Dogme Challenge #3 – Affordance


October 26, 2010 by Willy Cardoso

This is the 3rd round of the Dogme Blog Challenge.

You can read my #1 response here and #2 response there.

The quote by Meddings & Thornbury this time is:

The teacher’s primary function, apart from promoting the kind of classroom dynamic conducive to a dialogic and emergent pedagogy is to optimize language learning affordances, by directing attention to features of the emergent language; learning can be mediated through talk, especially talk that is shaped and supported (i.e. scaffolded) by the teacher.


I don’t have anything to say about scaffolding at the moment. Below you’ll find links to other bloggers who wrote about it, great posts by the way.

I’d like to talk about, or to think about, affordances. For that I’ll use two short extracts from  my favorite book (and the only one) on two of my favorite subjects, Complex Systems and Applied Linguistics.

An affordance is an opportunity for use or interaction presented by some object or state of affairs to an agent. For example, to a human being, a chair affords sitting, but to a woodpecker it may afford something quite different (Clark 1997:172), just as a hole in a tree is an affordance for a woodpecker, but not for a sparrow.

What if language learning tasks are seen, not as providing input, which then migrates piecemeal to inside the learner’s head, but instead as providing affordances (van Lier 2000)? From the latter perspective, learning is construed as ‘the development of increasingly effective ways of dealing with the world and its mearnings’ (van Lier 2000:246).

Here we are talking about the primary role of the teacher being that of provider of opportunities for use and interaction that will equip learners with ‘ways’ of dealing with the world and its meanings.

If we take this last sentence as a positive view of what it is to teach, we may well realize we’d better ditch our coursebooks and tests, bestow our brick-and-mortar classrooms on the homeless, and start looking for more real affordances for learners to experience and experiment with the world and its meanings.

What do you think?


Bloggers in the 3rd ring:

Mike Harrison – How do you scaffold?

David Warr –  For those who know…

Nick Jaworski – Dogme in the mind of a Teacher

Henrick Oprea – Scaffolding

Sabrina de Vita – Dogme with Young Learners

Cecilia Coelho – Scaffolding, Maps and Possible Routes



19 thoughts on “Dogme Challenge #3 – Affordance

  1. Nice post, Willy, and interesting angle.

    The need to get out of the classroom and experience the world totally resonates with me – that’s what I wrote about on the OUP Blog.

    BUT what about if you teach in a country where English isn’t used a lot or your learners (for whatever reason) just stick in their own language groups and communities? Doesn’t the classroom provide some of these learners with opportunities to practise the language?

    • Good questions Mike!

      I’m not (yet) saying classrooms don’t cater for learning. The primal question is, ‘What do we need this for?’, so we can put English as this; What do we need English for? If it is to read English literature or write emails, maybe the classroom is okay, some will say it’s not because literature is about the world outside and if you go out and see the world you’ll better understand literature, but back to your question.
      It doesn’t matter if English is not spoken in your community, you can have a lesson with a teacher walking at a supermarket or at a park, sitting at a café is also a good option. Shopping malls, McDonald’s, buses and metros, especially with adult learners, anywhere, included the classroom, but not exclusively there.
      Going out means having interference, noise, distraction, attraction, i.e. things that will happen when the learner will try to use the new language. That’s the argument, the classroom may provide the language (form, focus, practice, etc) but not the conditions where that language will be eventually used.

      Hope I could somehow answer you question.

  2. […] learners by Sabrina De Vita, Scaffolding by Henrick Oprea, For those who know… by David Warr, Affordance by Willy […]

  3. […] are lots of affordances, as Willy outlines in Authentic Teaching, chances for error-strewn language practice, errors which I let pass or occasionally reformulate […]

  4. dfogarty says:

    Hi Willy
    I don’t think we should dismiss the classroom (and I realise that this is not what you are doing!) It is, after all, a cocoon for many learners. A place where it is OK to go and get things wrong and sound like a complete tool. It is also, for some, the only place where English is spoken. Outside the classroom is L1 – and perhaps that’s where English might belong – confined to a small space rather than rampaging through the streets!

    Ultimately, I agree with you that learners need to feel confident in using their language in any environment and the rather sterile environment of the classroom offers up few affordances compared to the more fertile environment outside the four walls.

    Just to be pedantic, you wrote that the primary role of the teacher was “to equip learners with ‘ways’ of dealing with the world and its meanings.” Can I suggest a slight refocussing? I would suggest that the world doesn’t have any meanings in itself. It just is. Therefore, we are not trying to help people deal with the meanings, but actually to construct heir own personal meaning. This is something I recently failed to get across on ELTChat. People wanted to know what dogme meant and my response was that it means whatever you choose it to mean. This wasn’t some deep esoteric mental onanism – just how it is. Dogme seems to defy straightforward definition in part because it means so many different things to so many different people. If we look at the phenomenon objectively, it seems to be no more than a label that people like to stick on anything they do which is not enitrely in-keeping with traditional teaching.

    To get back to your main point though, I don’t think it necessarily follows that dogme means ditching the coursebooks and turning schools into hostels. Gary Motteram recently pointed out on Jeremy’s blog that sociocultural theory is about the construction of meaning through the employment of mediational tools. For us, the primary mediational tool is language. But there are teachers who are able to make their coursebooks sing. Regrettably, I am not one of them.

    • Not pedantic at all.
      As you could see there are very few thoughts of my own on this post. The part about ‘the world and its meanings’ and ‘the role of the teacher’ derived from my reasoning over the three pieces quoted, not my critique or beliefs, a simple digestion of the material with an ending question. ‘What do you think?’
      And it’s great what you wrote, I share some of these principles. So, yes ‘we are not trying to help people deal with the meanings, but actually to construct their own personal meaning.’ A lot better that way.

      What I could’ve said, but didn’t, well, I expected readers to infer, is that in saying ‘a hole in a tree is an affordance for a woodpecker, but not for a sparrow’, we can think, aren’t they both birds? Aren’t we all humans? Hence, an affordance for a teacher is not necessarily an affordance to a learner. Affordance to student A might not afford anything to student B and so on. Going deep down in this chain of thought (or mental onanism, for some) might come up to a plausible argument against equality for example, gender equality or social equality, whatever. Also, to a yeah let’s ditch the coursebook, why not? What I’m trying to say here is that if ‘the world doesn’t have any meaning in itself’, we can well cut out the social guilt and be happy existentialists, which is not bad I should add, just different. All is justified when believing that the person constructs his/her own personal meanings, which includes the society.

      I know you probably meant sociocultural contruction, but I couldn’t buy it for the sake of the argument.

      And, yes, just to make it clear to everyone, the series is about Dogme, but I don’t limit the space to Dogme nor ELT, I often like to see everything as education.

      Thanks Diarmuid!

  5. Another excellent point requiring much deep thought… and I think this primal question in your comments is the starting point for any dogme class, in fact what separates the dogme approach from any other: the question what do you need English for?

    Only when that question is answered and understood then the teacher can effectively begin to teach – no matter what he/she does or uses from there on in.


    • Just wondering if one has a class of 35 students and asks them what they need English for, can this teacher ‘effectively begin to teach’ with 35 different answers?
      Assuming then that the teacher gets the notion of the average purpose of the learners and build on that, isn’t he going against what in a previous post we saw as a characteristic of emergence; the whole is not the sum of its parts.
      I think in some types of English this is called a catch 22, isn’t it?

      Teaching is the hell of a difficult job! I think I’ll launch a new motto: Forget teaching, go fishing!

      • dfogarty says:

        My favourite quotation from the Tao Te Ching: “Give up learning – and put an end to all your troubles.”

  6. In a group of 35, you will generally have different interests… but not 35 different interests… and you simply put like with like and/or you take turns.

    Teaching isn’t the military, there is no need for everyone to be on page 38 at the same time. hmmm…The best analogy I can come up with this late at night is the pub… 35 people don’t all have the same conversation, they subgroup and hone in on what that subgroup finds that they have in common!

    • 🙂
      did I sort of elicited that from you? hmm, maybe I did, maybe I didn’t…

      not everyone needs to be doing the same thing at the same time – how I love this! It should be principle #1 in your first CELTA input session or on your first day at a new school, it’s like, the tutor doesn’t need to say good morning my name is Mr Tutor Almighty, s/he should say “according to Karenne Sylvester (2010) Teaching isn’t the military, there is no need for everyone to be on page 38 at the same time”

      It always amazes me that when I said something like that to teachers in training (back in the country), it was a massive a-ha moment for them.

      >>as long as pub-talk goes, I’m awfully spacing out when there are more than 3 people in a conversation; 35 make me claustrophobic.

  7. […] October 26, 2010 at 12:26 pm | #5 Dogme Challenge #3 – Affordance « Authentic Teaching […]

  8. Hey again Willy,

    To answer your question (if it’s about getting away from the classroom…)

    Whenever I can I will ask the students to work on things that pertain to their daily lives. Also, in a couple of weeks I’m due to cover supermarket vocabulary and countable/uncountable nouns with an Entry 1 class (beginner to elementary), so if possible I will plan a trip to the local Sainsbury’s!

    • Hi Mike,

      I’ll tell you that I didn’t feel so well after my last question to you, it sounded like a challenge, and it was not that. I’m interested, that’s all, in knowing how other teachers put into practice their teaching philosophy when I see so much top-down control in traditional school settings.
      I’ve seen, as brief as blogposts can be, a few things you have done with your groups, the lesson plans and blogs, it’s great! It’s miles ahead from some teaching I used to observe back home where teachers had full control over curricula in some cases.

      If it’s raining too heavily, you can go to sainsbury’s online, it’s just as authentic I guess.

      • No need Willy, it was a good question! And even if it was a little bit of a challenge, I never see that as a bad or threatening thing from people like you =)

        It’s kind of odd, since in an FE setting you are expected to cover elements of a core curriculum (which has good and bad points about it) there is actually quite a lot of flexibility in how you do that. As long as you are hitting those points in the curriculum (which isn’t difficult to do, since it’s all linked to the language and how you use it in daily life) then you can pick and choose. So I do my drawing, finding a relevant YouTube video; others are great at teaching from coursebooks and linking that to the ESOL curriculum (some books are even already mapped to it now).

        Where there is less wiggle room is in preparing for the tests, as they can be quite decontextualised (handwriting an email, anyone??) or are testing learners on skills which may only be of limited relevance or use (reading sub-skills, maybe?)

        All in all, I think there is a really good team where I work – I’m quite lucky!

        Thanks for the good discussion =)

  9. Ann says:

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.



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