Reflections on… Teaching Like Mike Leigh?

This is one in a series of posts in which I look back on 10 years of blogging and reflect on posts from the past.

In my last post, I reflected back on one of the most popular posts I’ve ever written, and this time, I’m going to look back at one the least popular. Seems only fair!

In the original post, written at the height of my Dogme ELT period, I considered whether ELT could be influenced by another film maker. I was (and remain) a big fan of Mike Leigh and I was interested in considering how his structured yet improvised technique could influence our lessons and curriculum. If you’re interested in what I was thinking, click here to see what the past me said.

The original post

When I look back at that post now, I do find it interesting to reflect on how my relationship with lessons and methodology has changed over the years. The first stage of my career when I was a new teacher was, not surprisingly, wedded to the book more for life-support than because of any kind of principal. The second stage happened when I realised that the books I was teaching with were not fit for purpose and I was looking elsewhere for inspiration. It shouldn’t have been that surprising that I gravitated towards Dogme, I’ve always preferred culture which exists in the space between the mainstream and fringes, taking bits of both to make something new, including Dogme cinema. Dogme ELT had that feeling about it, it was challenging the predominant thinking (some people were very challenged by it!), and the fact that it had this element of the indie and alternative undoubtedly appealed to me.

It wasn’t just that, of course. I hugely admired the emphasis that it put on the students and their learning. I loved how it wasn’t about fitting the students into a prescribed box, but rather creating lessons that could maximise the time available for the student’s benefit. I also appreciated the emphasis that it placed on flexibility and adaptability, skills which I consider vital for a teacher to this day and ones that I certainly lacked in the first stage of my teaching life.

After this period of experimentation, I started a period where I was required to use traditional coursebooks with a set curriculum, so the opportunity for experimentation became more limited. I appreciate this period, because it was really the first time (post-training) when I had a fairly typical ELT teaching job and so gave me an appreciation for what teacher’s lives are really like. I would consider this the consolidation stage, and in some ways it was as much of an experiment as the Dogme years.

Teaching with a coursebook showed me, no holds barred, the strengths and weaknesses of using them. Yes, they can be prescriptive, one-size-fits all solutions, but they can also provide a teacher with a structure to learning they may not be able to provide themselves. Yes, they can parcel up language into unrealistic nuggets that don’t reflect the reality of how language acquisition works, but they can also make the language learning process accessible to both the teacher and the student. And yes, they do make spontaneity and ‘teaching moments’ harder to come by, but they also provide overworked and underpaid teachers with a ready made lesson.

In short, they can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on the book and the teaching environment. I’ve now reached a stage where I try to extract the positive from both, so for the majority of my lessons I choose to use a coursebook because it provides me and my students with structure and support. But the door is always open to respond to things that happen in the moment, to react to what is needed, whether that is to spend more time or less on a particular area, or going on another tangent completely.

I try to take this into another area that has changed since I wrote about Mike Leigh almost 10 years ago. Because yes, this Dogme fan has become a materials writer (sell out!!). In my materials, I try to make sure that there is a sense of exploration and curiosity, a crucial part of Dogme and my proposed Leigh method. I try to make sure that my lessons breathe, that they feel like genuine periods of inquiry and learning, which is how I think the best lessons feel. I’m still fairly new to this, so I’m not sure how successful I am, but I’m trying to incorporate the best of both worlds.

My first coursebook series, Our Language, published by StandFor

When you do a blog post, you never know what people will want to read and what they won’t. To be honest, I don’t worry about that too much. Experience has shown me that trying to be popular is pointless, as you will often be wrong and end up not doing the things that interest you in the first place. So my original post wasn’t that popular, and maybe this one won’t be either, who knows? But I enjoyed writing it and the reflection that it caused feels valuable, and neither of those would have been possible had the James of ten years ago also not sat down in front of his computer and reflected on how he was feeling.

I want to give a special mention to Mark Andrews, a teacher who I hugely admire and was one of the only people who really liked that original post! So much so that he recently shared it again on social media and asked me how I feel about it now. I hope this answers your question Mark!

This post was soundtracked by


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