The teachers’ cultural knowledge of the learners’ lifeworlds is a linchpin of all pedagogical efforts in school education and its educational theoretical foundation. In condensed form this setting occurs in the established principle of learner orientation, but also in many other concepts such as that of differentiation, adaptivity, or individualized teaching and learning.
However, the crucial question is always how teachers can gain knowledge about their learners, their prior knowledge, their interests, their talents and gifts, or, more generally speaking, their personalities. In addition to individual dispositions, however, the learners’ family background and many other life-world parameters also determine learning at school: For a substantial learner orientation, knowledge about the social situation and the educational interests of the parental home, religious and ideological orientations as well as the ethical, social and cultural norms associated with them (today often individualized and not linked to cultural backgrounds in a simple way), lifestyles and subcultural affiliations are necessary. In addition, however, the social, communicative and medial practices that determine young people’s everyday lives are of great interest. Learners always relate to them, and of course they also help decide what is to be taught and learned, especially in classrooms aimed at communication. Content and methods that do not take all of this into account run the risk of not leading to active learning and, to a certain extent, missing the learners.
Cultural dynamics and the individuality of the factors mentioned above make it clear that teachers must have the ability to study societies and lifeworlds for themselves, and in this way to constantly reappropriate cultural knowledge. Such a concrete study of lifeworlds, both one’s own and foreign-language ones, which is designed for more systematic (vs. purely intuitive) description and explanation, for deeper cultural understanding and critical reflection needs to rely on ethnographic methods. In addition to drawing on academic publications such as sociological or empirical studies (e.g., the Shell study or, just presented, the special OECD report on “21st Century Readers” based on the 2018 PISA study), teachers also need a research-oriented attitude and practice. This ranges from the targeted observation of young people’s lifeworld orientations and practices, to the study of documents and data of all kinds (e.g., on popular video or social media platforms), to the targeted research of individual phenomena with classic instruments of ethnography. Field notes, interviews, and surveys are the most common.
Participative research with learners
In order to prevent such a ‘research’ and the exploration of the learners’ lifeworlds from leading to spying and the unruly crossing of personal boundaries, not to mention data protection, it is necessary to design and carry out such lifeworld research and the development of research questions collaboratively with the students. In this way, the learners themselves can ensure that the research is distanced from their personal space, anonymized, and thus more generalizable. If, for example, consumer, media or energy behavior of an entire age group (at school and in online communities) and a larger sample is surveyed, the chance of obtaining valid, generalizable, or at least intersubjectively aggregable findings is great, even by scientific standards.
School education thus does not merely dwell on the level of imparting knowledge, but young people are educated to adopt an exploratory attitude toward their environment and are enabled to generate relevant knowledge themselves. In this way, the foreign-language cultural classroom also changes from a place of cultural mediation to a place of active exploration of cultures and lifeworlds. Therefore, what has been said about learners’ lifeworlds also applies to the exploration of foreign language cultures, albeit lacking direct access to and interaction with this cultural world. Such an explorative research strategy actually only takes up questions and interests that cultural actors also pose in their everyday lives – whenever there is something to understand, discover or explain. In the handbook on Research Methods in Foreign Language Didactics (2016, in German), Daniela Caspari therefore rightly points out that it “seems to be in the nature of human beings to get to the bottom of phenomena in their environment, to look for regularities, to formulate theories and make predictions on the basis of observations and experiences.” (p. 7) Of course, there are important differences, especially with regard to objectives and methods. But curiosity and the search for explanations, regularities, and theories are precisely the drives that enable both learners and their teachers to take an exploratory, research-based approach to teaching and learning.
Reference Caspari, Daniela, Klippel, Friederike, Legutke, Michael K. & Schramm, Karen (Hrsg.) (2016). Forschungsmethoden in der Fremdsprachendidaktik. Ein Handbuch. [Research Methods in Foreign Language Didactics]. Tübingen: Narr.