ve either become lazy or that you don’t know how to use the technology sitting in the classroom!

Further reading / activities:

Article ‘The roaring in the chimney’

the Dogme ELT discussion list

Live lesson: Dogme by Luke Meddings
By Stuart Wiffin