• Leticia Moraes

Developing lower secondary learners’ awareness of cultural diversity through projects

In today’s highly interconnected world, contact with different cultures is increasingly frequent. The 21st century skills framework (P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning, 2015) highlights social and cross-cultural skills, the importance of respecting cultural differences and communicating effectively with people from a range of social and cultural backgrounds.

Considering that lower secondary learners are still developing the ability to consider diverse perspectives and that this occurs significantly in mid-adolescence (Blakemore, 2012), lower secondary is an appropriate time to develop awareness of cultural diversity and projects are a powerful tool in facilitating this process.

Projects are well-known in teaching lower secondary and are valued in the way they can be used in ELT to trigger reflection. While producing a guide about different schools, for example, my lower secondary learners discovered that the curriculum can vary significantly from school to school, as well as the uniform style and classroom environment. This was a surprise for many of them, and it led them to look at their own schools from a different perspective.

In my context, depending on the level of learners, projects may be dealt with as end-of-unit work which is linked to only one or two lessons previously taught, or as a more complex assignment which lasts more lessons and links the content and language work of a number of lessons. Therefore, we can define a ‘project’ as ‘an extended assignment that usually lasts longer than a single lesson’ (Bohlke, 2014).

Although we work with different kinds of projects, it is important that they share certain features. These are, as described by Stroller (2005): 1. Focus on the content and not the language 2. Student-centeredness 3. Cooperation among students 4. Integration of different skills 5. A concrete final product 6. Potential to motivate, stimulate, empower and challenge learners

I have been working with my learners on a range of semi-structured projects (Stoller, 2005), because these are most suited to my teaching and learning context. Thus, some aspects of the project are pre-determined by the language institute, which guarantees some standardisation, but there is room for learners to make their own decisions as well. This element of choice has proven highly engaging for our lower secondary learners and teachers.

Benefits and challenges

The reasons for the popularity of project work in lessons for young teenagers seem to be clear. As Bohlke (2014)

• Encourage creativity, collaboration, responsibility

• Are suitable for cross-curricular work

• Develop research and information-gathering skills • Foster sense of achievement.

Because of the features above, projects also allow plenty of room for emergent language and differentiated instruction. Besides that, they make the learning process tangible for learners, parents / caregivers and teachers.

In terms of cultural awareness, by investigating and talking about different cultures and realities, lower secondary learners can develop their cultural sensitivity (Bennett, 1993). They can start to move from seeing a specific culture as central and judging all the others using it as a reference and toward understanding that things change from one culture to another.

Despite all these benefits, however, we cannot ignore the challenges of working with projects. And, anticipating problems and dealing with them proactively can minimize disadvantages. According to Bohlke (2014), the main challenges are that they:

• Can be time-consuming • Rely on access to authentic material • Depend on the receptiveness of the learners • Demand planning and time management skills

Being highly student-centred, the teacher’s role is in the background, supporting and guiding learners’ work toward the final outcome of the project. This position, however, is not familiar for many teachers in my context. Therefore, in the beginning, working with projects may demand a shift in teachers’ traditional perceptions of their role in the classroom.

These challenges, however, should not discourage us from working with projects, since the benefits are significant and involve more than just linguistic gain. They foster development of 21st century skills, which help learners to relate to the wider world. Besides that, projects are a powerful tool to raise teenagers’ cultural awareness and foster tolerance and acceptance of difference, which is particularly important in today’s world given the recent mounting rhetoric of hate in a number of contexts. This can be achieved by encouraging learners to carry out online research and discuss different cultures and / or contexts around the world and encourage reflection about differences and similarities.

In my particular teaching context, access to authentic material is not an issue, and project-work is well received by learners, teachers and parents / caregivers. The topics are related to the course syllabus, and teachers can choose ones that fit best their context and learners, who can also make their own choices in the process.

Suggestions for projects aim to:

• Allow learners to use what they study during the course in the making of the project • Provide room for personalization and emergent language • Generate discussion and reasoning that lead to the development of learners’ awareness of different cultures and contexts.

These are some ideas we have been working with to raise learners’ awareness of cultures that are different to their own. How deep the diversity focus goes depends on the teaching context, as well as the existing cultural awareness of each group of learners:

Webpage with tips for travellers To produce their webpage, learners have to research about the place they decide to focus on and select information relevant for a traveller coming from a different culture. To be better able to make this selection, discussion and reasoning about cultural differences is important. This may lead learners to better understanding and respecting these differences with teacher guidance.

Intercultural board games Students are encouraged to research about different cultures and gather information for use in a board game that they go on to design. In order to progress in the game, the players have to decide if statements about different cultures are true or false. This intends to raise their awareness of what is similar and different in other cultures, as well as encouraging questioning of stereotypes in age accessible ways.

Webpage about life in a different place or time In this project, learners can decide to talk about life in a different culture in the present day, or in a different historical period. Like the two projects above, this may lead students to a better understanding of how cultural differences change over time.

Online school guide Research about different schools raises learners’ awareness of ways schools differ considerably even in the same country or region. If learners are prompted to look into schools in different countries, work on cultural awareness becomes even stronger. Identifying not only the differences, but also the similarities in relation to learners’ own context is a powerful way of fostering greater tolerance, acceptance and understanding.

Campaign to improve teens’ lives in a specific place In order to create the campaign, students need to understand the context and the needs of the teenagers in the place chosen. Therefore, they will need to be able to put themselves in other the shoes of students of a similar age, which is an important step toward understanding, acceptance and respect.

Informative poster for the school’s bulletin board about helping classmates with SEND (Special Educational Needs & Disabilities) and learning differences Although perhaps not directly related to cultural aspects, it is an important step towards understanding those of a similar age who may be different, and their needs. Besides, it may trigger reflection about how we can include teens with SEN and disabilities both at school as well as outside the classroom.

Festival calendar Learners create a calendar with the festivals from different countries. As students are also encouraged to write a short description about each festival, this project leads learners to develop understanding of the reasons for the celebrations and raise their awareness of cultural differences and similarities.

Booklet: people we admire In this project, learners are encouraged to think about a person they admire and write a short profile. Each page of the booklet is dedicated to a different person. Therefore, the complete booklet may emphasize the variety of people that are admired by the group and how different people value and respect different things.

Final thoughts... While using projects means that the role of the teacher is more in the background, the guidance you provide learners is essential for the success. In my experience, these are key factors:

• The process is as important as the project outcome • Monitoring students’ work and giving feedback during the process can contribute to keeping them motivated and on track and upgrade the quality of their final output • Be prepared to help learners get organised, especially when the project takes place over a series of lessons • Part(s) of the project can be assigned as self-study. This can help with time management • Presenting the project groups of peers is a great opportunity to generate discussion and raise awareness of cultural diversity.

This article was originally published in the TEYLT Worldwide, Issue 1, 2017: The newsletter of the IATEFL Young Learners and Teenagers Special Interest Group.

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