Karenne Sylvester’s Challenge – A Response

  scenic route or

direct route?

Karenne recently laid down a challenge to her readers, to answer a list of questions based around a quote from Meddings and Thornbury’s Teaching Unplugged book.  I hav attempted to answer this below – in keeping with the principal (I think) I have written this answer unplugged, without planning or referencing so apologies in advance if I get anything wrong!

The ‘scenic route’ referred to by Meddings and Thornbury is for me the core of the course book dillemma in that it keeps you occupied whilst meandering along but takes longer to reach your destination – the subtext perhaps is that it is pretty but not the point of the journey.  Their preferred route is direct and they suggest that this route is followed through interactivity – that is, by engaging directly with the learners a teacher can deliver them the language they need, not the language the coursebook says they need.  A criticism levelled at dogme on Jeremy Harmer’s fascinating blog and discussion is that this appeals to only one type of learner, sticking with the journey metaphor then perhaps this learner is the Jeremy Clarkson of the student world, extrovert and talkative.  The problem is what do you do with the other types of learners who need time to internalise, who don’t respond well to direct interaction?  A possible counter to this is that coursebooks also presuppose a learner type – possibly more restrictedly by insisting on a consecutive learning process (first present simple, then present past, then…) and in order to distract from the monotony of this process they plant pictures and graphs and cartoons and so on.

Interactivity allows a freer range of teaching, it allows a teacher to identify with the student which areas the student needs to focus on, it allows students to discuss the ‘themes’ (I am actually not sure that language breaks down into themes particularly well, but that is for another day…) that they find interesting or relavent, it gives a greater degree of flexibility.  Interactivity is also largely negotiated, a key communicative skill, the topics must be agreed upon by a class, a teacher must persuade students of their importance.  A coursebook course largely removes the need for negotiation and decision taking.  In essence the difference is perhaps between television and reading – in television little imaginitive input is required, everything is there for you from the scenery to the characters appearance and sound to the advertising breaks – with reading the reader must create mentally their own images and sounds using the cues provided and in the better books the reader is shown the feelings and character constructs not told.  In the same way a coursebook heavy course leaves little scope for student/teacher input and tells them what they ‘need’ to know whereas a dogme approach is all about teacher/student input and allows a teacher to show students the language.

Learning is generally a social and dialogic process, it happens at the level of interaction, explanation, negotiation and reformulation.  It is a question and answer process and an unplugged approach would seem to offer more scope for questions and answers that engage the student than a coursebook centred one.  Is knowledge co-constructed?  Yes, certainly, the student offers me the knowledge they have and I the teacher build on that knowledge and then offer it back, the student then modifies my construction so that they understand it and then offer it back to me again to evaluate it, I modify it and the student challenges the modification and we reach a point where the student is happy and I am happy (hopefully) and then we repeat the process.

So what does all this mean exactly?  That teaching away from coursebooks can be hugely beneficial and rewarding.  So coursebooks are useless then?  No, I don’t go that far and I wouldn’t want to – in some areas (ESP) coursebooks I think are not only beneficial but essential.  I would also like to see publishers move to a coursebook model that compliments interactive teaching and learning – perhaps one where texts are provided but then the treatment of the text is left to the teacher and students to construct but that is for another post and if you’re still reading this then I’ve probably bored you long enough!

In conclusion, for me at least, unplugged holds more advantages than disadvantages.  Is this post a bit pompous and meandering, possibly it is actually, looking back at it, for which my apologies, perhaps I took the more scenic route ;-).  Either way it would be nice to know what you think and please feel free to tell me I’m wrong (and why!)


About andrewpickles

Teacher of English in Germany
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4 Responses to Karenne Sylvester’s Challenge – A Response

  1. Your post is not pompous in the least bit! I really enjoyed the journey through your thoughts and in particular, I happen to be using a coursebook designed for elementary automotive students and I’ve never used such a good book – chiefly because it is aimed at my learners and their field of interests. Do I dogme the book… don’t tell anyone but I think the author must be dogme in her heart because at every juncture she sends the learners into speaking practice and I’ve enjoyed using it and stepping away from it. More later, really don’t mean to take up my whole comment on your page promoting some course book – that would be most odd of me, wouldn’t it?

    Anyway, I completely agree with your Interactivity allows a freer range of teaching, it allows a teacher to identify with the student in which areas the student needs to focus on, it allows students to discuss the ‘themes’ that they find interesting or relavent, it gives a greater degree of flexibility.

    I completely agree on the flexibility – we are able to communicate outside of boxes, we don’t ever put borders around our conversations – can you imagine if you were ever down the pub and said to your friends, today we’re just going to talk in the present perfect? 🙂

    In my experience, I have heard lower level students using so-called higher grammar structures because they were necessary, or that is to say they attempted to express a idea such a thing that happened before another thing did and it was continuous… and then I supplied the form and they repeated it back, integrated – the form exists in their own languages after all… I think this is what the grammar McNuggets forget – we all, we humans, all need to communicate virtually the same ideas – and we never, at any point, learn grammar in sequence so why do we teach it that way in L2.

    Random thoughts to match your meanderings, thanks for the journey!


  2. Pingback: Dogme Challenge #1 – interactivity and co-construction « Authentic Teaching (under refurbishment)

  3. Pingback: Sometimes a prop is really the best thing — www.mikejharrison.com

  4. Pingback: Sport is… « language garden

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