When we wrote our critique of “stopwatch TEFL” it was inevitable that similarities be drawn with our critique and that of Dogme ELT. Indeed, the excitement many teachers felt/ feel over Dogme ELT is inspired by intense dissatisfaction with the very same conveyor-belt language teaching that we criticise in that article. We are, however, keen to distance ourselves from Dogme ELT, to disassociate our Marxist approach from the approach taken by Dogme’s principal organisers, Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury. In doing so, we do not want to alienate those teachers attracted to the progressive core of Dogme, but to ask them to embrace the more meaningful tradition of critical pedagogy, an approach which takes a critique of power and the need for social transformation as its very starting point.
The Roots of Dogme ELT
Dogme ELT appeared to spring from nowhere in the late 90’s. Writer and teacher trainer, Scott Thornbury, drew a striking parallel with, on the one hand, the aims of a small group of Danish Filmakers, intent on challenging the hegemony of Hollywood and, on the other, the need to develop a new more person-centered teaching approach. Dogme had argued that the trappings of Hollywood, with their sophisticated film and sound techniques, had alienated filmmakers from the real task of filmmakers, engaging with real human experience. Thornbury, to be joined by Meddings, were to argue that course books and grammar syllabuses had achieved the same in ELT. They, like the filmmakers, wanted to strip away the baggage of ELT and re-centre ELT in real lived experience. For them, language was not something “out there” but the creation of flesh and blood individuals with something to communicate.
The Limits of Analogy
We do not deny the epistemological power of analogy both in making ideas clear and revealing new ideas. We do, however, demand rigour in the use of such analogies. For example, Plato’s analogy of the cave and the difference between experience and reason is extraordinarily rich but Thomas Friedman’s analogy of a flat world to describe global expansion is extremely poor (see here for detailed critique).
With this in mind we do not want to repeat Sara Hannam’s excellent critique of Dogme ELT (see reply from Sara to Scott Thonbury in comments) by further examining the shortcomings of Dogme’s most prominent representative, Lars von Trier. Sara’s critique being that dogme’s treatment of women is, to say the very least, highly problematic and unless Dogme ELT is capable of actually seeing this in the analogous object, it is incapable of addressing it, and other forms of inequality and domination, in its own practice.
We want to concentrate here not on what it doesn’t see (exploitation of women as object for violence) but rather on what it sees but isn’t there (illusion rather than allusion) and what it chooses consciously and unconsciously to exclude from the picture (other films and forms of cinema). We will do this mainly through an examination of quite a remarkable and candid interview given by Thornbury in Six Great Movies about Teaching and a throwaway (literally) opinion piece given by Meddings in the guardian.
Italian for Beginners
When asked about six great films about teaching, Thornbury quickly dismissed one particular genre before claiming one particular film, Italian for Beginners, to be both a great example of Dogme filmmaking and how a Dogme classroom should be. Alex Case rather tersely remarked that:
Italian for Beginners is a great movie but not, I think, a great model for what your classes should be like!
And were we not already paid up members of the Alex Case fan club, we would be after this most simple but unchallenged comment.
Firstly, Italian for Beginners is a romantic comedy. One we wholly recommend people see for themselves. It depicts lonely individuals coping with enormous problems, who come to experience love (again or for the first time). To prioritise the classroom for this transformation from lonely to loved, however, is a gross misreading of the film. It is true that the classroom serves as a social point for the community in general and these individuals in particular but it is the substitute “pastor” (a man himself suffering from loneliness, who acts as catalyst for many of the positive transformations, for the community in general and the individuals in particular). In return, the community and the particular individuals have an enormously positive effect on him. The changes do not come about through any method or change to the method of teaching, therefore, but through death and disruption, which is managed in a positive and non-judgemental manner. It may well be a beautiful film and a good example of Dogme filmmaking but it is not, nor can be, an example of a classroom, unless of course we deliberately set about bringing actual death and disruption into the teaching arena. This is not to dismiss a pastoral approach to teaching but to recognise that the roles of pastor and teacher cannot be collapsed into one. Indeed, the pastor in the film is a passive (and we mean passive) participant in the classroom, whose work is done best outside the classroom.
As for the teaching, it is for the most part basic functional language taught by someone (the former teacher has died) who has no teaching qualifications or experience of teaching and is recently sacked from his job (for bullying the customers of the hotel restaurant). The “teacher” asks a question and the student replies. There is no independent dialogue and the teacher selects the topic and vocabulary to his interest (like throw-in, offside etc) or judgment (he does introduce some medical vocabulary for a nurse). The teacher feels free to shout at the students and question the intelligence and validity of a vulnerable class member. The class is indeed mixed in levels (as recommended by Dogme) to the point that an Italian woman joins the class but takes no part in the “teaching”. It is true things become more fluid in Italy(where they take a trip) because the native Italian speaker does the “teaching” as the official teacher is concentrating on continuing a sexual relationship with one of the students.
We ask ourselves whether Scott Thornbury is really recommending classes be conducted in such a manner or whether he is merely being provocative. It’s true that there is a happy ending, but this happy ending is not at all premised on qualities represented in the teaching method. So, we are being told the following
- If student is very unhappy
- but finds happiness
- when they find reciprocal love with an incompetent language teacher ,
- then language class is a success
- because happiness is more important than learning a language
We would not wish to disagree whatsoever with the last statement (5), but we would suggest step 3 might place impossible demands on teachers (whether incompetent or not); especially where there is more than one student.
Seeing a model for teaching in this film, rather than simply a reaffirmation of the values of hope and being non-judgmental, is quite simply absurd: a romantic comedy.
Thornbury is quick to dismiss the 1960’s classic, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, (based on one of the greatest books ever written in the English language and containing a performance for which Maggie Smith deservedly won an Oscar) while recommending as “great”, two films he hasn’t “got round to seeing yet”. He describes Miss Bride as a “has been” and fails to acknowledge this as, to date, probably the most important book of fiction written/film made about teaching. It is important not just because it is an amazing study in narcissism and its dangers (can’t think why Scott didn’t pick up on this) but also locates teaching in the convulsive changes of the 1930’s.
Indeed, Brodie was not alone in challenging the narrow curriculum of mass education. John Dewey, the great social reformer and progressive educationalist, had set in motion a critique of mass education methods which exists till this day and to which Dogme is an intellectual heir. Dewey argued for a classroom where learning was active, not passive, and where students’ own experience was the starting point rather than “information banks”. This tradition had a profound effect on mainstream education during the first part of the twentieth century, causing rifts between traditionalists and progressives. Unfortunately, it was not necessarily the “left “who were adopting these theories but fascists (Dewey himself was unmistakably an egalitarian liberal reformist, not too unlike Noam Chomsky today). Geoffrey Heponstall, puts it nicely in his review of the novel, The prime of Miss Jean Brodie:
Given its period setting between the world wars, the novel has an overtly political tone. Miss Brodie is consciously fascist, seeing in Mussolini an embodiment of Classical and Renaissance virtues. As a critique of fascism it works exceptionally well. The novelist has understood fascism’s origins in romantic and progressive theories. Miss Brodie has gone mad with her own sense of authority. She has searched for imaginative responses. Science and religion are too dispassionate for her. Appreciative of beauty, she demands a life of pure feeling in a social order of the sublime.
We can also look to the works of the Marxist, Antonio Gramsci (from which we at Marxist TEFL draw particular inspiration) and his battle against the progressive forces of Fascist led Italian education. For Gramsci, spontaneity and experience, needed to be given form and shape (discipline) if individuals were to be truly independent and critical thinkers. Gramsci largely suspected that progressive education was designed to produce a weak, ill-disciplined populace which the fascists could easily manipulate. Lenin said something similar when he remarked that spontaneity without form is being dragged “along the line of least resistance”. This is not to dismiss spontaneity, for it is the lifeblood of humanity and education, but to recognise that there are many parts to learning which require discipline and repetition (think of a musician) to give shape to that creative energy.
The figure of Ms Jean Brodie, who narcissistically manipulates young children for her own romantic ideals, is a beautiful examination of progressive education gone wrong. Rather than creating the situation for self-transformation, students are being shaped along a hidden or unexplored agenda, ill-equipped with the tools for challenging the process. We strongly recommend all teachers see this film and critically assess how their personal agendas might be impacting on the classroom
The Prime of Sylvia Ashton Warner
This, we believe, is also a problem because Thornbury cannot see traces of Miss Jean Brodie in his heroine and compatriot, Sylvia Ashton Warner. In fact, he promotes her work as if it is unproblematic:
Two Lives: Another one I haven’t seen, but not through want of trying. This 1961 movie, starring Shirley MacLaine, is based on the novel, Spinster, by Sylvia Ashton-Warner, the visionary educational reformer. It purports to tell the story of how a remarkable teacher brings innovative classroom methods to a rural New Zealand primary school, winning over the headmaster (played by Jack Hawkins) and the local Maori community. Pedagogy gives way to melodrama, however, and it all ends in tears. A curiosity, but worth hunting out, if only because it indirectly celebrates the work of Ashton-Warner, whose rejection of coursebooks elevates her to the topmost rung of the dogme pantheon.
There is no doubting Ashton Warner was a remarkable woman with great imagination and tireless energy. She also introduced innovative teaching techniques into the field of education based on her quasi-Freudian theories of sex and fear. Much of her teaching work was also concentrated on the indigenous people of New Zealand in the 1940’s and she inspired other “progressive” teachers in this field.
The following words from Ashton Warner, however, could have been taken straight out of the mouth of Muriel Spark’s fictional character:
When I teach people, I marry them. . . . There is quietly occurring in my infant room a grand espousal. To bring them to do what I want them to do, they come near me, I draw them near me, in body and in spirit. They don’t know it, but I do. They become part of me, like a lover. (Ashton-Warner, Teacher, 1963)
Indeed, in typical melodramatic manner, she presented herself as a lone voice of reform in the wilderness of the New Zealand education system. Nothing of course could be further from the truth and she was able to develop her innovative approach under the appreciative gaze of the authorities, who were themselves attempting to integrate basic principles as outlined by John Dewey. (Indeed, we would argue that Dogme ELT is nothing more than Task Based Learning with a new coat of paint). This false radicalism of hers and her pathological hatred for the rigours of social theory (i.e. justifying what you do in a rounded and sober intellectual manner) is nothing more than the heady mix of romanticism and progressiveness embodied in Miss Jean Brodie (and indeed 1930’s fascism):
Describing herself as an artist rather than a teacher, she claimed to read “nothing on teaching” or education and expressed a dislike of academic educational theory’s “unintelligible multisyllabic jargon” (1979/1980, p471). Refusing to acknowledge other educationalists’ contributions to her ideas, se claimed intellectual autonomy: “I am my own university, I my own Professor (sic)” (1979/1980, p.354).
Now we are not for one moment calling Aston Warner a fascist but we are challenging her methodology because of its inherent dangers. We are challenging her unaccountability. In fact, despite the radical core of her ideas, connecting with Maori home life, she was incapable of reflecting on her role (other than a romantic image of herself working tirelessly at the frontier of civilization). Sue Middleton, in an excellent paper on the woman who inspired her into teaching theory, explores the contradictions of Ashton Warner in a balanced and relatively non-judgmental manner. She touches particularly on Ashton Warner’s racist stereotypes:
As Cathryn McConaghy has argued, “Sylvia constructed her notion of race usually within the tropes of the day” (2006, p. 74). Consistent with policies of her time, Sylvia’s teaching scheme was not intended to promote what today is referred to as biculturalism (or bilingualism). It was designed as “a bridge from the known to the unknown; from a native culture to a new; and universally speaking, from the inner man out” (Teacher, 1963, p. 28). The key words scheme, which tapped inner (psychic) dimensions of the child’s mind, was a transition: “They can’t bridge the gap between the pa and the European school without it” (Spinster, 1958, p. 115). Failure to cross over (into civilisation) meant going ‘back’ to nature (savagery).
The core of Ashton Warner’s approach, that home and culture are significant in education and that psychoanalysis may help us to understand how education and the home connect, remains to us valid. Eli Zaretsky wrote a mini-masterpeice in 1970’s about the work-home split that capitalism had brought about. Zaretsky also argued how the home had become devalued and how women and “women’s work” had become further devalued in the process. Education therefore becomes a separation from the home (private sphere), an initiation in the public sphere. Children are taught to disrespect localities and distance themselves from the domestic. (Interestingly, it is at first mediated at an elementary school level by a certain level of feminisation through a high degree of women teachers). Understanding how education often denigrates sexualities, gender, ethnicities and class is the key to transforming it. Unreflective teaching, on the other hand, is the key to perpetuating inequalities, or worse.
Book Burning and the Arrogance of Ignorance
Thornbury calls for teachers to abandon the course book, referring admiringly to Ashton Warner ‘s delight in burning them. This for us is rather distasteful and problematic. Firstly while we share Underhill’s observation that “textbooks are always written for someone else’s students”, this does not mean that we can’t enjoy Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because it wasn’t written for us personally. Rather we need some manner to integrate it into our own experience (Thornbury admits the same in a less provocative piece). Secondly, course books are documents of our changing perspectives, and while we laugh at the 70’s obsession with Dickens, Shakespeare and Wordsworth we should cry at the modern inclusion of Men are from Mars Women are from Venus, Blind Date and How to Train Your Husband. Moreover, some exercises seem (they never are) timeless in the applicability. Indeed modern faddism has written out many crucial teaching insights or quality presentations of grammar simply because they are “out-of-date”. Thirdly, course books are a way of sharing expertise and excellence in the profession, showing thematic/structural progression in the way they are put together. Finally, related to the third, they are instruments of teaching the teacher as much as they are (in our view more so) instruments for helping students.
To argue for “doing away with” (burning) the course book, in the knowledge that course books are sediments of prejudice, expertise and training, is merely to avoid the questions of the type of institutional changes required in the “profession”.
Happy to Divide ELT
One might contend that Dogme is indeed reflective. We certainly recognise that many of its practitioners set out to be. However, its intellectual gurus give no indication of being so. In Meddings’ revealingly entitled article, Dogme Still Able to Divide ELT, Meddings espouses the radical core of Dogme:
The order in which learners acquire language, and the elements of which that order is composed, are still hotly debated. But what is certain is that people come to English in a very different way than they did 40, 30 or even 20 years ago. Powerful socio-economic and technological trends – of which the internet is just one – have revolutionised the way the world learns English. Investment in schooling, both privately and state-funded, is higher than ever. English is out there 24/7,52 weeks a year.
Paradoxically, classrooms themselves are locally constituted sub-cultures nested within this global spread of English, and each has its own unique needs, goals, social structure and learning potential. Dogme is one way that the situated nature of language learning can accommodate, and exploit, the globalisation of English. Publishers need not feel excluded, but they need to reassess the wisdom of using 20th-century learning aids in a 21st-century world.
This sounds little more than the advertising slogan of the giant banking group HSBC: “HSBC, the world’s local bank”.
Indeed, we are given five subscription options (Punk, Talk, Deep, Full and Dream) depending on our levels of commitment. Despite claiming Dream Dogme is non-profit making and idealistic, Meddings can’t resist telling us that it “might pay off”.
Back to Basics
We hope in this article we have built on Sara Hannam’s original critique, that we have questioned the radical roots of Dogme ELT and revealed the limits of its particular film analogy. This is not to say there is not a positive core to Dogme but that it is little different than anything proposed nearly a century earlier. Indeed, it is the arrogance of the movement in failing to acknowledge/deliberately obfuscate that relation, which most concerns us. It is nothing but a sideshow (a romantic comedy), while the real show, organised by the unholy trinity of exam boards, publishers and teacher training institutions, crushes its audience with its monotony and inequality.
In our humble opinion, if Thornbury and Meddings want to offer us something radical in the world of ELT, then they should engage more with critical social theory and progressive movements, and spend less time in the cinema.