What is Dogme?

Matt Done experiments with Dogme

In 1995, Lars Von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg, two Danish directors, embarked on a revolutionary new movement in
film making. Disillusioned with the movie industry’s obsession with special effects and other technology, they vowed
to bring back what they felt were the truest and purest elements of film – story, acting, and theme. The use of artificial
effects and elaborate props was strictly forbidden. These changes, they believed, would give power back to the artist.

What does any of this have to do with EFL, you may ask? Not long after the dogme film movement began, a group of
teachers started to feel a similar dissatisfaction with what English teaching had turned into. While films had become
over reliant on effects, teaching had become dependent on course books and materials. Rather than focusing on the learners
and their own lives, lessons were too caught up in endless streams of course book activities that were not often relevant to
the people in the room.

Scott Thornbury saw the dogme film movement as a useful analogy for teaching. In his now famous article ‘A Dogma for EFL’,
Thornbury encouraged teachers to rid themselves of the shackles of materials and restore teaching to its purest form: The teacher,
the learners, and whatever life experience and language they brought with them. He called this a ‘vow of EFL Chastity’.

Today, dogme is a well-known and frequently discussed approach to teaching. There are three basic precepts that sum it up. Dogme is…

    …a materials-light approach: The content of the lessons should be based on the learners and their own lives and experiences,
        rather than on course book material.

      … conversation driven:  Conversation is viewed as a major driving force behind learning, rather than just ‘free practice’ of
         pre-selected language items.

    …focused on emergent language: Learning a language has less to do with ticking discrete items off a syllabus, and more to
        do with creating engaging learning opportunities so that language can emerge.


In practice, the dogme teacher sets up several conversation activities based on whatever is relevant to the people in the room.
The teacher then ‘works with’ the emergent language – possibly by reformulating it into a more target like form, supplying
new lexis, or even drilling. The language that does emerge is invaluable for the teacher, who can design lessons with the specific
needs of his students in mind.  

In their book ‘Teaching Unplugged’, Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings outline the rationale to the dogme approach in detail.
They also stress how dogme is, above all, a new attitude towards teaching, or as they put it, a new way of ‘being a teacher’.  
It is more than just novel teaching techniques.

The book is packed with practical suggestions for conversation-based activities that require little or nothing in the way of
preparation. Three such activities are described below:

#1 – ‘Space Travellers’: Prepare a few statements that might spark some debate in the classroom. For instance, ‘video games
are bad for children’, ‘men should always ask women out, not the other way around’, ‘more money means more happiness,’ etc.
Place signs around the room saying ‘Agree’, ‘Disagree’ and ‘Not sure’. Read out each statement and get students to move to
the sign that reflects their opinion. They then discuss the statement with whoever is nearest to them. The teacher monitors and
takes note of emergent language.

#2 – ‘Pocket Pecha Kucha’: The students display three objects that they have with them in the classroom, (for example
- something they’re wearing, a picture they have in their wallet, a key ring, etc.) that reveal something about themselves and
their lives. In small groups, the students ask each other about their objects and the aspects of their lives they represent.

#3 – ‘Up and Down’: The teacher draws a graph depicting his mood over the weekend. Ideally, there will be some highs and
lows. The teacher tells students about his weekend, referring to the graph as he talks, and answers any questions the students
might have. Students then prepare their own ‘mood graph’ and talk about them in small groups.

Dogme does not exist without criticism. It is often accused of rejecting course books outright, and ignoring the value they have
offered teachers and students for several years.  Others have argued that only experienced, native-speaker teachers can teach in
the dogme way, and that it is impractical for several teaching contexts such as exam classes and primary school. There are also
those who view it as an ‘irresponsible’ method of teaching, referring to the tendency of dogme teachers to go into classrooms
without a fixed lesson plan.

In spite of what the critics say, dogme has become a popular approach, with many now calling themselves ‘dogme teachers’.
Thornbury and Meddings do not in fact suggest that it is necessary to become a fully-fledge dogme teacher. For those only
mildly curious, or looking to ease themselves into the approach, they propose experimenting with dogme ‘moments’, perhaps
by taking a detour from a lesson plan to explore an interesting student utterance, or by engaging further with an interesting
student anecdote.  

So, the next time you’re called in at the last minute to replace a sick teacher, why not experiment with dogme?

Matt Done

This article originally featured in the December 2014 edition of MATEFL Newsletter