Observe, document, reflect, elaborate

Language learning through ethnographic observation and collaborative projects

By Luciana Fellin (Duke University, Durham, NC, USA)


This paper illustrates a multi-phase Italian L2 learning module that implements a student centered reflective pedagogy based on collaborative and experiential learning. Students explore ordinary sites and practices outside of the classroom, approaching the task with specific roles to observe, document, reflect, and elaborate. Through scaffolded activities students come together to collaboratively elaborate a final product that synthesizes their learning experience. In this way, the classroom becomes a hub where students plan, negotiate and refine their learning products based on real life experiences. Finally, reflective pedagogy, which fosters student awareness of their own social, cultural and learning selves, coupled with the tools of ethnography, guide students to explore other cultures and worldviews, and push them to actively engage in their own language learning process.

Keywords: collaborative language pedagogy, experiential language pedagogy, reflective language pedagogy

©inTRAlinea & Luciana Fellin (2018).
"Observe, document, reflect, elaborate Language learning through ethnographic observation and collaborative projects"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2301

1. Introduction

In the age of social media and unprecedented access to digital tools that erase barriers, it is crucial to rethink the social nature of knowledge and promote the co-construction of learning. Due to its interactive nature, the language classroom is the ideal place for re-conceptualizing the acquisition of knowledge and the development of skills in a collaborative fashion. Interdependent collaborative learning, however, yields its best fruits when associated with reflection on the experience. Reflective pedagogy, which fosters student awareness of their own social, cultural and learning selves, coupled with the tools of ethnography, may guide students in the exploration of other cultures, values and world views, and push them to engage actively and with more cognition in the language learning process.

With such a pedagogical framework in mind, this chapter illustrates an Italian L2 module consisting in a multi-phase plan that implements a student centered reflexive language pedagogy based on collaborative and experiential learning. The module, named ‘The Museum Unit’ consists in a series of activities that span different lessons, culminating in a museum visit and in the production of a learning artifact. Students are asked to explore a new space outside of the classroom - in this case an art museum - approaching the task with specific roles, e.g. communications and marketing expert, art dealer, and curator. Then, they are required to observe, document, reflect and comment on their experience in the museum in order to elaborate, in Italian, a pitch on the museum itself and to provide a guide for peer visitors. Finally, students, embodying different roles come together to collaboratively elaborate a final product that can take the form of a video guide, brochure, poster, info-graphics, website or other product suggested by the students themselves. The artifact or product of their learning is subsequently put to use by fellow Italian language and culture students, thereby having an authentic real-life utility and contributing to a broader learning community that encompasses students from the elementary to high intermediate level classes at the same university.

The collaborative and experiential learning activities in the module described here are based on the idea that learning occurs though communication, interaction with others, and joint problem solving while engaging in real-life settings and tasks. Through such processes students achieve higher levels of learning, develop linguistic abilities, and typically have a more positive attitude about learning (Gokhale, 1995; Lafford, 2013). Strait and Sauer (2004: 62) found that collaborative experientially-based learning enabled students to “sharpen the focus of their own instruction and learning as well as deepen their level of inquiry through questioning, making connections, and honoring multiple perspectives”. And in the academic cultures of countries like the US, where individual success and competitiveness are held as values, simply the experience of obtaining knowledge through a communal activity is itself an adoption of a target culture perspective that is, in fact, best understood through collective practices.

In the following sections I explain the theoretical background underlying the choice to engage in reflexive experiential pedagogy and then discuss ethnography as a learning tool. Subsequently, I describe the phases and activities of the museum teaching module. Finally, I discuss implications of this pedagogical approach and offer suggestions for further practice and implementation.

2. Theoretical background

Language use and language learning are social activities. They thrive in situations that require authentic exchange of information, encourage negotiation of meaning, and prompt collaboration among learners. Vygotsky’s (1978; 1987) socio-cultural theory of learning holds that social interaction and cooperative learning are essential in constructing both cognitive and emotional images of reality in children and that thought, meaning-making and language development are socially constructed and emerge out of learners’ social interactions with their environment. Applying Vygotskian principles to second language acquisition, Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 23) claim that “[language] learning is embedded within social events and occurring as an individual interacts with people, objects, and events in the environment”. Learning takes place when students interact with each other and, more so, when interaction is set in a real-life context, such as the public space of the museum in the teaching module described below. As Brooks (1991) and Thorne (2011) note, there is a need to use the world as its own model, and, in the words of Byrnes (2011: 291), “language learning is no longer to be primarily of and in the classroom alone, but of, with, and for the community”.

Experiential and collaborative learning are central tenets of the pedagogy underlying the  Museum Unit. However, experience per se is only the first step in the learning process, and for learning to emerge from it, the experience must be followed by the vital step of reflection. The  Museum Unit entails scaffolded activities and guided reflection prompted in multiple steps. As a first step, students are asked to reflect on the spaces they inhabit daily and then to engage in a first, pre-visit exploratory online research task, followed by a discussion of the notions of public and private space in a comparative perspective. In this pre-visit phase, students keep a journal about their own experience with museums and then research Italian and American museums online, paying attention to aspects such as public or private status, modes of access and consumer sustainability. Students and teachers then discuss learning expectations and set individual and group goals for the museum project. Throughout the different phases and activities–-from pre and post museum visit to final artifact production–-students check and negotiate roles within the group, assessing individual and group progress and needs as regards language, content and technology. Reflexive journal writing and the tools of ethnography compound the reflective process. Aided by observation and documentation prompts, students are guided to engage in careful, systematic observation and analysis of their own surroundings and of the practices within them, and then compare them with those documented in the target culture, i.e. Italian spaces including museums. In this specific unit, students observe, document, reflect and elaborate –the mantra of the course integral to each of its different content units—on public and private spaces’ functions and on how the two types of spaces are organized. These range from American and Italian cities to the American campus and the Italian urban university, the local campus quad and Italian piazza, and finally, to American and Italian museums. Students observe, document and reflect on how museum spaces are organized and how they themselves and other people move and behave within them. The comparative target-culture part is obtained through readings, explorations in the media, and interviews with Italians or peers that have lived abroad.

Space, its organization, function and meaning is often such a basic and taken for granted element for most students that observing and reflecting on it becomes an enlightening way of approaching a culture. Reflection on space leads to self-awareness and exploration of one’s often unquestioned practices and values, and then to understanding or at least being open to those of others. Repeated observation, documentation and reflection foster an awareness of self and others that leads students to view their own practices and values in light of those of the Italian culture that they are studying – thus gaining new perspectives and possibly, a deeper understanding of aspects of Italian culture that underlie its members’ values, practices and behavior (e.g. public vs. private, sociality, history, cultural capital). To this effect, Lee (2011, 2012) found that reflective blogging helped to develop students’ intercultural competence and Berger Kaye (2010) identified reflection as an important component in facilitating the development of civic, social, cultural and language literacies in experiential learning.

Finally, rather than approaching the target language and culture by examining discrete formal, functional, textual elements of the L2, which is a pervasive approach in Italian L2 textbooks, engaging in the L2 language and culture through collective work on a common task with extensive individual reflection on the experience, holds many potential benefits in terms of motivation, investment, and “transcultural understanding” (Geisler et al., 2007).

3. Context

The  Museum Unit is part of an intermediate language and culture course devised for students in their third semester of Italian at an American university. The course meets three times a week for a total of forty-five hours over fifteen weeks. The ideation[1] of the course, part of a curriculum overhaul, came about after teachers’ frustration with multiple textbooks’ stale content and form-driven discrete approaches to learning, and the realization of the rich content and interactional promise of digital tools and media, the motivational potential in mining student interests and the benefits of collaborative experiential learning. We therefore changed the curriculum in order to create a project-based communicative-experiential syllabus around common core themes — food, space, relations — that would include more ecologically valid activities (Atkinson, 2011). This entailed organizing teaching and learning around real world tasks connected to student interests and to local offerings and having students reflect on their experiences in and out of the classroom while working collaboratively. It also involved creating new materials that functioned as guiding principles that would substitute the course textbook, and heavy reliance on technology in the form of smartphones to document visual and oral sources and experiences, and laptops with Internet connection to access Italian sites and participants.

The  Museum Unit is the second content unit in the three-module course built around three core themes: consumption, space and relations. Students are introduced to the course philosophy and teaching approach in the first module, focused on food consumption, where they are taught to observe, document, reflect, elaborate on foodstuffs and foodways starting with a personal food and waste log, subsequently journaling about food practices and traditions in their own families and communities, and then about the social functions of food and the environmental impacts of different foodways. These activities culminate in a group preparation of a small meal in which students take on different roles: from chef to server, to food critic and journalist. In the third module, entitled ‘relations’, students interview a person who lives or has lived in Italy about his/her cross-cultural experiences, expectations and differences between the two cultures. As a final project of the course, using techniques from drama pedagogy (Evans, 2011) practiced during the semester, students write, direct, act and record a brief creative video in the form of documentary, mockumentary or original feature that incorporates the themes explored throughout the course.

Projects that are challenging and meaningful and that provide opportunities for student input and ownership of their own language-learning trajectory create an environment conducive to sustaining motivation to learn the L2 (Hussin et al., 2000; Knutson, 2003). The experiential collaborative pedagogy organized around essential themes (consumption, space and relations), which entails observation, documentation and reflection on common daily practices and pervasive culturally- laden elements (body, space, relations, values) leaves room for modulation according to students’ specific interests and needs. In fact, different groups within the same class and different reiterations of the course across semesters yielded different final products for distinct units. For the  Museum Unit discussed here, the artifacts ranged from poster and Prezi presentations of plans for new museums, dramatized role-play proposals for museum pitches, to brochures on exhibits and video tours, and even a diorama with captions. Below are materials describing some of the different activities included in the  Museum Unit. The module is organized into eight phases with different activities, each phase scaffolding the next and leading up to the final artifact production and reflection on the learning experience. Needless to say that for such a textbook-less approach to succeed, technology is crucial. Basic tools, such as smartphones and laptops with access to the Internet, typically owned by the majority of students, become integral to the course.

4. The Museum Unit

By the time students start the  Museum Unit, scheduled for weeks five through nine of the fifteen-week course, they are familiar with the pedagogical approach and course expectations, and have practiced ethnographic observation techniques to which they are however continuously guided by instructional prompts. Below I will summarize some of the museum teaching module activities and include others in their entirety in translation[2].

Phase 1, In the Field. The first phase of the unit implements the course mantra: observe, document, reflect and elaborate. Here students are prompted to observe their surroundings and communities both on campus and at home (from dorm to discotheque), focusing on how space is organized and how it affects peoples’ behavior. A list of observational categories, which include actors, activities, events, behavior, space, objects, time, and goals (Whitehead, 2004), guides students in taking notes upon which they then reflect and elaborate in journal format. This activity enhances self-awareness, builds vocabulary, engages students in finding their own interest and meaning in the topic and generates content, interaction and language linked to student experience.

Phase 1B, Recall Journal. Students are asked to describe a memory of a museum visit from their past and then share it on the class digital forum. This allows practice and expansion of forms, personalizes and infuses an emotional layer of memory and a diverse point of view on the topic.

Phase 2, Virtual Tour. Students are asked to conduct online research on Italian museums, focusing on spatial organization and comparing different museums and their offerings; the goal is that of emailing peers or parents visiting Italy about the museums’ location, organization and offerings. Exploring the Italian museums virtually, with the goal of gathering information and organizing it according to the needs of users belonging to different social categories and age groups, is an authentic real-life task which helps students to engage with the topic and related language, further preparing them for the actual local museum excursion and final artifact production learning task.

Phase 3, Preparation for the Museum Visit. Students work in groups to formulate questions for the museum guide, hone in on their specific roles and tasks for the visit and create a vocabulary bank useful for the excursion.

Phase 4, Museum Visit: Students visit the local museum with a brief guided tour in Italian and work in different groups to complete specific tasks according to assigned roles. Below are the guidelines distributed to students translated into English:

(1) Welcome to the Nasher Museum! The visit is organized as follows:

  1. Guided tour and presentation of the museum (whole class). Do not forget to take notes!;
  2. Individual work according to your specific role (see guidelines below);
  3. Q&A session with the museum guide (all groups together).

During the museum visit, each group member takes on the role of communications expert and photographer, marketing expert, curator or art dealer, as detailed in the guidelines below:

A. Communications Expert and Photographer

Your job is to ask the people who work in the museum questions and to take pictures of the museum spaces, of your classmates working on their tasks, and of anything that you deem interesting. Additionally, you need to keep in touch with your group members to gather and then relay any questions they have for the guide in the final Q&A session. You are to gather at least two questions for your group to ask. Use the model below to record your questions:

Group ____. Questions for the guide:

Name of the interviewee:



In your opinion, what is the most important information that emerged from these interviews? Consult with your group mates.

            B. Marketing Expert

Your role is to take note of the type of public that attends the museum. Who are they (age, gender, profession, other)? What are they doing? Also, take note of all the material needed to understand the museum's marketing strategy (e.g. brochures, shops, pins, postcards, gadgets, etc.). For this purpose you need to document, possibly collect available items and provide a detailed description of them to your group.

C. The Curator

You are an expert on museum installations and therefore you understand how to use the museum spaces. Your job is to make a map of the museum. Draw the different spaces in the museum and then indicate what these spaces are for and what you can do in them. Also, zoom in on the objects and works of art in show. a) Describe one or two museum objects/works in detail: What are they? What material are they made of? How large are they? What color are they? What is their use? Where are they placed in the exhibit? Who are they for? Why are these objects interesting?

D. The Art Dealer

The role of the art dealer is to identify works of art that could be interesting for your group presentation. Your task is to go around the collection and take note of the author, the title and the subject of these works. Why is the work interesting and why would you include it in the presentation?

Once students finish the museum visit they regroup to exchange the information and documentation they collected individually, comment on their observations, and elaborate a plan for creating an artifact together.

Phase 5, Videoblog: Students are asked to orally recount and comment on their museum visit in a brief Vlog that is posted on a shared class forum. This allows students to reflect upon the experience and organize their observations and documentation, extracting from them pivotal elements to share with the group. This activity prepares students for the next step, where groups gather to negotiate content and form and plan for the final collective learning product.

Phase 6, Elaboration and presentation of final group product: Students carry out the activities as detailed in the guidelines below.

(3) Guidelines:

This project provides you and your group with an opportunity to observe, document, reflect and comment on the field trip of the semester to create an artifact that teaches people about the Nasher museum and how people can benefit from museum spaces. Your group can choose between two project types (A or B) with different audiences and goals:

A. Your project can take the form of a pitch to the Nasher Museum executives on how to improve the museum or create a new one.

B. You project can be a video introduction to the museum for your peers in elementary and low intermediate Italian courses that will visit the Nasher Museum in the future. The goal of this project is to create a digital object that will help fellow students or Italian visitors to navigate the museum space and make the most of their visit according to your group’s experience.

You will present your project to the class. Each presentation must include two components:

1. (A, B) Retell and analyze your experience at the museum;

1. (A) For the pitch project: Suggest possible initiatives to improve the Nasher Museum and its relationship with visitors (see guiding questions below);

2. (A, B) Suggest what visitors should do, then focus on a specific work of art and comment on it.

When preparing your project keep in mind the questions below:

(A, B) How are the spaces in the Nasher organized? How do people (visitors / employees) use these spaces? What can you see in this museum? What types of informative objects (notes / photos / drawings / flyers etc ...) did you collect during your visit? What information did you collect through these objects?

In your opinion, why is this material relevant to understanding what kind of museum the Nasher is and how it works? Did something unexpected or particularly significant happen during the visit?

Below are the instructions for students’ final group product. Students come together after the museum visit to elaborate a learning artifact with individual group members contributing information they gathered at the museum according to the roles they were charged with for the visit. Students have two options for their final product, they can elaborate a project to improve the museum, called the museum pitch, or create a museum guide for future visitors.

(4) Project Option A, The Museum Pitch: Suggest possible initiatives to improve the Nasher Museum and its relationship with visitors. Here you have possible questions you can use to elaborate your proposal(s):

What do you think the strengths of the Nasher are? What does not fit/ do you not like about this museum? What could be improved? Do you think you missed something in this museum? Are there any ideas you've seen applied in other museums that you think can work on the Nasher? In your opinion, is there a specific type of visitor who might be interested in the Nasher but that the Nasher does not attract? What strategies could be used to attract this new audience to the Nasher? Do you have ideas for new exhibitions or initiatives that could be organized at Nasher? Do you have any new ideas for possible uses of Nasher spaces and technology? You can elaborate on specific idea or briefly pitch different ideas for possible improvements in different areas.

         Project Option B: Museum Guide for fellow students: Suggest what visitors should do and focus on a work of art and describe and comment on it.

(A, B) Steps to preparing the presentation:

1. Re-examine all the materials collected during the visit: notes, photos, drawings, videos, interviews, sketches, vocabulary, expressions, grammar structures, cultural information etc.;

2. Select relevant examples pertaining to your focus;

3. Arrange and reflect on the material you have selected and present it to the class in a new/revised format (e.g. photos are assembled into a poster or storyboard to organize, display and express your reflections, comments and insights).

At the end of Phase 6, students are asked to present their final group project to the whole class. To facilitate group work and enhance the quality of the final product, students are asked to choose a role whereby they are responsible for different aspects of the project presentation, such as accuracy and appropriateness of content and language and effectiveness of format.

(5) Presentation of roles for group work:

Each group member is required to contribute equally to the project and also to appear with a speaking role during the presentation or in the video. To facilitate the workflow, each student will take on a specific role in preparing the presentation.

Fact checker: The fact checkers need to double-check that the information presented is relevant and correct and they should add information when necessary.

Pronunciation coaches: The pronunciation coaches need to pay particular attention to the pronunciation, making sure that each person pronounces their lines correctly.

The communication experts: The communication experts are in charge of making sure that the project and its presentation meet their goals. Does the video/poster/brochure etc., communicate what they are supposed to and in a clear manner? Is the language used correct and appropriate for the audience and the goal?

Editing experts: The editing experts are in charge of supervising the technical production of the final product, and uploading it to the class site.

Each group presentation should last about 8-10 minutes, videos 4-6 minutes. All group members must equally participate in preparing and presenting your work.

You must be prepared to respond to any questions or comments from the other groups, and to provide feedback on their commentaries.

Suggested Formats:




-Photo-album (digital photos found online or drawings/sketches/artwork created during the visit)



-Other (to be discussed with your instructor)

NB: While you can choose just one of these formats, you are encouraged to use a mix of these formats: ex: info-graphic and reenactment or photo-album and flyer etc.

Your presentation will be assessed on the basis of content and communicative effectiveness. A detailed grading rubric is available on the course site

Phase 7, Individual Research Reflection and Writing. This activity on the function and roles of museums in a comparative perspective is divided into four steps: Research, reflection, synthesis and write up, and requires students to reflect upon and synthesize their learning to elaborate a final expository writing that wraps up the module. This final task requires students to tap into the intercultural understanding of space, museums and values developed throughout the module. In order to exemplify the type of activities, which characterize Phase 7, I include below, in its entirety, a sequence of activities created by Mattia Begali.[3]

(6) Italian and American Museums Compared: Individual Short Essay Writing


Museums are important because they express the collective memory and the values of a country, that is, what people of a certain culture want to remember about their past and what they consider important. There are different types of museums: art museums, archaeological museums, museums that remember and celebrate famous people, museums that speak of crucial and /or difficult historical moments, science museums, natural history museums, museums for children, etc. From this point of view, it is possible to make comparisons between museums in Italy and in America.

For example:

The museum you see in the picture is dedicated to Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). Verdi is important for Italian identity. Verdi wrote very famous operas but he is also considered a great patriot. The Verdi museum is, therefore, important because it recalls a famous person who had a fundamental cultural and political role for Italy. What would be the equivalent of the Giuseppe Verdi National Museum in America? To whom would it be dedicated? Where would this museum be located and what would it be like? Etc.

Project Goals:

The goal of this project is to imagine and devise a new museum to build in America. This task is organized in multiple steps that entail research, refection, design and final writing. Choose a specific Italian museum from those listed below, or another one that interest you, and imagine a museum in America that would have a similar function to the Italian museum you chose. In other words, imagine a museum that would have a similar role and meaning for Americans.

C) Organization and Sequencing:

1. Research: First of all you have to choose an Italian museum. You can choose from one of the five museums listed below or suggest one of your own:

a) A museum dedicated to a dramatic historical moment: Museo della Resistenza

b) A museum presenting the most representative art of a country: Museo degli Uffizi

c) A house-museum dedicated to an eccentric and controversial character: Il Vittoriale by Gabriele Dannunzio

d) A museum dedicated to a great music character: Museo Giuseppe Verdi

e) A museum dedicated to a product: Museo Ferrari

f) A museum dedicated to design: Museo del Design

2. Reflect: After you have chosen your Italian museum, research it online and reflect on its role and function with the aid of these guiding questions:

What is the theme of this museum? When was it founded? Where is this museum? Is there a reason why it is in this city or in this region? What is the function of this museum? What audience does it target? What kind of material (photos, sculptures, products, etc.) does it exhibit? How is it organized? What events does it organize? Other?

3. Design: Imagine that you are a designer or an architect with the opportunity of creating a museum in America that could be the equivalent of the Italian museum you chose to research. First, use the table below to organize your thoughts about the basic characteristics of the museum; then, create a map of your imagined museum.


The Italian Museum

Your Museum in the US




Type of museum









Audience/Public targeted



Events and activities offered by the museum



Design the map of your museum here:







4. Writing: Write a composition of at least 300 words where you describe and present the museum that you designed. Then compare your museum with the Italian one that inspired your project. What are the similarities and differences between these two museums (the Italian museum and your imaginary one)? When writing about the museums, comment on their organization, function and on the material aspects that make them what they are.

Here are some guiding questions to consider

-Theme: What is the museum about? What kind of documents or artifacts does it display?

-Place: Where is this museum? Why is it in this particular place?

-Structure: How is space organized? Why did you choose this arrangement?

-Visitors: What kind of visitors does the museum attract?

Finally, based on the premise that the ability to reflect on an experience, is what can turn experience into learning, students are asked to complete reflective activities at regular intervals throughout the course. These require students to identify their engagement, strengths, weaknesses and possible strategies for improvement. The reflective activities range form-focused prompts to more general considerations on group work and organization of the module. Two examples are included below. The first targets forms, the second considers the content and organization of the module itself.

(7) Reflective Learning Guide: Learning to learn.

This activity is designed to guide your reflection on your learning experience and help you identify strategies to improve your abilities in Italian.

1. Take a moment to review both the learning objectives indicated in the syllabus/discussed in class and your own learning goals.

2. Now identify your areas of strength and weakness at this point in the semester.

Consider the following abilities:

-listening and comprehension;

-reading and comprehension;


-speaking and communication;

-vocabulary (accuracy, richness, variety);

-grammar accuracy;


-inter-cultural awareness.

Strengths. For each ability/category, indicate specific areas in which you feel confident and identify the resources you’ve used in order to achieve your learning goals.

Abilities in which I feel confident Specific areas Strategies/Resources used
Example: speaking new words, speed Worked with a conversation buddy; watched movies, listened to news....

Weaknesses. For each ability/category indicate specific areas that you need to work on and identify resources that you can use in order to achieve your learning goals.

Abilities to work on   Specific areas Resources I can use
Example: speaking   new words, speed     find a conversation buddy; watch movies listen to news....

(8) Reflection on Group project

What were your expectations of the group project?

1.How did the experience of the group project meet or not meet your expectations?

2. What did you find problematic or challenging?

3. What did you find rewarding?

4. What worked and did not work?

5. How would you evaluate your engagement and performance in this project? How would you evaluate your peers’ performance? What suggestions for working together do you have?

6. If you were the instructor, would have you organized the project differently? How?

4. Conclusions

In the sections above I have outlined a teaching module that exemplifies a student-centered, collaborative, experiential and reflexive language pedagogy that was implemented as part of a curriculum overhaul to enhance engagement and motivation in students of Italian L2 at an American university. The Museum Unit is one of three teaching modules centered around essential human themes – consumption, space, relations - that make up a new language course for intermediate level students, but whose framework can be adapted to different levels, audiences and sites. The modules rely on general principles which foreground learning through doing and thus the reliance on tasks and activities set in real-life contexts that allow students to find meaning in them. It also relies on collaborative learning, which promotes interaction, negotiation of meaning and co-construction of knowledge, all of which contribute to the enhancement of students’ communicative abilities. The activities are scaffolded, one step supporting the next in an extensive pre-, during, and post- task guidance. Finally, the principle of guided reflection on content, forms, and the learning experience itself advance cultural and linguistic awareness and ownership of the language learning process that can lead to its greater mastery.

The course’s focus on core essential themes is pedagogically viable because such themes highlight the interconnectedness of diverse domains of life to which most students, independently of background and interests, can relate. The choice of broad primary themes allows the valuing of local offerings, in this case, the local museum, achieved by prompting students to uncover its relevance through the meaning-making process of observation and reflection. The exploration of these themes, from very basic yet diverse perspectives, fosters intercultural understanding by prompting students to question different organizational modes and perspectives: for instance, the different structuring, and thus functions, of spaces in the Museum Unit presented here, or of meals in the Consumption Unit.

Students who engaged in this experimental learning approach described above, performed at the same level on assessment measures, such as final achievement exams, as their peers enrolled in more traditional form-focused courses that rely on a the known “presentation, practice, production” approach to teaching or the task-based method alone. What differs in the new course is students’ greater engagement which gives rise to increased motivation, as registered in student interviews, higher degrees of metacognition, as documented in student narratives on the learning experience itself, and a greater intercultural awareness, which surfaces in the increased reflections on cross-cultural themes and questions in students' work.

Finally, the theoretical underpinnings of the  Museum Unit are a socially grounded student-centered pedagogy based on meaningful activities and tasks, the principles that Daniela Zorzi, Guy Aston and Anna Ciliberti put forth many years before they became fashionable and mainstream. The 1980s Guy Aston and Gill Sturtridge workshops on group learning and information gap activities come to mind, as do Daniela’s mantra “partire dallo studente”[4] and Anna’s emphasis on student motivation and ownership of the learning process. These foundational insights remain productive and have become basic principles that continue to guide language teaching approaches in their various incarnations.


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[1] The curriculum overhaul is a collaborative effort of the Italian Language Instructors at Duke University known as the Italian Collective, active from 2013-16. For the  Museum Unit in particular, I would like to thank Mattia Begali and Andrea Scapolo for their invaluable work.

[2] For these activities I would like to thank Andrea Scapolo and Mattia Begali who devised and pioneered the implementation of the new course materials.

[3] Duke University, Romance Studies Department, Italian Language Program internal materials, 2017.

[4] Start from the student(s), that is, engage with their background, interests, knowledge personality, needs and learning style.

About the author(s)

Luciana Fellin is Professor of the Practice of Romance Studies and Linguistics and Director of the Italian Language Program at Duke University. She holds a Laurea from the University of Bologna and a PhD from the University of Arizona. Her scholarship focuses on language ideologies, language socialization and language and identity and the sociolinguistic aspects of second language pedagogy.

Email: [please login or register to view author's email address]

©inTRAlinea & Luciana Fellin (2018).
"Observe, document, reflect, elaborate Language learning through ethnographic observation and collaborative projects"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Translation And Interpreting for Language Learners (TAIL)
Edited by: Laurie Anderson, Laura Gavioli and Federico Zanettin
This article can be freely reproduced under Creative Commons License.
Stable URL: https://www.intralinea.org/specials/article/2301

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