The Language Teacher
November 2001

Motivating Learning Through Ethnographic Projects

Philip MacLellan

Kobe College

Dawn Grimes-MacLellan

Konan University

Creating authentic learning opportunities that motivate university students in EFL classrooms can be challenging. Cross-cultural ethnographic research projects meet this motivational challenge by promoting active student engagement in language learning through a teacher-facilitated process of inquiry that students themselves design and implement. Students are motivated by the authentic and integrated use of English that emerges from their research, and the autonomy to pursue a cognitively challenging topic of interest. Learners benefit by building skills to initiate interactions and carry on a "dialogue" with native speakers, gaining confidence through their use of English and the realization that they possess the ability to direct their own learning. In addition to discrete skill development, the integrated use of language skills in authentic interactions with native speakers facilitates an increased awareness of cultural patterns and thought processes which leads to students' linguistic development, sociolinguistic awareness, and improved communicative competence.

In educational cultures such as Japan where students have not often been socialized to pursue such inquiry, the open-ended and unfolding nature of ethnographic research can initially be uncomfortable (if not downright frightening!), though most students eventually find the process liberating once they more fully understand their role in the endeavor. To accommodate EFL learners' need for structure, the research process is scaffolded through a step-by-step modular approach to research and language skills development. This modular approach also provides teachers the flexibility to offer the modules as a complete semester-length course or as supporting activities in a full year skills or content-based course. Worksheets and mini-lessons provide models that students then apply to their own projects.

As a result of our experiences using this approach in our classes, the syllabus has become more structured, with worksheet exercises that develop students' skills in problem areas and a selection of materials that can be adapted to differing abilities, available resources, and research directions. A typical syllabus incorporates the following modules: topic and group selection; background research; research design; observation; questionnaires and interviews; reports; analysis; charts, graphs and posters; and presentations. Within these modules, language as well as research skills are developed. Scanning and skimming exercises facilitate background research. Practice in opening and closing discussions, sharing opinions and nominating new topics supports classroom discussion of research findings. Peer and teacher review helps the process of writing in-progress and final reports, and videotaped progress reports with simultaneous evaluation by classmates and subsequent viewing by presenters helps prepare students for the final presentation, which we have typically organized as a poster session.

Although ethnography has traditionally been within the domain of social science research, predominantly anthropology, ethnographic methods are particularly suitable for EFL students because this approach to research utilizes methods that rely not only on linguistic ability in order to perform interviews, for example, but also on other techniques such as observation that require few linguistic resources. One task that is used to develop students' observation skills is to send them out on the campus for twenty minutes to the cafeteria, library or other busy locations with instructions to observe styles of dress, behaviors, and patterns of interaction. At the same time, they are also required to record field notes based on these observations. From this exercise, students learn valuable lessons such as the extent to which they notice behavior when it is consciously observed, and that choices are made in deciding which individuals and what interactions to record as field notes simply because all information present in the observation field cannot be written down.

Back in the classroom, students discuss not only what they observed and the associated difficulties in keeping field notes, but they also explore their own situatedness in recording the data. Questions such as "what drew your attention to the individuals you recorded,""how did it feel to keep notes while observing,""how did you decide the location where you observed from,"and so forth are fodder for interesting, serious discussion. They encourage students to consider how their position as researchers necessarily influences the process and practice of inquiry. This exercise, and ones for teaching other ethnographic methods, attempt not only to help students master the technique but also to analyze each step of the process to improve their skills and continually consider how the situation might have been approached differently and speculate on the results that a different approach might have yielded.

As may be inferred from the illustration above, teaching ethnography is demanding for teachers. It is demanding not only because this form of activity is new to Japanese students, being absent from traditional educational culture, but also because it has not been a major technique used within the academic research community of Japan. One of the initial challenges is convincing students of the iterative nature of the research. It is important to help students understand that ethnographic research develops throughout the course of the research project, and data collected at one stage of the process often influences the direction of inquiry at later stages. This is difficult for students to grasp because they often begin the project with an anticipated "conclusion" in mind, and we have encountered progress reports typically written as traditional final summative reports. Then, as is often the case with any learning, overcompensation occurs and students then may state unashamedly that they could not complete work due to their own carelessness or not spending enough time on it.

Providing interim feedback and class discussion, however, can help to mitigate students' feelings of frustration and uncertainty during the research process. Most importantly, students need to learn the difference between creating a research hypothesis that they will test, and holding a predetermined estimation of what the research will yield. This conceptual challenge is faced during the transition from background research to later modules, and can be learned through either verbal or visual exercises that present scenarios without their endings. After discussing potential outcomes for these situations, the endings are presented and further discussion examines the factors that lead to the various anticipated endings. A breakthrough occurs when students are able to let go of one strongly held expectation, and subsequently can view the ethnographic research project as one of discovery which provides further motivation in its pursuit.

The autonomy provided by ethnographic research projects typically energizes students to respond and learn in creative ways. Do you have a student who wants to "watch movies?" If you have them justify including their interests in their research projects, you may be surprised by the creativity you will witness. One student who in the initial stages of choosing a topic indicated an interest in movies decided to code and analyze the spatial proximities of characters in five of her favorite movies. She did this in order to triangulate data she had collected from questionnaires she had administered to foreigners and Japanese regarding cultural differences in personal space when communicating. Not all project designs are so ambitious, but other student projects have included gender in advertising, manners, international marriages, cultural adjustment of homestay families and students, and cross-cultural analysis of fashion. One of the most crucial by-products of the research process is the transference of responsibility that occurs. Students learn that they can direct their language learning according to their preferences, and that they can be successful in doing so.

Ethnographic research requires resourcefulness on the part of both teachers and students. All available opportunities need to be tapped, and for intercultural topics, obtaining foreign viewpoints is typically a challenge. Brainstorming activities identify locally available resources such as foreign study-abroad students, other international exchange venues and internet communication. Encouraging students to collaborate and share resources helps facilitate a classroom community of inquiry. One of the most challenging aspects for teachers and students is to fit the research to the available resources, and earlier discussion about how there is no single answer or truth to discover helps facilitate results at this stage. When the window is opened wide, students may initially hesitate, but when they realize that they can leap forward, they do (sometimes with a little prodding). This is an essential part of the process.

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