We English teachers like talking about Dogme or teaching unplugged. Some of us are attracted to this approach while others are somewhat skeptical. A recent experience made me wonder whether people are generally divided into the dogme types and non-dogme types, i.e. people who treat things as they emerge and people who plan a lot and like to have control over every single detail.
On Thursday, my class of 21 students, my colleague and I went to a nearby locality where we stayed overnight at a place called The Hunter’s Cottage. It’s a beautiful resort far off the beaten track, amidst the woods that constitute a nature reserve. Right next to the cottage, there are horse stables and a mini zoo – a home to a handful of domestic animals: two sheep, a goat, a fat pig, and two funny wild boars constantly snoring or guzzling the kitchen leftovers. In front of the cottage, there’s a large patch of grass, where kids can play football, badminton or just chase each other. There are all sorts of swings and slides, a mini golf course, and a trampoline, where even teenagers can fool around. Further on, behind the patch, there is a paddock, where you can watch horses graze in the day. Behind the cottage, there’s a cozy, sheltered place, where you can sit around a wooden table playing board games, and there’s a campfire ring too. All in all, it’s a fantastic spot for a dogme school trip. By a dogme school trip I mean a trip where the teacher makes sure that the kids have a roof over their heads, that they have something to eat, but the rest is up to the emergent circumstances.
As soon as we arrived, the kids immediately seized the place. It was all theirs from the very first moment. My colleague and I sat on the bench watching the kids frolic. And this watching, free of any interventions, brought some of the most interesting pedagogical observations. Everybody chose to do something different. Some kids created large groups while others stayed in pairs. There were a couple of loners too. It was easy to see who liked whose company. Some of the kids were very active, running around like crazy; others sat quietly on the grass, chatting or just watching the others. Some kids looked as if they expected somebody would start entertaining them or telling them what to do. Some of them even disappeared in the cottage and stayed inside their rooms to enjoy the privacy.
In the afternoon, we went hiking. My colleague and I decided to walk to a nearby place – an ecological center – where the kids are going next year for a compulsory excursion. It was a beautiful, sunny day. We knew the destination, but we were not sure about the way. In other words, we knew the goal, but we were not quite sure how to reach it. So we asked the people we met on the way and the watched the signs. But the signs and the people’s advice mislead us and we got lost. Now and then we stopped to discuss our next moves. At one point, the kids took out their phones to check out Google Maps, but they turned out to be totally useless in the middle of the fields.
It was very interesting to observe the kids’ reactions at this stage. While my colleague and I considered this stage very adventurous, some kids found it rather upsetting. Some of them looked upset regardless of the fact that we reassured them that it was just a matter of minutes and hundreds of meters before we got back on the right track. It’s not a place where you can get lost and die of hunger. Some of them even wanted to give up and go back without reaching the destination. Many of them were just grumbling and complaining all along the way. A few of them didn’t care and seemed to be enjoying the uncertainty. A couple of them tried to come up with a solution.
Later on, we discussed this with my colleague. We realized that it is not the kids’ fault that they fear uncertainty. We are to blame because we are part of the education system, which has taught them to rely on minute-to-minute plans. It’s the system which tends to exclude everything which is open to doubt. It’s the system that teaches them that those who get lost will lose points. Also, they are told that the teachers should always know all the answers, but the truth is that sometimes they know as much (or as little) as the students.
Outside the classroom, out there in the wilderness, things are different. However, if you are observant, you can tell a lot about your students’ educational attitudes and preferences. And maybe it’s a great opportunity to adjust the way you treat your students while they sit behind the desks. You can teach them to appreciate adventure and uncertainty. You can convince them that not everything can be thoroughly planned and sometimes their voices are as important as the teacher’s opinion.