What are your bare essentials?

The dogme discussion group on Yahoo says that the list is for educators who are in favour of “a pedagogy of bare essentials”. I’ve been following the list for quite a long time (more than 7 years now), and even though I’m still waiting for my copy of “Teaching Unplugged” to arrive, I can say I agree with pretty much all views put forth there, and I consider myself a dogme-ist. I also advise all English teachers who are not participating in the list, to join asap – you’ll certainly find some interesting points of view there. Anyway, I don’t really wish to talk about Dogme – as I mentioned before, Karenne has written a fantastic piece on it here – instead, I’ll focus on the idea of “bare essentials”.

Some of the people I’ve talked to about dogme seem to believe it’s all about not having anything ready and simply walking into the classroom unprepared. You go to the classroom armed with nothing and all you do is have a conversation with your learners about whatever it is they want to talk about. “It’s just a conversation lesson,” I once heard. The idea that teachers can actually use language that emerges in the classroom seems to be far-fetched for some when in reality all it really takes is truly listening to your learners and responding appropriately. I don’t like any extreme ideas – there’s strength in balance. One shouldn’t strip oneself of all that’s available just for the sake of it. However, one must learn to understand the context into which one is inserted, and then respond accordingly.

Instead of trying to figure out how to teach without a coursebook in a school/system that forces you to use one, instead of coming up with ways to bend the system, it’s much easier for us to ask ourselves one single question: “What are the bare essentials of my teaching context?” Once you can figure out the answer to this question, things will hopefully run much more smoothly in the classroom. What does this mean?

If you’re inserted in a context in which all of your learners are tech-savvy and always come to the classroom with their 3G phones which they obviously use to connect their laptops to the Internet, it’ll do you or them no good to ask them to put their gadgets away because you want to teach your class. Just the same, it’s pointless to try to introduce a myriad of technological tools using web 2.0, PowerPoint classes, screencasts and what have you if your learners couldn’t care less about such things. If you are fortunate enough so as to have as much time as you want/need to teach your learners what you’re supposed to and also teach them how to use technology, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. This is not what I have, so I end up having to choose.

I once spent one full class talking to my students about Twitter. They were really interested in learning about it and asked me to help them create their accounts at that very same moment. They asked questions, took notes and as soon as they left the classroom, they started using it and incorporated it in their lives. The same thing happened with pretty much any new web 2.0 tool I tried using with them. It simply worked. On the other hand, there was another group with students – just as young as the ones from the aforementioned group – who couldn’t care less about twitter or anything else I tried using with them. Their answer was always the same, “I simply don’t have time to learn how to use this and, to be honest, I’m not interested in doing so. As a matter of fact, I don’t even check my emails regularly, maybe once a week.” Students from both groups are born at the same time and are supposed to be the digital natives, but this idea of digital natives is a topic for another post. What mattered to me was knowing that both groups needed to be taught differently.

I guess what I’m trying to say is teachers should be able to respond better and faster to people who are different from them. As I said in previous posts, teachers must be resourceful. We should be able to understand what makes our students tick and use it at our advantage. It’s just to easy to expect them to adapt to us. “Hey, this is web 2.0 and you have to use it” or “Hey, don’t touch that computer in class or you won’t learn a thing” are not sentences to be uttered. As I said, I don’t believe in extreme points of view. Finding some middle ground is key, and so is responding to your learners. Next time you walk into a classroom, don’t go with any preconception of what works and what doesn’t work. Ask yourself what your bare essentials are in that particular context and be prepared to use it to the benefit of learning. Your students will thank you for that.

11 thoughts on “What are your bare essentials?

  1. Great post! I often struggle with finding the middle ground when it comes to using technology in my literature and writing classes. Some students embrace it and others are more resistant. I’m piloting Google Apps for Education for my school district, so I’ve required students to share various types of Google docs. I’ve found that even if students are reluctant to using docs, they are still proficient. Also, it takes time for some of them to come along and see the value of web 2.0 if a particular project or assignment comes up that makes it helpful. I’m trying to show students how Twitter can help writers build authentic audiences. If you or your students could read and respond, it could move 16 students to the web 2.0 side! Please Read & Comment: 16 students + 3 computers=Short Story http://tinyurl.com/MHSbehindthewall and planning http://tinyurl.com/BTWplanning

    1. Hi Michelle,

      Finding the middle ground is one of the hardest things in my opinion. I guess what we need to do is show them the possible tools and see what happens next. I really enjoyed the story your students created and it’s a great example of the usefulness of technology in education – plus, it gives learners an authentic audience.

      By the way, one of our former students is going to have a story she’s written published on our school blog. I’ll tweet it when it comes out.



  2. Really interesting post, thanks. I’ll look forward to a post about digital natives if you’re planning one. I think it’s a complete misnomer. I teach teenagers mostly, the ones who are supposed to be glued to technology, and they just aren’t, I know more and spend more time online than they do – we’ve had some interesting discussions about it.

    As for this: It’s just to easy to expect them to adapt to us. ‘Hey, this is web 2.0 and you have to use it’, it could be a trainer or manager to other teachers. It’s important to remember that while encouraging teachers to use technology, they should pick it up at their own pace and not feel forced to try anything, particularly if they feel that it’s not part of their own bare essentials.

    1. Hi Richard,

      I am planning to write a post on digital natives and all that, but in the meantime I can tell you we share the same view. I’ve been asking kids and teens about their online habits for about 2 years now. Even though it’s not a formal research, my findings are they aren’t really that willing to use tech for learning. Some of my students so spend almost the entire day online, but most of them have got no idea what a wiki is, do not visit blogs, and have never heard of Google Docs, to name just a few. I’m glad I found someone who’s had the same experience. 🙂

      As for teachers, if admins expect teachers to use a certain tool, they need to show the true value of that specific tool for learning. When teachers see there’s a point in learning something, they’re likely to try their best to learn it. However, if they’re merely told they have to do something because that’s what the school says, then they tend to use it very poorly and not in an effective way. As you said, they’ve got to see that anything they’re using in class is part of their bare essentials.

      Thanks for your comments!

  3. This are the words that resonate for me:
    “Just the same, it’s pointless to try to introduce a myriad of technological tools using web 2.0, PowerPoint classes, screencasts and what have you if your learners couldn’t care less about such things. If you are fortunate enough so as to have as much time as you want/need to teach your learners what you’re supposed to and also teach them how to use technology, it’s a whole different kettle of fish. This is not what I have, so I end up having to choose.”

    I think this is where the balance needs striking.
    My students are still not carrying an ipod touch each or a phone with Internet at a reasonable price. Yet we know they will be doing so one day. We cannot stop teaching language to teach so much about tools; but will we know how to teach when the tools are not longer a problem? What if they already know some of them from a previous teacher or class?
    This is not happening in my school in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One day, it simply will.
    I think that any middle ground you get to today is bound to be dated if expressed in terms of tools. With the danger of going back to extremes. How could all of this be expressed in mindset instead of toolset? In other words, if the tools were discussed as frequently as pencils in your classroom, what would our job be like with new technologies?

    Thank you for sharing this. Powerful starter for reflection post.

    1. Hi Claudia,

      I agree with you that gadgets and technology will be an integral part of our lives in the (near?) future. How do we prepare for that? Well, what I try to do is showing them the alternatives, such as where to find a nice podcast that will help them with their FCE, CAE or CPE studies. Instead of worrying about teaching them how to download these podcasts, I make myself available to show them how to do it after class. I noticed that even if I take the time to teach all of them how to use A or B, only one or two students will actually use it. However, this one student matters, and if he or she is willing to walk the extra mile, I need to give him or her the tools.

      If we think about the pencils and the tools, well, the day will come when web 2.0 tools and other gadgets won’t be as intrusive. When this day comes, we’ll be able to discuss tech as we discuss the use of pen and paper. Until this day comes, however, I think it’s rather complicated to put technology in the same level of pencil. It’s still not part of our mindset, in my view.

      Teachers need to be in sync with new tools and technologies, and try to incorporate them into their teaching, but without forcing students to use such tools. For instance, there are students who still don’t like to type their compositions and send me through email, even though I find that way easier, and I’m fine with it. To each his own, right? If teachers are aware of the benefits of new tools, when the day comes they’ll be prepared. Would you agree with me?

      Thanks for the great comment! I particularly enjoyed the mindset x toolset way of thinking. I’ll reflect a bit more on that. 🙂

      1. I do agree.

        Thank you for your reply Rick. Your ideas help me reflect. I also need to digest our viewpoints before making any conclusion.

        I am teaching FCE and BEC Vantage. I think it will be a good idea to stay tuned to your thinking here.

        Glad to have landed on your blog.

  4. Dogme is a new concept to me, but I find it interesting.When it comes down to bare essentials, I always go back to my foundational philosophy.
    1) Kids learn well in relevant contexts.
    2) Kids learn well when they can interact and collaborate.
    3) You have to know your students well if you want any chance of teaching them anything meaningful.
    4) Work must be interactive and student centered.

    Technology certainly helps with a lot of these items, but it no area is it vital.

    1. Hi Jason,

      Your four principles are just great. Very straightforward. Learning has to be meaningful, personal, engaging and thought-provoking. If technology helps you, great! If it doesn’t, that shouldn’t be a hindrance.

      Thanks for sharing this list. 🙂

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