neon jesus

(My contribution to the #dogmeme, with advance apologies to Karenne Sylvester)

Teachers have a lot of people telling them what to teach, and how to teach it. Governments looking for cheap votes. Parents who want to abdicate themselves from the responsibility of raising their own children. Administrators who need to hit targets, meet budgets and check boxes. Publishers with units to shift. That is exactly why I engage in my own self-initiated professional development. When I visit conferences, talk to other teachers, blog, tweet, and do all that other stuff I want to hear what I could do. Or what I might do. Or what may, perhaps be worth thinking about. Sure, tell me what works for you…. but let me think about it and see if it works for me, please.

I am broadly sympathetic to the basic concepts of dogme. I certainly agree that coursebooks and pre-planned curricula built around grammar mcnuggets can be very restrictive, and that teachers should exploit emergent language, teaching affordances and other human unpredictables as best they can. I am not sure that this in itself constitutes a method, however… it is at best an approach. And if you are talking about the more rigorous, chaste versions of Dogme that might be called a method, then I am not really interested. I want to plug things in and interact with ideas from outside the classroom. I see it as equally restrictive to tie oneself to or deny yourself materials. This is the religious fervour to which I refer.

And as for the evangelism?  I believe that classroom methods are a negotiation (implicit or explicit) between the teacher, the learner (s), the context and the moment. For that reason, I believe that unplugged teaching has a very important role at the right time, with the right participants, in the right situation…. but it is not the only way. If I were teaching advanced adult learners in small classes in Europe, I imagine a techno-dogme hybrid would be fantastic. But actually, very, very few teachers, in the wider world of English Language Education, are teaching in such a context. In fact, very, very few know what Dogme is, or ever will. And we bloggers and tweeters, we conference goers, the movers and shakers, sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are not typical, that we are lucky to have some choice about how and what we teach. Teachers can be afraid, tired, confused, or just plain uneducated. Like students, they need nurturing, not hectoring. So let’s not assume that anyone who doesn’t teach Dogme is too self-interested, too stupid or too lazy to try it.

Is ignorance always a sin?

An Interview with Jeannette Littlemore from darren elliott on Vimeo.

It was great to see Jeanette’s workshop, and to talk to her afterwards about the research she has been engaged in regarding metaphor and gesture. As teachers, we need to be aware of the ways in which our gestures may be interpreted… whether they support or contradict the words coming out of our mouths (which are quite likely to be metaphorical themselves). We also need to understand the messages our students are sending through gesture. It’s a fascinating topic. Some things you might like to comment on.

Teachers who gesture more are perceived to be better teachers.

The idea that gesture can betray an ‘accent’ in L2 users, or conversely, that adoption of an L2 physicality can give a more positive impression.

Incorporating gesture into teaching may enable learners to connect more powerfully to the target language.

You can find a list of Dr. Littlemore’s work here.

UPDATE Dr. Littlemore kindly sent me a copy of the article she published in the pre-conference edition of The Language Teacher, which includes further readings. The original can be found at…
Littlemore, J. (2010). Metaphor, gesture and second language acquisition. The Language Teacher, 34.4, 35 – 37

This is the first of four interviews from the JALT conference in Nagoya, Japan…. more to follow!

George Siemens’ recent post on this topic was a thought provoking one. I am not a man who holds particularly firm convictions (if you were feeling uncharitable you might call me a flip-flopper, but I prefer to say I am open minded). I don’t think Siemens is suggesting that these questions should be locked away and never re-examined, but it seems useful to take a step back and figure out what you have learnt. As I write, I am pretty sure about the following things.

  1. Teachers need to find a personal voice. There are many ways, but not all of them work for all teachers. Your own style must be congruent with your (sub-concious) beliefs.
  2. Students also need to reflect frequently on what they are doing and why. Indeed, it is their primary responsibility.
  3. You try it first, then I’ll help you fix it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it from the beginning.
  4. I would rather tailor my classes to allow the most enthusiastic students to flourish. Setting passing criteria drags everyone down. If you ask students to read five books, they will all read about five. If you ask them to read as many as they can, some of them will read twenty five.
  5. Education is a very dangerous treadmill, because students and teachers alike quickly forget why they are on it. Tests, textbooks and syllabi are supposed to serve learning, not the other way round.
  6. Technology is providing teachers and learners with all manner of marvellous opportunities, too fast for large institutions like publishing houses, universities and governments to keep up with. Too bad for them.
  7. English doesn’t belong to native speakers. I still don’t get how regional native varieties are considered ‘correct’ yet non-native varieties need to be fixed. If you can be clearly understood, your English is correct.
  8. Even the best teachers have bad days.

Now I am halfway through the second semester and I figured the students should know me pretty well. I put together this Teacher Beliefs discussion activity for some of my more advanced classes to find out. It was quite pleasing to find out that, generally, they do… and that in most regards we were in agreement.

Is there anything that you truly believe? Are you and your students aware of one another’s beliefs? Don’t take anything for granted…..

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about some of the possibilities opening up with new digital video recorders, and I’d like to explain in a little more depth a particular project I worked on with a class recently. This represents a full cycle of work over a number of lessons.

Step One

Everyone is familiar with youtube, but it is not the only video streaming site in town. Videojug is devoted specifically to instructional videos, submitted by both amateurs and professionals. The site is searchable and browsable, so the first task was for students to go and find a video and prepare to report back to their peers in the next class.

Making a how to video

I recommend you choose a suitable video yourself and go through the process as a class first. With this particular class, we had just finished a unit in the textbook ‘Face the Issues’ (a high-level book using authentic US radio recordings from NPR) in which two experts discussed how to buy fresh fish. This video followed on neatly.

Step Two

Students got together in groups to talk about the videos they had watched. Then they decided what they would like to teach someone else to do.

How To Prep List


The story board was important not only for the students to visualise what they wanted to do, and to increase their efficiency when actually making the videos, but was also important for me at the editing stage.

Step Three

We watched this video in class and discussed good technique – basically, I wanted to make sure that the students thought about camera angles, camera movement, lighting and sound.

How-to video checklist

Students then went away in groups and made their videos!

Step Four

Each group returned and gave me their video camera and thier story board. I put each set of raw files into a separate folder, then edited each one together in iMovie using the storyboard as a reference, and uploaded it to vimeo (password protected). It really doesn’t take long, and was no bother for me. I’d love to show you one, but in fairness to the students (in various regulations) I’m afraid I can’t. Take my word for it, they were fantastic ; P

Step Five

Students went away and watched their videos, and completed a reflection on the task.

How-to (Self Evaluation)


Students responded really positively to this task, and came up with some really creative and interesting work. They sourced props, scouted locations, came up with scripts and detailed storyboards…. mostly in their own time. I still think that recorded and transcribed conversations can be very valuable, but handing over as much control as possible to the learners is a wonderful feeling.

(Written as a NEST, working in a foreign country, but hopefully of interest to all)

How did you learn cultural awareness? Assuming you did, of course….

For an industry which pitches different cultures together with such force and frequency as ELT, there is very little teacher training devoted to cross-cultural communication. On the CELTA? Sorry, to busy cutting up cards to practice the past perfect. DELTA? Well, can we do it after I’ve transcribed this into phonemic script.  Masters? Perhaps, but who knows what people get up to on those things. No, most of us have to figure it out for ourselves…. new job, new country, new people, new language… well, here goes nothing!

Of course, for many of us that is part of what makes teaching exciting. For others, it may be what forces them out of the profession early on. Is there more that we could do for new teachers in training to prepare them for life abroad? Especially if we have no idea where they are going, or might go in the future? Can we give any better advice than “Look, listen and learn?”

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Geert Hofstede’s research has been taken up as a business tool, but it has applications to the ELT classroom. He assesses five aspects of culture; Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation.

Here is a comparison of my home culture, and my host culture. I should expect to come up against a greater reliance on rules than I am used to (Japan is an uncertainty avoiding culture), and I am also likely to notice a greater gap between gender roles (based on the masculinity index).

It is an interesting starting point, but rather simplistic. There is little mention of how the different dimensions play against each other, and the categorisation into national cultures attributes homogeneity where there may be none. Even a country like Japan, not generally considered diverse, has enough difference to be significant. Perhaps the iPhone app (Cultural GPS) advertised on the site gives us a hint – this is a handy tool for the business person flying in and out, but maybe not much more.

Culture Bumps

Carol Archer first coined this term for the unexpected outcomes, foiled expectations or unpleasant surprises which are not uncommon in cross-cultural encounters. The idea is not dissimilar to that of Critical Incident Technique theories. Unlike Hofstede’s model, these techniques suggest that we extrapolate backwards from what has actually happened to reveal something about a particular culture, group or individual, rather than make an assumption based on research about what might happen in real life.

Contrast Culture Method

As opposed to the previous two methods, CCM is very precise in how its sessions are conducted. Two players perform a role play based on an incident – one acts as a reference player, supposed to be closer to the audience’s own culture. The other is the contrast player, who reacts against them. After the role play, each player is interviewed by a facilitator, still in character, while the other player waits outside. Both players then return, and come out of character to discuss what has transpired. There are similarities to Critical Incident Analysis, but in this case players are at great pains not to identify as any particular nationality or culture, rather as a pair in reaction to one another.

I have been loosely affiliated to the CCM Special Interest Group of SEITAR Japan (Society for Intercultural Training, Teaching and Research) for a while, and have taken part in a few sessions. Here you can see an edit of our workshop at the JALT PanSIG in Osaka in May…

CCM Long from darren elliott on Vimeo.

(There is a short version here)


Which of these models, if any, do you think would be most useful for the novice teacher preparing for their first overseas posting? Have you ever received any training? Was it any good? Do you have any epiphanies to share, of culture bumps that taught you something you needed to learn?

Further Reading

Carol Archer’s website offers free downloadable materials for English language classes, as well as further information. This article on handling culture bumps from the ELT Journal by Wenying Jiang is freely available with a bit of googling…. and this one from the APA explains CIT from in earliest incarnation.

Cultural differences are a mainstay of ELT coursebooks, but this one does it with a bit more style and depth. Joseph Shaules, one of the authors, is also a member of the CCM SIG, but I haven’t met him yet.

Geert Hofstede’s ideas can be explored on the cultural dimensions website here.

You can learn more about CCM in this great reader.