There is no best method

While I was still teaching English as a foreign language, some years ago, there was an eruption around an idea proposed by a well-known writer and thought leader in the field that went under the name of ‘Dogme’. This was taken from the Danish film production idea of Lars von Trier in which the film is shot on location using only the props and scenery present and available at the time.

“films based on the traditional values of story, acting, and theme, and excluding the use of elaborate special effects or technology.”

The teaching version proposed that a teacher should not teach content from a textbook, or from other pre-prepared materials. Instead, they should use the moment, the context, and the ‘material’ the students might have, whether that be physical material, or the stories they bring with them.

This is a seductive idea, because the focus would then be on the learners and the context and would not be ‘forced in’ from a textbook. These textbooks are usually developed to suit a multi-national ‘audience’ and often contain content that is not particularly relevant to those students. The content can also be so culturally bland so as not to offend anyone, that a teacher really has to work hard to bring the topic to life.

Cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, lowest common denominator – whatever you want to call it. Attitudes to these textbooks can be negative and highly critical, but they are essential in most contexts and the publishing market for English language learning is big business. Sounds like e-learning.

So, the idea that the students’ own context and input would drive a topic of conversation, and that the teacher would guide interaction and give feedback on ’emergent language’ seems extremely logical. It’s learner-centred.

I tried to set up a course like this and it really didn’t work. I probably didn’t facilitate it well enough and the learners were probably lost. Let’s face it, there’s a natural inclination to look for linear progress in learning, even if learning doesn’t work like that. And that’s one thing that textbooks offer – the illusion of a linear path of learning.

Anyway, I learned some lessons.

In general, the Dogme method could work given the right circumstances. It could certainly work as well as any other approach if planned well and organised effectively.

Regardless of the method chosen, a learning experience can be good or bad. Teaching from a textbook can result in terrible learning experiences, so can teaching with a ‘Dogme’ approach. Any ‘proper’ method or approach will work sometimes, but not others. Even in a single lesson, an activity will work for some learners, but not others, and there are many factors affecting the outcome.

Also, every teacher builds up a range of techniques that work for them, in the sense that it increases the probability that the students learn. But those same techniques may not work for another teacher. Everything is dependent on context and the teacher’s ‘sense of plausibility'(1). And context is geography, time, and circumstances, which present a lot of factors to consider!

However, in whichever field of learning one works in, there seems to always be a search for a magic bullet. The one thing that will always work, regardless of context.

Incidentally, I wonder how many intercultural mistakes are made when rolling out a program of e-learning to a global workforce? Is localisation that focuses only on ‘translation’ enough? Probably not.

In the world of L&D, or workplace learning, the silver-bullet currently seems to have appeared in the form of micro-learning. It’s the new method that just works. It’s quick and it’s what everyone wants, especially ‘the millennials’ and ‘gen Z’. Apparently.

The thing is, surely the answer is that there is no best approach or method overall in workplace learning either. There is just the most effective approach for any given context at any given time.

It seems to me that it’s a question of problem solving.

The correct approach for any given situation can only be defined when the problem is fully understood and all possible options have been evaluated. And it may turn out that the answer is not a learning experience at all.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got any thoughts or questions, let me know in the comments below.

(1) Prabhu, N. S. (1990). There is no best method—why?. Tesol Quarterly, 24(2), 161-176. A good overview of this can be found here.

Featured image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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