Improving and expanding Dogme Teaching: a manifesto for modern-day teachers

21 June 2018

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 
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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.

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 
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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.

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 
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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.

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 dia­logic processes

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 manoeu­vre, 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.