teaching unplugged – in brief

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A new blog

Anyone visiting this site in recent weeks and months will have noted the absence of new posts.

I’ve decided to try a new way to blog – with a more focused theme – and have now launched The Unplugged Index.

You can find it at

I’m going to keep this blog as an archive for the time being – thanks as always for dropping by and do have a look at the new site!


Stand and don’t deliver

[This post is republished from the dogme site at]

Some strong stuff in this week’s Education Guardian; by turns sobering and inspiring.

Here is the inspiration: outgoing children’s laureate Michael Rosen describes how a colleague of his late father’s has ‘unearthed the English syllabus that my father helped to devise in 1958. I read: “Whatever language the pupils possess, it is this which must be built on rather than driven underground. However narrow the experience of our pupils may be (and it is often wider than we think), it is this experience alone which has given their language meaning. The starting point for English work must be the ability to handle effectively their own experience. Oral work, written work and the discussion of literature must create an atmosphere in which the pupils become confident of the full acceptability of the material of their own experience. Only in this way can they advance to the next stage.”‘

This chimes strongly with much in the dogme ‘pantheon’ – the work of Sylvia Ashton-Warner with disadvantaged children in New Zealand, for example. But it also brings us bang up to date: the phrase, the ‘full acceptability of the material of their own experience’ is strongly reminiscent of the argument made by Bonny Norton in her IATEFL plenary this year that when speakers use language they are organising and re-organising a sense of who they are and how they relate to the world: language as social practice..

(Full article at

Rosen proceeds: ‘I am overcome with feelings of admiration, sadness, regret and anger. … . How did the Thatcher and Blair governments succeed so quickly to wipe out years of such thought, theory and practice?’

Is he over-reacting? He is not. For two pages later comes sobering evidence of the pass to which we have come.

In an article titled ‘How children became customers’ which truly must be read to be believed (no, it’s not from Private Eye or The Onion), we learn that ‘growing central control of education has has helped to produce a drive to talk about schooling from a “performance management” perspective, which is borrowed from business.’

The article then quotes directly from the Nuffield 14-19 review, 6 years in the making: “The consumer or client replaces the learner. The curriculum is delivered. Aims are spelt out in terms of targets. Audits (based on performance indicators) measure success defined in terms of hitting the targets.”

It adds: “As the language of performance and management has advanced, so we have proportionately lost a language of education which recognises the intrinsic value of pursuing certain sorts of question … of seeking understanding [and] of exploring through literature and the arts what it means to be human.”

It is like the fulfilment of a prophecy, or perhaps a death foretold.

Have posters like Diarmiud and myself been exaggerating to use words like ‘utitilitarian’ and ‘philistine’ in our reflections on the UK education system as we find it? We have not. For these are two words used by the Cambridge review of primary education, published earlier this year, to describe what is happening in our schools.

Read it here, and weep: <>

But then consider that dogme – as evidenced by the quote from Michael Rosen’s father, above – adds its voice to a powerful tradition within teaching which seeks to serve the whole human being, starting with their experience of the world, and working with the raw material of their communicative needs.

Stand, my friends, and don’t deliver.

city hall, city hall

cardiff city hall (Small)

Cardiff City Hall, venue for IATEFL 2009 

One of the nice things about attending conferences can be gaining access to, and exploring, the venue.

I have vivid memories of the university buildings in Sevilla where Scott and myself ran an early dogme workshop in a room more suited to a 19th century medical demonstration; steep banks of wooden seating, a dusty darkness deep inside Sevilla’s sunlight, and at least one nervous exhibit (me) on show.

Without perhaps possessing the charm or romance of that university’s setting (the oldest part of the building is a former tobacco factory, and the setting for Bizet’s Carmen), Cardiff City Hall is nevertheless a distinguished building. It is one of a number of showpiece designs which came to symbolise Edwardian architecture, although it was actually commissioned – from an award-winning design – in the year of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, 1897.

Prize-winning town hall designs from that year may also be seen in Belfast and Colchester, while visits to Stockport and Lancaster can be enlivened by the sights of the Town Hall and Ashton Memorial respectively. The Memorial stands alone on a hill outside town, and is seen to advantage from the M6 motorway, a promise to holiday-makers bound for the Lake District that proper hills are not far away.

The designers of Cardiff Town Hall, Lanchester and Rickards, are an interesting pair: one patrician, the other (Rickards) a self-made man whose career and personality are explored in a stimulating article – which includes a critique of formal, top-down education – at the following site:

I hoped to report that, pursuing the operatic theme begun in Sevilla, the Ferrier Hall in which we gave our talk in Cardiff was named after the contralto Kathleen Ferrier. However, I note that Ferrier Hall, ‘a bright and flexible functions space on the first floor of City Hall’ , was in fact named after a former Lord Mayor of Cardiff. Oh well.

In lieu of a snapshot – the camera on my mobile phone was on a setting that gives City Hall the curious hue of a postcard left for too long in the window of a rural post office – I attach a sketch of same.

The fair’s movin’ in

Across the fields to the fair: police standing around looking lost, as if they were looking for a football match; fairground girls, as slim and cold-faced as gangsters’ molls; washing hung out to dry by kennels at the caravans behind the rides. Boys holding cigarettes like knives. And the night, darkening like a prophecy.

A little more conversation

Well, Cardiff was great. It was so exciting to see the book for the first time – more exciting than I even imagined. And it was good to make new friends, catch up with old friends, hear new ideas and – as always at IATEFL – to be part of the whole.

My head is still buzzing from the conference, and to be honest I haven’t slept well since. I thought it must be a full moon, but I am told it is a half moon, which is still twice as bad as no moon.

I set up this blog a while back, but I didn’t dare say very much in case Teaching Unplugged failed to materialise at the last minute. Now I know what I want to do here: to keep the conversation going with the friends I made and met in Cardiff, and with people I continue to meet along the way.

I’ll be posting a number of updates and interviews in months and weeks to come, as well as bringing news of an exciting development in Canada from the world of music – so watch this space!

Let’s do launch

I’m off to Cardiff to the IATEFL Conference to launch the book I’ve written with Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged. Our talk is on Thursday afternoon. I will report back presently.

Here’s a message that follows the previous one


And it features a pack of tissues: not just any tissues, but a pack of City LifeTM tissues from the market. I have chosen these not only because of the attractive green roses (it came in a multi-pack with other cemetery-flavoured colours too), but for the poem that features at top right, and which reads as follows:

When the night falls / Moon and stars / Cars and Bars / Beer, water, vapor / Just like lovely smelling flowers

It’s really quite a good poem  – especially the progression from beer to vapor, thinning out like the city’s dreams – until the last line, when the writer’s energy does seem to falter rather. Perhaps the boss walked in.