The holidays left me with a bit of spare time to do some reading. One of the ebooks I managed to cram in between Christmas turkeys and New Year’s fireworks was Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In it the author divides all systems (institutions, societies, things, life, people …) into three categories: the fragile, the robust and the antifragile. A fragile system tries to avoid uncertainty and disorder to keep safe but will eventually be destroyed by a very powerful blow. The robust will survive such a powerful blow without having to change . The most successful systems, however are those which embrace disorder and disruption in order to become stronger and more flexible with each blow they absorb.
Taleb’s book might be more about economics, the similarities with Dogme ELT, however, struck me at once. Taleb defines as antifragile “anything that has more upside than downside from random events (or certain shocks)” (Taleb Ch. 2, loc. 459, par. 1). Exactly this seems to be in Dogme’s DNA, too. In their book Teaching Unplugged Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury call for a responsive approach to teaching English that uses the learners as your “primary resource. (…) Allowing learners to express themselves” (p. 24) in an English lesson and building your whole lesson on on this, means absorbing the random (the learner’s utterances in a conversation) to benefit from it (learning from the utterances in a subsequent focus on their form). A Dogme class will always have a lot of upside from “certain shocks”:
- The classroom is already occupied? Let’s go outside and talk about nature!
- The students are all tired? Let’s talk about what you did last night!
- The computer in the classroom doesn’t work? Share your stories of the last time technology has failed you!
This way the Dogme classroom is also an antifragile system – strong, flexible and likely to succeed.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb is very strong in his condemnation of “our current approaches to prediction, prognostication and risk management” in situations that involve “randomness, unpredictability, opacity, or incomplete understanding of things” (Taleb Ch. 2, loc. 449, par. 1-2) – the very definition of teaching English in a classroom full of students. Tight lesson planning (the teacher’s risk management) and predicting the exact learning outcome surely seems inappropriate, when you are dealing with a group of people who are all bringing their own individual lives, expectations and talents to every lesson, often creating random, unpredictable, opaque situations. The Dogme approach refrains from “pre-emptive teaching” (Meddings and Thornbury, p. 19) – another antifragile quality.
If you decide to rather go with this flow of randomness and unpredictable elements than trying to avoid them in your teaching you will give yourself the chance to rise with them, to become a stronger, more flexible, and more creative teacher. Taking risks and absorbing eventual blows will lead to greater resourcefulness.
NB: In a recent lecture with The RSA, that you can download as a podcast, Nassim Nicholas Taleb talked about Stoic philosophy. He recounted Seneca’s exercises of playing poor. The fantastically wealthy Roman philosopher would take occasional vacations from being rich by choosing to pretend he was poor for a few days. He assumed this would allow him to him keep a healthy perspective on his own wealth and make his life sounder.
So, will a vacation from the wealth of materials that is at our disposal make our teaching sounder? Can we by deliberately and selectively renouncing materials keep their upside without having to bear their downside?
Meddings, L. & Thornbury, S. (2009). Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching.Peaslake: Delta Publishing.
Taleb, N.N. (2012). Antifragile: How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand. London: Penguin Books. Kindle ebook file