Improving and expanding Dogme Teaching

‘Teachers need to go back to school’, by Leonard Dupond.

Teach­ing is argu­ably the most under­val­ued pro­fes­sion today. Few can appre­ci­ate its impacts, the effort it demands and the chal­lenges it poses to the teach­er — when done well. About a year ago, while try­ing to put what effect­ive teach­ing is into crisp words, I turned to the dogma mani­festo in film­mak­ing. It is a pro­cess I sub­scribe to (at least in part) and employ while mak­ing my own short films. Could it be applied to teach­ing? Would it even make sense?

Not long after, I found out that this had already been done by oth­ers back in the 90s albeit for nar­row teach­ing require­ments. And the meth­od, in that con­text, drew lots of cri­ti­cism, not all pos­it­ive. How­ever nobody seems to have expan­ded the idea out­side of its niche (which was lan­guage teach­ing) des­pite the fact that most of its core pro­pos­i­tions hold true for nearly all fields being taught across uni­ver­sit­ies today. This is an attempt to, at best, set up such a teach­ing meth­od or, at least, lay out some ground rules for teach­ers to fol­low so that they do not for­get the pur­pose of their occu­pa­tion while they — as they should — explore excit­ing new meth­ods of teach­ing that sprout and grow with the times.

Dogme teach­ing, to some, is a move­ment. I would rather see it as a meth­od because move­ments, like trends, tend to die out even­tu­ally. This is not the nature of the argu­ments made in this essay.

The teach­er is an ena­bler, not an end-all. It is not in the teacher’s place to instruct and seek obed­i­ence; rather it is to ensure that stu­dents can them­selves evolve with the teach­er shap­ing them, guid­ing them and cata­lys­ing the pro­cess. These words are more present, phys­ic­al and imme­di­ate in their nature than their flower­i­ness might sug­gest. And it is with this in mind that I expand upon the Dogme Teach­ing ideas from the early noughts. Lastly, it is worth men­tion­ing here that over the course of read­ing about, under­stand­ing and build­ing upon the Dogme Teach­ing meth­od it became clear to me that, besides the name, it shares noth­ing with Dogme film­mak­ing mani­festo; also any devel­op­ment atop this meth­od that we will be mak­ing presently will leave you with an set of ideas that go quite far from the let­ter of the ori­gin­al while keep­ing the spir­it intact.

The central ideas

There are three main ideas under­ly­ing Dogme Teach­ing: one, that teach­ing must be primar­ily con­ver­sa­tion-driv­en; two, that teach­ing must be mater­i­als-light; and three, that learn­ing hap­pens through emer­gence rather than acquis­i­tion. It may be hard to see how these apply out­side lan­guage teach­ing but they form won­der­ful pre­cepts if we give them some free rein.

Using mul­ti­me­dia is all the rage these days, and with good reas­on: visu­al learn­ing is known to be more effect­ive than aud­it­ory or oth­er forms. Indeed this is why black­boards were ori­gin­ally used; they allowed writ­ing down — visu­ally rep­res­ent­ing inform­a­tion — which was as much as could be done dynam­ic­ally in classrooms (besides charts per­haps) in the days before elec­tri­city came into our lives.

The fact that we still use it today is test­a­ment to its ever­last­ing nature. The fact that most see mul­ti­me­dia as a replace­ment to the chalk­board is wor­ry­ing. The only legit­im­ate reas­on to use mul­ti­me­dia is to exhib­it some­thing that is oth­er­wise too com­plex to pro­duce or describe, such as brief videos of phe­nom­ena, struc­tures of organs, large scale organ­isa­tion­al charts and so on. Simply using slides to list out points is far less effect­ive than actu­ally writ­ing them out on the black­board because the fact that things are hap­pen­ing in real­time on the board right here and now helps stu­dents con­nect to and absorb the idea — and remem­ber and recall it — much bet­ter. This is what comes of the first two ideas: con­ver­sa­tion-driv­en teach­ing and an approach that sees jus­ti­fied use rather than the over­use of sup­port mater­i­als.

Things are hap­pen­ing in real­time on the black­board as opposed to some­thing that has already happened before the fact, else­where, such as the data on slides. Present­a­tions often work to remove stu­dents from the room they are in; with com­plex anim­a­tions, charts etc. trans­port­ing them away like this can be a great idea, but with straight­for­ward points this can be coun­ter­pro­duct­ive.

The idea of emer­gence versus acquis­i­tion is some­thing I had been prac­tising in some form in my own teach­ing without expli­citly labelling it as such. For instance when someone asked me a ques­tion in class rather than answer­ing the ques­tion I would nudge them with little clues towards the answer until they came up with it them­selves. This was incred­ibly effect­ive. Not only do stu­dents get a surge of con­fid­ence and encour­age­ment (which so many classrooms lack so direly) they also tend to remem­ber it as a res­ult of the ques­tion – answer ses­sion becom­ing an exper­i­ence rather than a ten­nis match.

Wheth­er you are the sort of teach­er who encour­ages ques­tions inter­rupt­ing a class or prefer ques­tions at the end mak­ing the the entire class an exper­i­ence led by the teach­er but built and driv­en by stu­dents is always a great way of teach­ing. In short, this is emer­gence as opposed to acquis­i­tion where you tell them some­thing and ask them to keep it in mind.

Although, when I was teach­ing, I would make it a point to keep remind­ing my stu­dents that they could ask me ques­tions with a show of hands any­time dur­ing class and not neces­sar­ily at the end, I know of sev­er­al teach­ers who prefer the lat­ter meth­od of reserving time at the end for ques­tions. Con­trary to pop­u­lar belief neither meth­od is less effect­ive than the oth­er. The dis­ad­vant­age in the former case is that the flow of the teach­er is some­times inter­rup­ted and in the lat­ter case it is not. But in the lat­ter case the stu­dents need only be promp­ted to write down their ques­tions rather than pon­der over them at the cost of the rest of the class. Once a teach­er and their stu­dents devel­op a rap­port all sorts of pleas­ant non-verbal com­mu­nic­a­tions will devel­op mak­ing both these meth­ods equally con­veni­ent.

A seven-point manifesto

This essay star­ted out as a piece on using tech­no­logy effect­ively and sens­ibly in the classroom. Although I digressed, address­ing the issue as part of a lar­ger mani­festo not only seemed more worth­while but also prom­ised to be more mean­ing­ful in the long run. This is the old Dogme Teach­ing mani­festo expan­ded bey­ond lan­guage teach­ing and improved to accom­mod­ate new­er classroom tools.

1. Interactivity and the dialogic process

That learn­ing hap­pens through con­ver­sa­tions and not one-dir­ec­tion­al speeches is a cent­ral idea of Dogme teach­ing. How­ever, out­side of lan­guages, most sub­jects do in fact require cer­tain peri­ods of lec­tur­ing, where new ideas are put forth before stu­dents can begin to dis­cuss them at all and imme­di­ate usage is not a real­ist­ic pos­sib­il­ity. The idea is to strike a bal­ance. Every week try to make space for tutori­al ses­sions that are ded­ic­ated to open dis­cus­sions rather than teach­ing alone.

In short, while one-way teach­ing is some­times neces­sary always try to build a dia­logue with every stu­dent, push them into con­ver­sa­tion if neces­sary, and have some form of dis­cus­sion in class.

2. Engagement and scaffolded conversations

Stu­dents learn bet­ter when they are inter­ested in a top­ic and they are inter­est­ing in a top­ic when they came up with it. In oth­er words, and as said before, engage stu­dents and nudge them towards the answer — let them come up with ideas. This will go a long way in mak­ing them com­fort­able with the field and inter­ested in read­ing more about it.

In oth­er words, con­struct ideas with stu­dents so they can get their hands dirty while they learn it from first prin­ciples; do not just give them ideas just because those ideas already exist.

3. Emergence over acquisition

One of my favour­ite beliefs in the Dogme meth­od is that under­stand­ing devel­ops from with­in the learner and is not trans­ferred like a piece of inform­a­tion. This adds on to the pre­vi­ous point and is more a thought to appre­ci­ate and keep in mind than a meth­od to adopt. One of the ways of ensur­ing this hap­pens effect­ively in the classroom is to focus on com­pon­ents of a les­son. By piecing a top­ic up into small con­cepts that all tie togeth­er, a student’s under­stand­ing of one or few of the con­cepts can dra­mat­ic­ally improve their chances of under­stand­ing the rest of the con­cepts and, in turn, of the entire top­ic.

In short, focus on mak­ing stu­dents an integ­ral part of dis­cov­er­ing ideas anew in the classroom rather than present­ing it to them as exist­ing top­ics from a can­on; focus on top­ics as pal­at­able chunks rather than huge volumes to bet­ter achieve this.

4. Give students a voice

One of the things I used to make clear in my classes, rather expli­citly, was that stu­dents need not agree with what I say. They were allowed to, nay encour­aged to, dis­agree and debate top­ics until they were con­vinced one way or the oth­er. In phys­ics the debate is not so much about right or wrong but about fully under­stand­ing a math­em­at­ic­al manœuvre, a phys­ic­al inter­pret­a­tion etc.

In oth­er fields sim­il­ar needs exist to vary­ing degrees but the idea remains the same: give stu­dents a voice. You may need to coax them to speak up (there will be some excep­tions) but let them know they can com­mu­nic­ate freely and com­fort­ably. The thought of being able to express them­selves freely empowers stu­dents greatly.

In brief, make stu­dents feel com­fort­able in the classroom, let them know they can dis­agree, let them know they can speak out and par­ti­cip­ate in open dis­cus­sions until they are fully con­vinced of an idea taught in class.

5. Use minimal support materials

Keep in mind that things you offer your stu­dents, be it handouts or cop­ies of present­a­tions or even present­a­tions exhib­ited in class, are all in addi­tion to your teach­ing, not replace­ments for it. They are also in addi­tion to your stu­dents’ core learn­ing mater­i­al, not a replace­ment for that either. The cent­ral idea here is that tech­no­logy must be used to add to the learn­ing pro­cess, not for its own sake.

The use of tech­no­logy can reduce that of paper. How­ever this is easi­er said than done unless you are fully inde­pend­ent in your teach­ing; in most oth­er cases your insti­tu­tion will have to take a lead­ing role in this and I have had a bit­ter exper­i­ence in this regard myself. Yet there are things you can employ with­in your class too, such as hav­ing assign­ments e-mailed rather than writ­ten, which is some­thing I have had some suc­cess with and which received a lot of pos­it­ive feed­back from stu­dents.

In oth­er words, use as many sup­port mater­i­als you need, no more, no less; there is a thin line bey­ond which such mater­i­als and tech­no­logy go from being sup­port­ing to being dis­tract­ive — tread care­fully.

6. Reading materials have their place

One of the cri­ti­cisms that Dogme Teach­ing ori­gin­ally faced was that it shunned the use of text­books. Per­haps it did make sense to some extent in lan­guage teach­ing but shun­ning text­books is hardly con­veni­ent in oth­er fields. Indeed text­books have their place much like any oth­er read­ing mater­i­al from web­sites to art­icles to magazines to gen­er­al read­ing books. Text­books are, as they have always been, excel­lent start­ing points.

Dogme teach­ing must not encour­age text­book read­ing in class; it must be a purely off-class activ­ity. But its bene­fits can be drawn inside the classroom by simple time-saver solu­tions like quick­en­ing the lay­ing out of an idea (since stu­dents could have simply been assigned this as a read­ing assign­ment) and allow­ing the time saved for actu­al con­ver­sa­tions and dis­cus­sions. The same is true of all read­ing mater­i­als.

In short, shun text­books in class but let them be teach­ers out­side the classroom; let ref­er­ence and read­ing mater­i­als become boost­ers of effi­ciency so that repet­it­ive and expos­i­tion­al work can be left to them while you focus on act­ive dis­cus­sions and enhance­ments dur­ing your teach­ing rather than using extern­al resources as skel­et­ons.

7. Demarcate opinions and facts

Everything expressed in class is either a fact or an opin­ion. Opin­ions, while they have the right to thrive in the classroom, must be marked clearly as such. There is noth­ing wrong or unnat­ur­al about stu­dents tak­ing to their teacher’s per­spect­ive; this is human and is part of the deal of choos­ing to study­ing in an insti­tu­tion or under a cer­tain pro­fess­or.

How­ever, Dogme Teach­ing will ideally have developed the student’s pres­ence in com­mu­nic­a­tions and the student’s think­ing enough to ensure that if they do fall in line with their teacher’s opin­ion they will have done so of their own will and, addi­tion­ally, that if they change their mind later they do so sens­ibly and informedly.

That is to say, informed opin­ions and facts have a right to co-exist in the classroom and acknow­ledging pos­sible bias is an essen­tial step since elim­in­a­tion is nearly impossible; but stu­dents must be encour­aged to think for them­selves and fol­low or oppose an opin­ion on fair grounds — after all there is nowhere they can go later in life where opin­ions will not be con­stantly echoed around them.

Add to the conversation

This mani­festo is by no means com­plete. It is, if any­thing, a step­ping stone for a more exhaust­ive ver­sion that can only be framed with input from teach­ers from vari­ous fields.

There is a lot more I would myself like to add to the mani­festo but am weary that beliefs may end up out­num­ber­ing meth­ods. Dogme is a teach­ing meth­od after all. And it must remain, in this new form, some­thing that applies to all fields with noth­ing too spe­cif­ic about any thereby mak­ing for an excel­lent plat­form for found­a­tion­al teach­ing to devel­op on.

If you are a teach­er or a stu­dent or any­one who can add to this dis­cus­sion do get in touch with me via Twit­ter (DM pre­ferred) or e-mail with fol­low-ups.

Done reading?