Challenging Problem or Question: What makes a place a good place to...?
In different cultures, different public spaces are considered appropriate places to perform various activities. For example, in some cultures it is not appropriate to eat while walking down a public street, while in other cultures (or maybe even in certain situations within the same culture) it is perfectly OK to eat on the street. These differences in behavioral norms (practices) have their roots in different value systems (perspectives). Cultural knowledge regarding practices and perspectives is part of a language learner's set of developing competencies as they become more and more intercultural -- i.e., better able to inhabit cultures other than their own, and better able to see their own culture through the lens of other cultures.
Learners in an advanced-level language course might be able to explore the topic of "What makes a place a good place to...?" in great detail -- for example, they might be able to compare and contrast values in the countryside versus the city in the same country, and to explore the cultural values that underlie these behavioral norms.
Typically, learners in beginning language courses are not asked to consider or explore cultural phenomena of this kind. This project is an attempt to incorporate interculturality as part of the learning construct from the first day of learning the target language. It was designed "in miniature" -- in other words, it is designed for a short timeframe with limited objectives -- and should be further expanded and elaborated if it is used in an academic curriculum. For example, in the design seen here, the learners perform one survey of native Chinese speakers and of American speakers of English to query them about whether they thought certain places (seen in pictures) were appropriate places for certain activities. When this project was tested with a group of learners, they discovered that the place/activity combinations they chose for their survey did not yield much in the way of contrasting results. At this point the learners realized that, given the opportunity, they could revise the place/activity combinations and get much more interesting results, but they did not have sufficient time. If the project were extended for another iteration -- in line with the essential project design element of "critique and revision" in the Buck Institute for Education's "Gold Standard" for Project-Based Learning -- then the project results would have yielded a greater sense of satisfaction and fulfillment, not to mention more interesting information with regard to cultural contrasts.
This mini-project is designed for absolute beginners learning Chinese. Any group participants who already know Chinese should be given a separate role -- for example, they could serve as project "reporters" who observe the progress of the project, or could serve as language informants at the appropriate stage.
This project proceeded as follows. The beginning learners first received input to learn how to express basic actions in Chinese such as 吃饭、休息、运动 etc. and also learned "...的好地方" so that they were able to create a phrase such as "休息的好地方" ("a good place to rest"). They learned that the purpose of this mini-project was to explore possible culturally-based differences in the ways people view public spaces.
After the input phase, the learners explored the local environment and took pictures of places they found interesting or appealing -- places they wanted to explore in their cultural investigation. When they returned from taking pictures, they had the opportunity to interview a native speaker and get more language so that they could express what they wanted to express. Then, with appropriate support for the use of technology to create the slideshow and type in Chinese (or otherwise obtain the Chinese text they need) they made a slideshow consisting of photos they had taken and captions that designated each picture as "a good place to [do activity X]" ([做某种活动]的好地方) in both Chinese and English.
Given the short timeframe this project was designed to fit into, the instructor scaffolded the next step for the learners, viz., the creation and distribution of surveys to the target groups (Chinese speakers in China and English speakers in the USA) asking respondents to rate their agreement with the designation of each picture as "a good place to..."
Results from the survey came in overnight, and the learners' first task on the following morning was to tabluate the survey results. After this, they received additional Chinese language input that enabled them to revise their dual-language slideshow to include the survey results using the formula "Is this a good place to [do activity X]? Out of [N] Americans surveyed, [N] said yes. Out of [N] Chinese surveyed, [N] said yes." (“这是吃饭的好地方吗？十个中国人之间，有三个同意。十个美国人之间，
Having created this more sophisticated version of the slideshow that now included information on the responses from members of the two cultures, the learners generated questions they wanted to ask a native speaker of Chinese via a group Skype call to that person in China. They were also offered the option to ask the question themselves orally during the Skype call. The instructor prepared custom cue-cards for these brave learners.
The Skype interview marked the endpoint of this mini-project. As a "thought experiment" connected to a possible expanded version of the project, the instructor recorded the Skype interview so that the videorecording could potentially serve as raw material for more language learning. In retrospect, the learners said that the footage would probably not be good "next step" material, so this idea should probably be rejected.
One of the biggest challenges in using the ideas of Project-Based Learning for language instruction is that beginning learners have almost no functional communicative capacity, and yet PBL demands that they extend their learning beyond the walls of the classroom to create some kind of real-world impact. I believe this design suffices to show that even beginning learners can meet this challenge, and that significant intercultural content can be included from the very beginning of a language learner's journey.
Understand project and agree to participate
Language input! "A Good Place to..."
Exploring with your team, picture-taking
(Teacher task) Contact language consultants and outline interaction protocol
Interview Chinese-speaking language consultants
Work on first slideshow
(Teacher task) Administer bi-national poll to obtain ratings on "Good places to..."
Tabulate survey results and add to captions
Presentation of slide deck to native audience
Implementation information not specified.