Romantic Comedy with a Sinister Twist. A Marxist Critique of Dogme ELT.

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

  1. If student is  very unhappy
  2. but finds happiness
  3. when they find reciprocal love with an incompetent language teacher ,
  4. then language class is a success
  5. 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.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

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).

Qouted in Jones and Middleton

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.


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60 responses to “Romantic Comedy with a Sinister Twist. A Marxist Critique of Dogme ELT.

  1. Happy International Women’s Day Marxist ELF. Thank you again for your kind comments about my critical DOGME discussion with Scott. It must be a case of “fools seldom differ” (or great minds think alike) as today is the very day that I have just resurrected that discussion in a new post “Critical DOGME or DOGME with Critical Sympathies” over at – I hope you have time to stop by.

    Yes I do think there are a lot of limitations in the DOGME film movement and I think both “Dancing in the Dark” and “Dogsville” are highly problematic in terms of the way they portray women as both victim and aggressor at the same time. As this is IWD that is where I will place the focus of my comments. I found Dancing in the Dark positively painful to watch as it was as if the lead character (brilliantly played by Bjork) had been disempowered in every possible way in her characterisation and then in her final downfall. Was this characterisation there to demonstrate how power or male domination works in society in an enlightening way? I think not. “Dogsville” and “Dancing in the Dark” pinpoint the oppression and abuse of women as a natural occurence in the hierarchy of power within communities and something human beings would all do given half the chance (and something women accept as their lot). Indeed in Dogsville, the “lord of the flies” logic is that left to its own devices, this is what will happen, and it is the women, more than the men, who are shown to collude in the downfall of the main female character.

    Arty yes, stylistic yes – innovative yes. But transformative or radical. Not for me. I think it is recycling a well worn and outdated stereotype of gender relations that I wish to be put into the dustbin of history 🙂

    • Sara, thanks for that. But I don’t see the relevance to Dogme ELT. Nowhere in my writings on dogme ELT do I implicitly or explicitly endorse Lars von Trier’s depictions of women. (I happened to dislike intensely both those films, for what it’s worth). More to the point, apart from the fact that neither of the films you discuss was a dogme film (von Trier effectively renounced Dogme 1995 with the making of ‘Dancer in the Dark’ in 2000), both came out after I’d already used the Dogme 1995 “Vows of Chastity” as a template for a similar (deliberately provocative) set of vows for ELT. The analogy went no further than the vows, and to read more into it than that is just casuistry.

      • As you will have noted Scott, I didn’t mention you in my analysis of the films. I just analysed the films themselves cos I like doing that too and am interested in cinema and Marxist ELFs fine analysis of different cinematic genres. This post was also about international women’s day for me cos that is where my headspace was when I wrote it.

        So no immediate connections made by me regarding your views of the representation of women in the films – unless we are reading different posts and yours has additional sentences in it – I don’t think I am reading anything into anything other than commenting on Marxist ELFs post. Perhaps cos we are having a discussion on my blog simultaneously you thought this was connected?

        I was venting my feelings about two films that made me feel disempowered as a female viewer. That was about me, not you 🙂 Thanks for the pointer about Van Trier’s declarations regarding DOGME 95 and further films made after that date. I think my point still stands. Same director, albeit having stepped aside from former vows etc – still questionable representation of women – which is about more than a cinematic style. That was my point. Hope that’s clearer!

        Now I’ll let you and Marxist ELF get back to your chat on DOGME. I am very much enjoying the dialogue.


      • OK, Sara, point taken, but if your critique of Lars van Trier’s representation of women has nothing to do with your critique of Dogme ELT, perhaps you should disassociate yourself from this statement (made in the Marxist TEFL group posting on Dogme): “Sara’s critique [is] 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.”

  2. Thanks for contributing to the ongoing debate as to what dogme is and what it isn’t. I don’t pretend to agree with your analysis (it’s a nonsense, for a start, to suggest that because Lars von Trier had issues with gender stereotyping, the whole Dogme ELT project is inherently flawed – and I think you take too seriously what was a rather frivolous blogpost about films) but I must take issue with this (closing) statement: “It is the arrogance of the movement in failing to acknowledge/deliberately obfuscate that relation [i.e. with progressive educational movements of the last century (I assume)] , which most concerns us.”

    As I have repeatedly said, dogme ELT draws on, and acknowledges, a rich tradition of educational theory and practice. This would be obvious if you had read the introduction to Teaching Unplugged (2009). Much earlier, in an article that appeared five years ago (and which is available on my website) I said the following: “….there is a lot here that echoes the precepts of other “transformative” pedagogies, such as humanistic education, critical pedagogy, pedagogy of possibility, border pedagogy, and so on. Indeed, one of the pleasures of the dogme discussion has been in having these connections pointed out. In short, there is nothing very original in dogme.” (Thornbury, S. (2005) Dogme: Dancing in the dark? Folio. 9/2, 3-5.)

    This comment window doesn’t allow me to add emphasis to that last sentence, so I shall just have to repeat it: “There is nothing very original in dogme.”

  3. marxistelf

    Yes happy IWD Sara!

    Just been on your site posting a comment (bit strong but felt provoked). Yes, seems like (as Jason suggests) it’s inadvertently Dogme week.

    Agree 100% with your comments. On the plus side, I feel “The Cleberation” is a great Dogme film which deals with gender and power in a far more subtle manner. It is a positive film about survival and how patriarchy (with its female as well as its male backers) can be challenged.

  4. A question a bit from left field, and honestly not meant to be provocative, but are there many women involved in the dogme ELT movement…?



  5. Scott, ELF and Sue,

    All this movement from one site to another is making me dizzy so a quick response to your post Scott and then I will retire to bed! There are plenty of individual women involved in DOGME, many of whom are vocal, animated and extraordinary human beings. So Sue well worth joining up 🙂

    But I think the point here is not about individual women in ELT – it is about personal/group ideologies and the ability to notice inequality, in this case sexism (at a slightly deeper level).

    Firstly I want to say that in relation to Marxist ELF’s interpretation of my discussion with you, you are best to talk to ELF directly Scott (and will no doubt continue to do). That is the beauty of the intertextuality of writing and thinking, and if I thought that ELF had grossly misrepresented me I would be the first to say so, but I do not. However, ELF is approaching this from a different angle, and uses a different argumentation style to my own – I respect that right so don’t want to interfere too much other than to clarify my own position if that’s OK. And I will use my style to do that.

    I will return to something that was part of the discussion we had in which I first mentioned my reservations with the analogy with the DOGME film movement due to its limitations in a number of respects, including the representation of women (last June). You responded by saying that you didn’t consider it a serious analogy but something that served a purpose at the time and enabled you to introduce the ideas of the ‘vows’. I said, and I still stand by this, that there was more to it than that and that we each choose our analogies because of our world view (or words to that effect). I argued that there is a tension between style and content here, and that the DOGME ELT movement was in a sense (IMHO) potentially making the same mistake as the DOGME film movement by placing style (or approach) above critical underpinnings and not exploring fully the theories that were put forward as the bedrock such as those espoused by Friere. Just as the theoretical framework of DOGME film making prevented the group from collectively undestanding the ways in which their attempts to provide liberating characters for women infact sought to entrap them further in stereotypes (albeit unintentionally in some cases), so I do feel that the lack of a robust framework of critical pedagogy may leave DOGME ELT open to not noticing how the tools can be used by those still continuing with an agenda that is not about equality at the deepest level (e.g. native speakerism). Now I refer us back to my own blog, not because I want to promote, but because I don’t want to repeat our other discussion there (which all are welcome to join).

    I hope that clarifies. I am enjoying listening to both you and ELF and am glad that you joined in here Scott. But I am also mindful of allowing this discussion to develop its own dialogue free from my intervention.

    Good night to all.


  6. I’m not going to enter into the debate on this one, but I just wanted to say that I was thoroughly impressed with the time and effort put into this piece.

    The piece raises some interesting points and gave me a look at aspects of teaching I generally don’t venture into much.

    I know it’s not really the critical engagement you are looking for, but really, bravo on the effort. If I have something to add to the debate I’ll swing back.

  7. marxistelf

    Thank you Scott for the time taken to further explain your position.

    We have taken the analogy of Dogme 95 simply because you have organised yourself around this (to be fair you have also made allusions to “being unplugged”, a trend amongst certain highly-paid musicians-again in the 90’s but this is not what gives your approach its name). If you had provided empirical support for your approach, we may have questioned the robustness of your findings and your methodology, but you did not. If you had identified exactly where you stood in relation to Dewey, Freire, Ashton Warner, Task Based Learning etc, we may have criticised the ontological basis of your approach- but you didn’t. You see, you cannot claim everyone for Dogme just because you feel like it:
    “one of the pleasures of the dogme discussion has been in having these connections (other theories) pointed out.

    By failing to locate yourself properly in relation to these theories (ie what are the differences between them and Dogme and what is it that gives dogme a special place- we are left with an analogy. But you have to be careful about analogies because they are highly revealing, that is their power and that is their validity.

    In your reply you seem to be retreating into “I was only being frivolous, Dogme ELT is what Dogme ELT is to the people who participate in it and it’s validity does not lie in its analogous object, Dogme 95.

    Here’s what your co-founder has to say about Dogme:
    “Richard Kelly, in his book on Dogme 95, comments: “Dogme 95 was driven by a… genuine desire to reset the rules of engagement. It was a game played in high seriousness, prankish, mock solemn, and yet ‘100% idealistic’.” Perhaps the same could be said about Dogme ELT.”

    Well, there we go again. Don’t bother explaining, just keep up the analogy.

    Well, in our treatment of your “·frivolity” we have questioned the social theory behind it. As you enjoy connections being pointed out, we have explained that Dogme sits just as easily with Fascism. We know that neither you nor Luke have any such inclinations and how abhorrent such an ideolgy is to you both, but perhaps you should realise the limits and history of romanticism and so-called pogressivism.

    We desperately require a new transformative model of ELT (capable of challenging inequality and domination) and Dogme stands in the way of such a model. It is an unhelpful distraction.

    • “If you had identified exactly where you stood in relation to Dewey, Freire, Ashton Warner, Task Based Learning etc, we may have criticised the ontological basis of your approach- but you didn’t.”

      I did. I do. In Teaching Unplugged, a published book, and I hope, deserving of more serious attention than a guest blog, called ‘6 films I like’, on a colleague’s website, and which made no pretensions to engage with or explain or justify dogme theory. In Teaching Unplugged, on the other hand, I lay out very clearly the links between dogme and Freire’s dialogic pedagogy, AshtonWarner’s child-generated reading program, and task-based learning. Again, I make none of the claims for originality which you accuse me of.

      If dogme is such “an unhelpful distraction”, why are you devoting so much attention to it? Haven’t you got bigger fish to fry?

  8. An interesting, detailed and thought-provoking piece, as always on Marxist TEFL. However, I’m afraid I must differ on the area of Critical Pedagogy:

    Whilst it is good to see a “critical” analysis of dogme ELT and also of “progressive” education such as that espoused by Dewey (some of whose theories were taken on board by the architects of state education in the US and UK to detrimental effect), I am not sure how Critical Pedagogy would be useful in an English language classroom.

    Now I am aware of ideological biases in education. For every stereotypical bearded left-wing sociology lecturer there is a clean-cut expensively-suited right-wing economics lecturer reducing human beings to mere capital that can be shifted about on the whims of their corporatist desires.

    I also know that a “neutral” stance is also a “position” of sorts, as there are usually underlying structural forces behind most of what we do.

    I also have strong affinities with Marxist ELF’s and Sara’s views on capitalism.

    Yet I disagree with critical pedagogy, which seems to be imposing a teacher’s political viewpoint on their students whether they asked for it or not. The standard on whether a course is good or not should be based on whether it has some level of academic integrity suitable for the students taking it. I agree absolutely that content and curriculum are very important, but the curriculum should help students to achieve autonomous learning. It should cover a wide variety of viewpoints, some of which the teacher might disagree with, but could open up debate nonetheless.

    There are probably very few instances of a left-wing teacher inspiring a student to become a revolutionary anti-capitalist. That kind of viewpoint comes from the student self-selecting reading matter that interests them. Marxist ELF and Sara (and, hopefully, myself) are educated enough to be able to select books with theories that inspire them or that interest them. Knowledge is power. The aim should be for students to achieve this for themselves too.

    • 26 letters (as you can see I have now moved on from reading “39 steps” and am reading “woman on the edge of time” so you are safe!!),

      My understanding of critical pedagogy, and how I use it in my classroom, is not as you describe it. If anything, I would say it has enabled me to step back and really allow the discussion to flourish amongst my students with me acting as a facilitator much more than I was able to do before I started developing my teaching skills in that direction. There is certainly not an “imposition” of ideas and actually what tends to happen is the different possible positions emerge amongst the student body in all their diversity without much help from me. I only really express an opinion if I am asked and usually at the end of the class. I tease out certain direction in the discussion, but the right not to contribute or to sit out a discussion is a basic part of all classroom procedure.

      I would say a pedagogy that chooses to “leave out” certain issues that are deemed too “left wing” as you express it are actually more impositional as the teacher is assuming they know what is best for the students and that the students may not wish to discuss this on their own terms (i.e. there are those amongst them that are supportive of this position or those who are interested in debating this position). Only the student can decide this. Respect for the student surely means that they can handle it and make up their own mind? That is the basis of an equal relationship.

      The approach I take is to introduce text (reading, visual) and encourage activities that critically deconstruct it – that means looking at how it functions at a number of levels rather than just the immediate. This is done through discussion. There are definitely questions and hints to guide students to perhaps take it to the next level, but as you said yourself (and I agree with you) “there are few instances of a teacher inspiring a student etc etc”. Well if you hold this to be true, then the introduction of materials and the critical questioning ceases to be imposition. It is imposition only when the teacher expects some outcome from the student they are not willing to give, or the teacher punishes the student for not sharing their viewpoint. This is not the case amongst critical pedagogists I know of. Quite the contrary.

      Using your model of non-engagement with “left wing views” (and this is a wide category not easy to pin down – are right wing views OK then?), the classroom continues to be teacher centred and separates thinking into easy to understand boxes rather than exploring it in all its glory. We have as much to learn from students as they do from us, and asking to know more about their experiences shouldn’t cut off debates they might want to have as they are deemed untouchable.

      I think its worth revisiting some of the key commentators in critical pedagogy for their take on this. Recognising all the positions within a given issue (left, right and otherwise) is a mainstay of this approach, indeed it seeks to break down such reductive categories anyway, as well as recognising all one’s own biases, including the decision to leave out any subject matter that might be of interest to a full and thorough debate.

      • marxistelf

        Yes, 26 letters, agree (not surprisingly) with Sara on this. Indeed can think of nothing worse (apart from right-wing versions of course) of “left-wing” Jean Brodies on a crusade to shape the minds of their class.

        The link on (in the aricle) Gramsci might be of great interest to you. He was keen to defend the pluralism of ideas in education (especially at an elmentary level). If we don’t have ideas to grapple with, in their entirety, rather than pre-fabricated versions to suit our own short-term interests, then we can’t develop our own ideas effectively.

      • Sara: Thanks for the clarifications and some detail of your personal approach to a “critical” pedagogy. I guess my uneasiness with it stems from personal experience I’ve had as both a student and a teacher. First of all, as a student: Your description of introducing a text and then getting students to critically deconstruct it is I suppose fine when the texts are difficult literary works. But all too often in college the ‘texts’ we had to ‘deconstruct’ were superficial sci-fi movies, reality tv shows and pop music lyrics. In other words, a postmodern stew. Now I know there is a little merit in being aware of ‘hidden messages’ behind everyday media, but using these as the content of lessons tended to legitimise them as something more than they were (i.e. cultural products of a consumer system). I think in an English-learning classroom, their primary use should be as a source of input to learn new vocabulary, notice the grammar, pronunciation etc.

        Secondly, as a teacher: In the UK, the state-funded providers of ESOL (FE colleges, adult ed. centres) have a tendency to impose what I suppose are “liberal” causes on teachers and students. To illustrate, there might be, all of a sudden, a drive to get tutors to do lessons on recycling. Posters will be made, photographs taken, and everybody (especially management) get to feel good about themselves. Now, ESOL students tend to be very reasonable people and (almost) everyone already agrees that recycling is a Good Thing. It’s just that, as mere ESOL students, they really don’t have much power to change things (beyond putting stuff in their alloted bins). In this way it is just another contribution to a superficial, dumbed-down curriculum, not to mention patronising them (i.e. assuming they don’t already know about recycling and climate change). And, as you point out, if the diktat was for something “right-wing” then this would be equally bad (and I also agree we need to move beyond those false dichotomies).

        Marxistelf: I read the extracts about Gramsci on google-books and did indeed find them interesting: thanks a lot for directing me there. I found myself agreeing with large aspects of his views on education, especially as you predicted on elementary education. It seems that he was an advocate of the working-class having the same educational opportunities (and ‘conservative’ curricula) enjoyed by the upper-classes. I too am a passionate supporter of this. “Progressive” education often leads to
        a dumbing-down process. Whilst some of its advocates may start with good intentions, it actually leads to a stratification whereby the elite receive a quality curriculum and the hoi-polloi get an intellectually sparse one. The state simply don’t trust that the working-class would be capable of handling rigorous curricula despite historical evidence to the contrary. Or, more sinisterly, they know very well that they could handle it but refuse to offer it to keep people in their place.

  9. This made me laugh:

    “we would suggest step 3 might place impossible demands on teachers (whether incompetent or not); especially where there is more than one student.”

    Wish I could add something to the discussion, but you’ve all lost me. Interesting to read though

    • marxistelf

      Thanks Alex,

      For various reasons we edited out further remarks like this but delighted you enjoyed the survivor.

      And if the discussion has lost you we fear we have already lost the majority of teachers, i.e. gone too abstract.

    • 26 letters. Just a quickie as I’m on a tiny device with a miniscule screen. My activities with text are not at all as you describe (and I know what u mean as I’ve had a few of those lessons myself). I often ask students to select texts. I’ve used both written & visual text to great effect. From news, historical and literary genres. I use them for both content and language work ad I assume that no text is empty of meaning and that meaning is brought to it by the reader. Interpretation is all. I also see my student’s output both in terms of meaning and form, written or spoken. So why not do both in the language classroom as communication is definitely in need of them as a couple?!

      • Also a quickie Sara: I wasn’t implying that *you* do this in your lessons, just some experiences I’ve had.

        I also ask students to select their own texts as well, hopefully it motivates them to find stuff that is interesting to them and they can share it with their classmates.

        I take your point that for output one would perhaps need/want critical thinking skills. I was thinking in terms of using popular tv shows, movies, songs etc. as a source of input and language acquisition. As a rule, I do keep these skills separate. I’ll have to go away and think some more however to justify this in a longer reply!

  10. lukemeddings

    I would echo Scott in asking to be judged (for such is the tone of your critique) on the basis of the book we published a year ago. In what sense is the classroom practice we outline there sinister, or – although a reader as attentive as yourself might note with interest the citation of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony – merely romantic?
    Asking to be judged on the basis of the book doesn’t mean that we are not responsible for our other work, but it’s disingenuous not to take register and context into account. Writing in a conversational or even explicitly playful style does leave text open to the kind of rigorous deconstruction to which you subject it, but it also leaves text open to the possibility of being enjoyed, which is less perilous an experience than you imply. To be absolved of Fascist sympathies in a comment thread is insulting, as you must on reflection acknowledge. It’s one thing to make the personal political, another to make the political personal.
    My suspicion is that the project rankles so much with you because we identify many of the same problems with ELT, including the corporatisation of expertise and its reduction to monetisable units, whilst either drawing different conclusions from yourself, or choosing to focus our conclusions for the most part on classroom practice.
    We stand by having written a book that combines a concise summary of theory (explicitly acknowledging, as Scott consistently has, numerous influences) with accessible classroom practice; a book that is providing teachers, teacher trainers and teacher managers not with another technique, but with a framework for a less technical and formalised approach to ELT. People say they are finding it helpful because it prompts, encourages or validates alternative practice; but also typically that they are adapting it – using it, in other words, in the spirit in which it was written.
    In my view there are dangers in the notion that only revolutionary coincidence on a vast scale can bring about meaningful change. The remoteness of this contingency means that all other initiatives may be rejected, all other solutions withheld. Yet your site states: ‘Our ideas are rooted in the day to day experiences of ordinary teachers and language learners.’ So I will finish by venturing a question: what do you advocate in terms of classroom practice that advances your critique of ELT?

  11. marxistelf

    Thank you Luke and Scott for your further clarification of the Dogme project and, of course, congratulations on the tenth anniversary of that same project. This is no small achievement in a world (the world of ELT) of quickly dissolving loyalties and interest.
    Firstly, may we stress the critique of Dogme comes naturally from a reader asking what the relation between our article on Stopwatch TEFL and Dogme was. We had already said in an interview with Alex Case that we found Dogme “just one more technique”. The purpose of the article was to clarify this position.
    Secondly, we take your point about choosing writing outside your theoretical canon, “Teaching Unplugged”, but maintain that the sources chosen (national newspaper and interview about films on a popular ELT blog) are valid. The first because of the “stocktaking” approach and wide audience and the second because it was candid and revealing- cinema is obviously an important element for Scott and yourself, otherwise you would not be so moved to name the movement “Dogme”. It is no accident that Adrian Underhill describes his approach as “organic”, he is keen on growing organic food. The organic food movement is important to him. We were also tempted, we must confess, in drawing analogies between rock stars and “unplugged” but for reasons of brevity we were dissuaded.
    Thirdly, we have had the opportunity to read in detail the postings on the website teaching unplugged but we find nowhere a critique of Dewey, Task Based Learning, or Sylvia Ashton Warner. This leaves the theoretical canon, which was not to hand at the time of writing. We will rectify this shortly. Could you please remind us of where we can find (i.e. what page)
    1. A critique of Dewey’s Hegelianism and why his failure to identify power may have led his work to being so easily (but unjustly) appropriated by all sorts of political persuasions, including fascists. There was a critique wasn’t there? You didn’t just recruit him, cherry pick a few choice quotes to support your methodology? We say this because we seem to recall there were also positive comments from Bill Gates and TS Eliot about Dogme. It was a long time ago, we could be mistaken.
    2. A critique of Sylvia Ashton Warner’s ethnocentrism and her mono-dimensional quasi-Freudianism. If not this, where did you challenge her for lack of accountability as a person and as a teacher? Where exactly did you establish the principles of accountability in Dogme, on which page?
    3. We know you were influenced by Freire and his concept of dialogue, (dialogue was a key concept for Freire and it is for Obama too, do you think there are any differences?) where do you deal with critical pedagogy’s “anti-methodolgy” and its distaste with the fetishising of techniques/methodologies over social relationships? (Social relationships being more than teacher/student).
    4. Did you apply this anti-methodology to Task Bassed Learning, exposing it for its failure to challenge the relations of domination both inside and outside the classroom? If so, what page?
    We sincerely hope you engaged with those theories rather than cherry picked what suited your methodology? Again we can’t remember and the page references would be useful.
    Fourthly, no, we do not accuse you of fascism; therefore we cannot absolve you of the same. When we wrote about Dewey’s ideas being used in such a way we were keen to stress that his views, too, were far from this. What we are arguing is that you are not responsible for the death of an innocent bystander if a joy rider steals your car and runs somebody over. You should, however, not leave it in certain areas with the keys in the ignition. For example, don’t dismiss films about teachers and fascism, don’t encourage book burning, don’t dismiss accountability within and outside of the classroom, don’t promote approaches which are not subject to robust analysis.
    So does Dogme rankle with us and have we an alternative methodology? Dogme does not rankle with us as a technique but it does when it purports to be a theory with radical intentions. If it were serious about challenging “corporatisation of expertise and its reduction to monetisable units” its founders might speak out against the vested interests (Cambridge Exams, International House, The British Council, The Publishers, The Corporate Owners of Many Schools) which currently dominate the industry, it might speak out against native speakerism, against low pay, against four week training TEFL-cert courses, against TEFL adventurism. It might use its voice to challenge the status quo rather than charm and entertain it. Ultimately, it wants to be radical but makes no effort to be so. It takes no risks.
    As explained elsewhere, we subscribe to a “principled eclecticism”. Whilst obviously our selection and use of those techniques is informed by our principles, the principles remain more important than a technique. Dogme fits in easily with Marxism but Marxism cannot fit in easily with Dogme, simply because it asks too much of Dogme, it demands that Dogme go beyond the fetishism of technique and embrace accountability and social change.
    Finally, we seek not to “fry fish” nor await the revolution, we seek to apply the insights of Marxism to the everyday struggles and experiences of teachers and students.
    Despite our clear differences, your contributions to this debate have been most welcome and appreciated. It is through open and honest debate that we can sharpen our perspectives and learn from others.

  12. Another scholarly piece, and another afternoon spent flicking back and forwards between links and thinking, when I should have been writing up my syllabus for next semester… another reason why the blogosphere is actually bad for one’s teaching 😉

    I’ll just say this…. I am always interested in how you pick your targets.

    • marxistelf

      Hi Darren,


      Yes we agree about the problems of researching/reading blogs it can be a danger as well as a pleasure. Ironically, after neglecting the pile of marking on the table, failing to “work with” and print that article we knew our students would like, we turn up and think to ourselves “how about a bit of dogme”.

      As for targets, we would prefer to think of them as moments in the life of TEFL which crystalise an unease/downright sense of outrage we have with the industry. For example, when we wanted to criticise “Stopwatch TEFL” we found a piece (or three) which expressed our ambivalence as teachers to this manner of teaching. On the one hand, is the sense of a beautifully crafted lesson and a lesson “well done”, and on the other, the stark truth that we were replicating alienating practices of accumulation. It seemed to crystalise some real contradiction, almost like Charles Dickens’ Miss Haversham, with her clocks stuck at the dreaded moment and the wedding cake, uneaten on the table. A beautiful crystalisation.

      I suppose this is half in answer to Diarmuid’s point, but Scott’s candid reply to Lindsey Clanfield’s six things seemed to crystalise exactly what was wrong with Scott’s approach. A failure to see the dangers and limitations of his wide brush stroke appoach, a failure to look at whose house he was painting, pay more attention to the contents of the paint and care about what surfaces he had accidentally painted over. All in a desire to fill the room with colour of course. And that one giant brush stroke, Jean Brodie is a “has been”, was as crystalising as the uneaten wedding cake in Miss Haversham’s decaying mansion.
      We had been looking for what most gave us unease about Dogme and we found it here.

      Thank you Darren, you always encourage us to think in a fresh manner.

  13. I find it ironic that it is a Marxist collective which is taking dogme to task over its alleged failure to provide a rigid critique of all of its influences. Marxists are not known for taking a very critical look at the life and times of the great Karl Marx and often eschew any detailed consideration of his relationship with women, with comrades and with authority.

    I come at this as a member of the dogme collective -which, believe it or not, extends beyond Thornbury and Meddings. And I come at it as somebody who recognises that cherry picking is fairly inevitable. Let’s look above: how much cherry picking did Marxist EFL do? Where is the attempt to situate Thornbury’s dogme project within his wider canon? On what grounds did you decide that his film article was more pertinent than anything else he had written? Presumably on the same grounds that led you to be dismissive of his assertion that you were treating this particular interview far too seriously.

    Let’s be frank – dogme is NOT a revolutionary force, but then neither does it claim to be a revolutionary force. You argue that dogme is “just” another technique, but this betrays, I feel, a rather superficial understanding of what dogme is.

    Dogme is not a coda nor a technique. It is a collective of individuals who have gathered around an article calling for an alternative approach to the teaching of language via mass produced materials. It doesn’t aim at world domination nor does it aim to convert. It is a group of people communicating with each other and exploring each other’s views.

    As Marxists you can be – and have been- as dismissive as you wish to be of dogme and its founders and members. But it goes without saying that this dismissiveness is no more than a marxist perspective on the whole thing. It doesn’t therefore follow that it is the correct perspective or even an accurate perspective. It most certainly isn’t a rigorously objective perspective.

    It’s not that I disagree entirely with what you have written. I would like to see dogme as a more demanding, critical voice that had far greater targets than a materials-lite classroom. But that is not how the collective is at the moment – nor at any time during the last ten years! I don’t share the common view that this is because of deficiencies in Thornbury and Meddings – it is because the people who form the dogme collective did not join (in the main) in order to wage class war.

    Dogme, at its inception, seemed to me to be based upon some very clear principles: the invasion of classrooms by pre-published materials was actually detrimental to the advancement of language skills. Dogme stood up and argued that this could be/should be stopped and that another way was possible. Now, it may be -as you say- that a hundred years earlier, the publishing hegemony was also in place and that a group of people also stood up and said that this was wrong and detrimental to the learning process, but I don’t think that this ever happened. In that, dogme was unique as a movement.

    Dogme attracted people like myself because we were struggling with the use of coursebooks and thought that this might be because of OUR deficiencies. The whole message of dogme attracted too because it questioned a Given (or a range of givens). Finally, it located change within individuals who were working together AS INDIVIDUALS towards a common goal. Whilst it had founders, the format of the collective meant that these founders were on an equal footing with the rest of the members and could be (and have been) subject to criticism. Dogme was a collective that I felt I could work with.

    Now years have gone past and I have much less to offer dogme and feel that it speaks to me with far less urgency. Perhaps I have grown up and moved on; perhaps the collective has grown up and moved on; perhaps attrition has taken its toll. But dogme has been of great use to me. It has introduced me to concepts and writers that I may never have come across.

    I feel slightly aggrieved when I come across critiques of dogme that are really just critiques of what Scott and Luke have to say about it. Things are made worse when it seems that the writers of the critique have a fundamentally flawed understanding of what dogme actually is. And when it becomes acceptable to judge somebody/something by applying standards that nobody is capable of living up to, well, I wonder at the religiosity of it all.

    • marxistelf

      Excellent points Diarmud, and fantastic to have the points of view of rank and file Dogme practitioners (what dogme means to them). You will forgive us if we don’t respond immediately, in the hope that others will offer their experiences and insights.

  14. “Could you please remind us of where we can find (i.e. what page)
    1. A critique of Dewey’s Hegelianism and why his failure to identify power may have led his work to being so easily (but unjustly) appropriated by all sorts of political persuasions, including fascists. There was a critique wasn’t there? …
    2. A critique of Sylvia Ashton Warner’s ethnocentrism and her mono-dimensional quasi-Freudianism. If not this, where did you challenge her for lack of accountability as a person and as a teacher? Where exactly did you establish the principles of accountability in Dogme, on which page?… etc”

    I’m assuming this rhetoric of interrogation is a deliberate self-parody. Do I have to do extra tank duty if I get the answers wrong?!

    • marxistelf

      No Scott, “tank duty” no, merely your “duty” to be self-critical as a teacher and realise ideas are not produced in a vacumn, nor genetically modified to suit a particular maket.

  15. Analogy DOES matter. The Dogme film movement was a flash in the pan, a moment, a joke. Dogme is 10 years old and still uses the same name. Disassociation from an apostate creed is a sine qua non of effective analogy. Isn’t it?
    I think in its insistence on individual empowerment and its view of the classroom collective Dogme has a lot to offer, especially for classroom events, magic moments, teacher- student dialoge. Whether this works as an all-out ‘apporach’ in large classes and with certain types of teachers is, to me, far less convincing. But Luke can’t really get away from the past, however glorious the present. To have quoted, admiringly, Sylvia Ashton-warner’s delight at book burning espouses, for this commentator, an image that as both a writer and a reader I have been able to disassociate from Thornbury/Meddings, and is an image which is both internally contradictory and distasteful.
    Which is just to say again (as, on balance, an admirer of the Dogme discussion) that yes, analogies and images DO matter since they provide the colour, background music and flavour of what is being suggested.

    • To put Jeremy’s mind at rest, Sylvia never promoted book-burning – in fact, it was the books she saved over almost all else. Her words:

      I burnt most of my infant room material on Friday. …. I burnt all the work of my youth. Dozens of cards made of three-ply, and hand-printed and illustrated. Boxes of them. There will be only the following list in my infant room:

      Chalk Books Blackboards Charts Paper Paints Pencils Clay Guitar Piano

      And when a child wants to read he can pick up a book with his own hands and struggle through it.

      (pp. 118.119 Teacher 1963, 1980 London: Virago)

    • dfogarty

      Well. I’d dispute Jeremy’s assertion that analogy DOES matter. I think it is the analogist’s intention which really matters. An analogy can mean different things to different people. If we want to explore WHAT is was intended to mean, we need to go to the analogist and ask them.

      Now that I am in a contrary mood, I think I will dispute Jeremy’s other assertion that Dogme is 10 years old. The dogme list is ten years old, but dogme itself – assuming that nobody wants to quibble with my assertion that dogme is actually the dogme collective- is in a constant rebirthing process as people come and people go.

      And I’m even going to go as far as to assert that the actual act of book-burning is not as big a deal as it is made out to be. Old age pensioners in the UK were reported to be buying books from charity shops and burnign them as cheap fuel this winter. Do we conclude from this that these OAPs had been driven into the clutches of right-wing extremism by the sharp drop in temperatures?

      I think we need to stop reading too deeply into people’s words and actions. The world often goes wrong when we try to interpret other people’s thoughts and deeds without even considering the contexts in which they take place…

      • marxistelf

        Hi Diarmuid,

        Firstly, we know we owe you a reply to your first post but still believe it would be better first to encourage other teachers to express what Dogme means for them. With this in my mind, how do you feel about Charles Jannuzi’s comments.

        Secondly, we must disagree with your view:

        “it is the analogist’s intention which really matters. An analogy can mean different things to different people. If we want to explore WHAT is was intended to mean, we need to go to the analogist and ask them.”

        Leaving aside the fact that this is not always practical, there are also the issues of the analogy itself (its “baggage”, its place in society which is independent of its user) and
        the need to communicate or argue in a clear manner.

        For example, were a colleague to say to you that the “reception downstairs is “infested” with Chinese students”, would you merely ascertain whether he meant crowded or full?
        We know you wouldn’t, as evidenced by your excellent approach to nuanced teaching, found over at Critical Mass ELT:

        “So, Josep, when you say that “We bringing civilisation to the indians,” what exactly do you mean? Do you mean ” brought” or “are bringing” or “will bring”? What do you mean by “the indians?” Why are they called Indians?” Are there any other terms that could be used to refer to them? Which do you think are more acceptable to them?”

        You are being (in your “contrariness” a little contradictory here).

        Moreover, while a friend, whilst smiling, might say to you they felt “like a fish out of water” in their new job, you might, of course, ask for clarification to solve the apparent incongruence. However, when told he felt he had evolved and found himself as a person, hopefully, you might suggest he find a more appropriate “expression”.

        Dogme is not a “neutral” analogy (there is no such thing), and it requires robustness if it is to represent a movement. Jeremy’s comment that Dogme, as an analogy, has had its day, could therefore be highly appropriate.

        Finally, we believe the last two sentences of your comment are spot on:
        ” I think we need to stop reading too deeply into people’s words and actions. The world often goes wrong when we try to interpret other people’s thoughts and deeds without even considering the contexts in which they take place…”

        For this reason you should not suggest to Jeremy, that book burning is okay because senior citizen’s might do it to keep warm. This is an example of thinking too deeply and taking things out of context. Burning ideas is not burning paper, there is little relation between the two. Scott has been persuaded by Jeremy to see the dangers in his “heady rhetoric” (something commendable on Scott’s part).

        Note: For those readers thinking Jeremy or ourselves are being a little abstract here, then please follow the link below:

      • dfogarty

        You may disagree, but to paraphrase Unamuno, you haven’t convinced. It isn’t always practical to enquire as to the analogists’s intent, but in this case, it clearly is. And I don’t believe that analogies are ever delivered entirely independent of their users. Less so when one creates a modern analogy. I repeat my assertion that cherry picking is quite the norm and not really something that dogme needs to be taken to task for.

        Were a colleague to mention how Chinese students were “infesting” the place, I wouldn’t be satisfied with the explanation that they merely meant “full” because that is not what “infest” means. At the very least, a questioning approach might make my careless colleague understand that there were undesirable connotations to what s/he was saying. I’m not sure how this is contradictory unless my colleague only has a less-than-perfect grasp of the language. For example, I would not expect somebody to come out of a popular film and say that the cinema was infested; nor would I expect somebody to say that they felt “infested” after a particularly big meal. For native speakers, I would suggest that the culture gives us a number of nuances to each word that we use.

        Is this what you mean by the “baggage”? If so, I’m not convinced either by the idea that a word’s bagage is completely independent of its user. If anything, to use Vygotskian terms, it is both tool-AND-result. It serves a purpose (independent of the user) but is used by the user to serve a purpose. And “infest” means presenting a danger than needs to be eradicated.

        And rather than taking ideas out of context, I was trying to stress the need to PUT ideas into context. Book-burning, per se, is not wrong or ethically bad. As you so rightly state, idea-burning IS wrong . So we are left with the question of whether S-A-W was burning paper or ideas. I think that many of us who have used coursebooks would question whether they contained many ideas. And so, for me, S-A-W’s arson should not be confused with the book-burning in the 3rd reich.

        Scott may share the contemporary fetish of books and feel that he should recant, but I don’t really think that this is necessary (apart from for misrepresenting Ashton-Warner). He seemed to be saying that coursebooks are crap and speak to nobody and there’s nothing to be lost from burning them if we are able to replace them with materials that speak to the learners. I think I still agree.

        As for CJ’s comments – well, I disliked his rhetorical style on dogme, but this may have been because he was assuming a lot of shared ground where none existed. Regarding his point about censorship, I think I agree. There is certainly a deal of self-censorship on dogme as well as moderators closing down debate if they deem it irrelevant to whatever (their) dogme might be. But I think dogme is still a teachers’ collective an speaks loudest to teachers rather than to theoreticians.

      • DFogarty writes:

        >>As for CJ’s comments – well, I disliked his rhetorical style on dogme, but this may have been because he was assuming a lot of shared ground where none existed. Regarding his point about censorship, I think I agree. There is certainly a deal of self-censorship on dogme as well as moderators closing down debate if they deem it irrelevant to whatever (their) dogme might be. But I think dogme is still a teachers’ collective an speaks loudest to teachers rather than to theoreticians.<<

        I wonder if it wasn't you making the assumptions about shared ground. I think any clique that gets hostile about rhetorical style and tries to impose self-censorship is quite ready for 'global ELT' but is not about freedom, liberation or radical reform.

  16. Of course, in my previous comment, I meant that I have been UNable to disassociate the image of book burning from ScottLyke’suke heady rhetoric. And as writers themselves it is high time they recanted on this one!!!!

  17. marxistelf

    Thank you for clarifying this Scott, can you please ammend the following accordingly (found at )

    “What is left, then, of coursebooks, when you take away their texts, their tasks, their teachings? Not a lot. What happens if you remove them entirely? The visionary New Zealand educationalist, Sylvia Ashton Warner, burnt hers and discovered that “teaching is so much simpler and clearer as a result. There’s much more time for conversation … communication. (You should have heard the roaring in the chimney! ”

    You should be more careful with these things, it really is like leaving the key in the ignition.

  18. Having just read Jeremy’s comment that “analogy does matter” I must confess to feeling a little ashamed.

    In my own post about Dogme, I inferred that the insistently unplugged teacher trying to operate in a generic EFL chain school was essentially “a giraffe with sunglasses trying to bluff his way into a polar bears only nightclub.”

    Also, I think somewhere else some time ago I stated something along the lines of “classes built predominantly around coursebook-only content and activities very quickly become emptier than a hermit’s address book”…

    I now see that these late-night attempts at amusing myself with a keyboard could be doing me harm. Should I recant?

    Being an ELTer of relatively small consequence and influence, with few prospects, I’m hopeful I can slip under the rader on this one…

  19. I never could figure out what ‘dogme’ as a movement in ELT was actually about, but on the other hand, it is rather hard to deny that it is a movement. If it is a movement mostly made up of classroom teachers, and not just ELT opinion-makers, then I say more power to it. I’m hoping that the next era of dogme involves a lot less self-promotion and a lot more open discussion (a bit too much censorship in the name of moderation on their list if you ask me).

    • Can you clarify Charles? Sure, there are a lot of shouty voices over there, and what is the internet for if not self-promotion ; P

      But I have never found the dogme list to be especially heavy-handed in it’s moderation.

      • The dogme list seems fairly open until you actually get down to issues dealing with the specifics of teaching and learning of second languages. Then you see a reactionary core there. I also think often the ones with the most to say in such discussions about ideas about ideas about ideas about ideas about…etc. etc. ideas about language teaching do very little teaching themselves.

  20. marxistelf

    Hi Darren and Charles,

    Can’t really comment on the handling of the dogme list but will say, bit off topic, Charles has his own very clear analytical perspective on the relation between theory and teaching. Follow the link:

    Again, hopelessly, off topic, we also think Charles’ analysis of changes to the University system in Japan are highly valuable:

    And if you weren’t already aware of Charles’ writings, Darren, I’m sure you and many readers would find them extremely interesting and well-argued.

    Finally Charles , and far more on topic, really loved how in the middle of an extremely well constructed piece on assessment in Japan (Devising Multiple-choice Questions, Quizzes and Tests, available on Charles’ blog)
    you quite clearly say:
    “It might depend on the goals and study-abroad opportunites your students have. I object to the American-bias of the TOIEC, but that doesn’t mean it is going to go away”

    We like your keen sense of the problems of teaching within an institutional and wider power straitjacket and hope that these type of issues were not “censored” by the dogme list.

    • In terms of concepts, many are actually quite conservative. See, for example, the discussion of structuralist baggage like ‘phoneme’ at that yahoogroup. However, the two names most associated with Dogme were not so difficult. Still, see ST’s ‘A-Z’ stuff to see just how conservative he actually is in intellectualizing and conceptualizing ELT and LL. Besides, giving academic citations to Vygotsky and Freire doesn’t necessarily create a pedagogy of liberation. Academia in the US–such as schools of education–is more than proof of that. ST and Dogme’s more well known advocates might ally with the ‘liberals’ of language and education, making them somewhat akin to Stephen Krashen or Mario Rinvolucri/humanizing language teaching. That is about all , I think, we can get from corporate-sponsored ELT, its publications, its conferences, its name academics, teacher trainers, materials writers and consultants. Ultimately it’s still about exploiting the masses’ labor (such as classroom teachers who have very little say in academic debates or what publishers publish), their ability to pay school fees, act as consumers etc. in order to profit a small elite who have majority power over ELT to say what is knowledge, what is ELT, etc.

      • marxistelf

        Not surprisingly, we echo your sentiments entirely.

        We would, however, ask you to rethink your position on Krashen. We believe it both unwise and unfair to lump together Rinvolucri and Krashen. Yes, Krashen is a “liberal”. But a liberal who is also an outspoken critic of neo-liberal policies. He defends bilingual education in the US, he opposes the Iraq War, and he argues that class is the major determinant in educational “success”. He doesn’t just argue this with friends but makes it a key part of his work.
        Mario is a representative of what we call, “Body Shop Capitalism”, capitalism with a “human face”. This is not about challenging institutional power but appealing to ethical consumerism. Mario’s role in giving “intellectual” cover for the highly questionable TEFL International is all part of this “greenwashing” of naked exploitation.

        Whilst as Marxists, we have our theoretical and political disputes with Noam Chomsky, we never dismiss him as a liberal. We are fighting alongside each other while continuing a political and theoretical debate.
        Krashen is in the progressive camp too, fighting against vested interest and defending principled positions. We can argue against his politics and theories, but we should not lump him in with others of a “less radical persuasion”.

      • I wouldn’t put Chomsky in the liberal camp. But I do get a bit tired of those on the ‘left’ who think it somehow solves something in a discussion by citing Chomsky’s latest political piece. It’s as if they hope him to be some sort of prophet or messiah on the near-non-existent American left.

        Both Krashen and Chomsky also, to quite an extent, represent the status quo of their respective areas of academia. Krashen strikes me as a naive positivist–still trying, with great futility, to prove that input under his theoretical model explains and supports SLA. Chomsky, on the other hand, is a naive rationalist–still trying to impost a formalist structure on externalized language and tell us it reflects ‘language competence’ as part of the human mind. This might be a worse crime than Krashen’s trivial pursuit of near-worthless Spearman correlations and imposing his name on all the work of his graduate students. Because Chomsky has largely created a major form of ‘linguistics’ that has nearly nothing to do with language–such as a phonology that neglects phonetic reality or the physiology of speech.

        Now academics–especially American ones–have come to think that their world is somehow outside the market exigencies of current America, thus allowing them greater room to operate politically. I would argue, however, that the university system of the US is simply distorted in a way that most don’t recognize its capitalist nature. A good analogy might be health care or the home loan market. University education in the US is a huge bubble–with hundreds of billions of dollars of unpaid student loans from the very same financial system that gave us the past two years of crisis. It is also a system marked by unsustainable bubble-like growth in costs–with the students only now realizing they can not borrow enough to keep up with
        the inflation of the costs. In fact, the health care analogy is beyond a mere analogy. It reflects much of the same fundamentals.

        I think both Krashen and Chomsky might accomplish more if they actually sat down and critiqued the system that butters their bread.

    • A couple more things in follow-up.

      First, thanks for making complimentary note of the piece about changes to the higher education system in Japan. I took a decidedly hostile stance towards the neoliberal currents of most approaches to university reform. The original piece was published at MRZINE, a web magazine of the Monthly Review. I also featured a re-worked version and a follow-up piece at the Japan HEO Blog.

      As for the broadsides at ‘research’ and ‘knowledge’ in establishment ELT, they are found in current form (somewhat expanded from the 2002 piece) at here. I cite the links and an excerpt for those who might be interested:

      12 September 2009
      Breaking down the ‘theory vs. practice’ distinction

      by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

      What separates ‘academic theory’ from ‘effective practice’ in language teaching is this: the academic tries to make things explicit in the form of ‘air tight’ arguments conforming to the requirements of genres accepted for publication.

      This means that the academic presents ‘theory’ in rather formulaic discourse away from the classroom. Academic discourse is often sold as ‘objective science or ‘substantiated knowledge’, but often it only presents the outward appearance of objectivity (indeed, most science is actually dogmatic arguments supported by selective evidence). Academic prose, even in the form of the ‘research report’ often presents overgeneralized theories which are uncritically accepted as ‘objective’ only because the formal trappings of academic genres have been met faithfully. Little or no research results from current second language acquisition research, for example, actually generalizes to real language teaching and learning worldwide. However, the theories or meta-theories put into service of turning such evidence and results into truth assertions are built on the assumption that they are generalizable. Hence generalizability is actually a begged question.

      13 June 2009
      Why is ‘research’ in ELT/TEFL/TESOL/AL/SLA so irrelevant?

      by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

      While most of the research in support of and about ELT is produced in academia, most actual language teaching and language learning are done outside academia. Even when FLs get taught at universities, the people who often end up with the teaching duties are not in the sort of university posts that are meant for research.

      However, I believe the single biggest issue is the institutional approach to science and knowledge which falls under the overwhelming intellectual influences of the past half century. In short, research that is supposed to be in support of ELT is largely irrelevant, invalid and not applicable to teaching and learning because of two academic traditions: structuralism and behaviourism.

  21. First off, thanks for the elegant summation Charles – we are facing tough times in Japanese Higher Education….

    Now, about this analogy. I understand that burning – effigies, books, flags, disco records – is a significant and loaded act. But can it not be a liberating one too?

    The problem we have in ascribing intent to analogies is that we, perhaps, don’t know one another as well as we think we do. Marxist TEFL have blogged before on this topic … perhaps some of us assume that we are part of a community of shared values and write our blogs, tweets and comments accordingly, in a free and easy style. This kind of disagreement shows the dangers of that.

    There are those taking part in this discussion who use real names, disclose personal and professional details, engage in banter and chit chat online. But does that mean we actually know them? Does that mean we can safely interpret every message they attempt to convey? No, it doesn’t … but this is the danger of human communication, especially text-based communication. But I would have to suggest an idea of the whole person would give us a better chance though. A question I encourage my students to ask whenever they face a text is ‘Who wrote it?’……

    Others keep their identities hidden. They have their reasons, I’m sure. I know nothing about the Marxist TEFL’rs apart from what they write here (although the occassional changes in tone suggest that one is quite chippy and another more gracious). Looking forward to seeing which one replies to this comment ; D

    • Many people assume a different identity when they engage in contentious discussion, such as is often found at a blog. It’s quite common for political bloggers. And pen names as nom de guerre have been around a lot longer than the internet.

      What interest me now is the use of the web 2.x , semantic web and social web to create the sort of networks conference-attending academics have long enjoyed. I think one issue is it leads to a frenetic pursuit of relationships and networks and favored connections at the sacrifice of any redeeming content. Perhaps even academia has arrived at this point–look at all the papers now published with long lists of co-authors, with most of the co-authors not having even read the paper their name is on. Or how about academics writing a paper and then padding it artificially with references to certain names, expecting the same in return, all in order to get their scholarly index up.

      The contentless web–I like that term and will have to use it again.

      • I still worry that there is a credibility issue with anonymity. I understand that there might be a power imbalance – the ELT ‘superstars’ are in a more comfortable position from which they can speak freely, the anonymous blogger may be speaking from a more precarious spot. And, I’ll admit, blogging with my own name makes me a lot more guarded than I might otherwise be…. not necessarily a bad thing, as personally it makes me reflect more carefully on my words and consider exactly what I am trying to say before I hit ‘send’.

        So, a long and proud tradition, yes. Very thoroughly considered, yes. Still… a niggle. Who are they? What is thier motivation?

        As for the countless web, yes, I’m with you. There is an awful lot of backslapping and uncritical soundbite-ism. Twitter is great for a lot of things, but I have to admit I can’t bear those hash-tag chats in which teachers trade aphorisms and feel warm and fuzzy. Sorry, but there it is.

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  23. marxistelf

    Hi Darren,
    Yes, we should all feel uncomfortable with such anonymity. As Marxists, we do not like the anonymity of the secret ballot (neither for that matter did John Stuart Mill, the archliberal) because it negates open and honest democracy. But there are times when it becomes a positive tool, a protection against intimidation. It is in the spirit of this that we remain anonymous, not proud of its use but willing to use it, in the short term, to express our ideas without fear of reprisal.
    You might also wish to consider the following

    Hope you like it!!
    Marxist Elf

  24. marxistelf

    Thanks Darren,
    Yes, it is a pretty solid defence of anonymity (as solid as they come). But, as always, we shouldn’t fetishize such a position, rather we should recognise its uses and limitations. After all, it makes a difference to now know who the writers “really were” even though their anonymity served a purpose at the time of writing.

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  28. Clearly I’m over a year late in joining this debate but given the nature of the internet and the nature of “constant revolution”, I’m sure this doesn’t matter.

    Having read through the hair-splitting political critiques of Dogme in some posts here, I can only hope that teachers aspiring to an interactive and engaging approach are not put off by these comments, which would never help them when stood, pen-in-hand, in front of the whiteboard.

    I recall an inspiring philosophy tutor I had university telling all us over-keen-to-criticise undergrads: “it’s easy to destroy an argument. It’s much harder to prove that it can work.” I’m sure any Hegelian would agree.

    A shame. A shame to shoehorn Marxism’s tenets into a cannon to use as a weapon against an approach which only seeks to empower the people involved: most of all, the students themselves.

    Bravo Luke and Scott – and bravo Dogme ELT for challenging conventions, challenging us as teachers and most of all for challenging the students – may we all continue to learn.


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