Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters

Intercultural Understanding is one of the General Capabilities in the Australian Curriculum and is cited as a vital 21st Century skill in both the F-10 and the Queensland Senior Syllabuses (Masters, 2015; Matters and Masters, 2014).

Languages education is great at developing deep intercultural awareness, but only if realised reflexively and interculturally (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013). This can be achieved through the Intercultural Learning Cycle, which emerged from the Intercultural Language Teaching and Learning in Practice (ILTLP) project and includes the four steps ‘noticing, comparing, reflecting, and interacting’ (Scarino et al., 2008). The intercultural learning cycle as described in the ILTLP materials (Scarino et al., 2008) provides a framework to develop Byram’s elements of intercultural competence (1997; 2021).

Intercultural Learning Cycle: A practice example

This activity sequence is planned for a rural Australian secondary, with a high Anglo-Australian population in culturally hybridised Australia, which, as we know, is plagued by monolingual mindset (Clyne, 2004).

Click here for an explanation of monolingual mindset if you need one.

However, in recognition of their emerging Italian language, and membership within a plurilingual country (Lo Bianco, 2009), I subscribe to the “language ecology” paradigm — which refers to language use under this ecological distinction. This concept can be understood not as an individual capacity or social situation, but, rather, as “a configuration of language spoken, heard, and identified with… to differing extents of for different purposes” (Simpson, 2019, p. 8).

Multiliteracies pedagogy unites critical (cultural) and digital literacy

This approach thus combines intercultural languages pedagogy with The New London Group’s (2000) multiliteracy goal of “an epistemology of pluralism that provides access without people having to erase or leave behind different subjectivities” (p. 18). In simple terms, the reflective and critically analytical processes of ICLT operationalise a way of understanding the world (epistemology) that allows for different perspectives (or subjectivities) rather than assimilating them out of a person so they can learn a new way.

This same analytical focus is apparent in the General Capability for Literacy (GCL), evident, for example, in the Version 9.0 sub-element description for ‘Understanding texts’, in which “analysing and evaluating texts, to build meaning” features with Level 7 descriptors including such analytical and reflective processes as “recognises that texts can present different points of view” and “distinguishes between fact and opinion in texts” (ACARA, 2022a, para. 1; 7).

Likewise, the ACL is underpinned by an orientation of reflective intercultural practice, scaffolded by the processes of ICLT, aimed not only at the analysis of language systems and texts (ACARA, n.d.-c), but also the development of one of Byram’s (2021) elements of intercultural competence, critical cultural awareness.

Digital literacy, languages and the tyranny of distance

Furthermore, in the context of Australian schools, the orientation of the technology-focussed General Capability has been redirected from the use of tools to yet another form of literacy — exemplified by the renaming of the Capability from ICT to “Digital Literacy” (ACARA, 2021, p. 3). Here another meaningful integration is apparent: Byram’s (2021) fourth element, “skills of discovery and interaction” involve the investigative behaviours required to gather background information about an intercultural experience, ‘filling in the gaps’ in knowledge, so the new experience can be contextualised socioculturally (p. 32).

Because we all know the benefits of an integrated, future-focussed curriculum, this objective can also align directly with the Version 9.0 Digital Literacy element of “Investigating”, whereby students “locate information, collect and collate data, interpret data [and] evaluate information” (ACARA, 2021, p. 4).

None of this is news to language teachers of course, but it seems to caught on. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD], (2018) began testing for ‘Global Competence’ in the 2016 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) in a move that attests to expanding appreciation of plurilingualism in the message systems of a globalised world (Bernstein, 2001; Byram & Wagner, 2018). Consequently, in order to produce globally-orientated intercultural graduates, engagement with these pedagogies is vital (Scarino, 2019).

The Council of Europe (CoE) (2023) had already begun this work back in 2009, with an intercultural education focus group dedicated to advancing plurilingual education — acknowledging that ‘every language conveys and is a vehicle for culture’. The project was directed by Michael Byram (1997; 2021), the creator of the intercultural competence framework, who asserts that “taking into account the cultural dimension of the languages present and taught in schools is a fundamental – and particularly delicate – aspect of plurilingual and intercultural education” (CoE, 2009, para 1).

The Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters

Two pedagogical tools emerged from this Byram-led project: The Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters, and in response to challenges experienced by less connected students in Europe and beyond, The Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters and Images of Others – an Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters through Visual Media (AIEVM). In the context of Australia’s geographic isolation from many taught modern languages, this leveraging of the internet and visual media is pertinent (Hajek, 2018).

Each resource represents “a concrete response to the recommendations of the Council of Europe’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue: Living together as equals in dignity (CoE, 2009, p. 2). Both resources “are designed to encourage people to think about and learn from intercultural encounters they have had either face to face” (Barrett, 2022b, p. 2).  

Additionally, Australian teachers of additional (international) languages have long experienced logistical barriers to connecting learners with sustained authentic interactions with their target language and cultural context (Lo Bianco, 2009). As the Council of Europe (CoE) acknowledges — despite the increasing globalisation and mobility experienced by many — “there are many parts of Europe and beyond where such experiences are, in fact, not so common” and for these people, “the effects of globalisation and internationalisation” are experienced through visual media “in the daily news on television” (CoE, 2022, p. 9).

Nevertheless, simple exposure to intercultural encounters is insufficient for developing intercultural competence (Byram, 2021; CoE, 2009). The range of emotions triggered by the “contact zones” of life (Pratt, 1991, p. 34) “are often best understood through a little reflection and analysis” and the Autobiography of Intercultural Encounters (AIE) resources “provide the learner with a structure to analyse the incident and consider what they learnt from the encounter” (CoE, 2009, p. 6; CoE, 2022).  It was the combination of these pedagogical aims and the geographic isolation which created the impetus for the development of a visual media version of the AIE (CoE, 2023).  

Having used the paper text-based version extensively in my university teaching, I decided to experiment with the visual media version for a secondary school application, whereby students would develop their skills of discovery and interaction (Byram, 2021) —  in addition to addressing the GC for Digital Literacy by researching, analysing and intercultural representations “through visual media such as television, magazines, films, and the internet” (CoE, 2013, p. 2).

The Sequence of Learning Experiences

Curriculum goals:

Italian, F-10 Sequence, Years 7 and 8

Achievement standardContent DescriptionElaboration
They reflect on how the Italian language, culture and identity are interconnected, and compare this with their own language(s), culture(s) and identity.  AC9LIT8U04 reflect on and explain how identity is shaped by language(s), culture(s), beliefs, attitudes and values  reflecting on how their own cultural etiquette may be interpreted when interacting with Italian people, noticing their own body language and gestures, for example, understanding how the Australian tendency to be informal with people of all ages may be misinterpreted.

(ACARA, 2022, p. 33)

Setting the scene:

Working in a school with a strong languages program, students are offered French and Italian for two semesters each across Year 7 and 8.

What will students do?

Using the AIEVM students will “analyse a specific image” they have “encountered in the media (for example, on television, in a book, on the Internet, etc.) which shows someone (or several people) from another culture” (CoE, 2013, p. 3).

Responding to the Australian Curriculum focus for students to understand their own intercultural identity, students first situate themselves.

Once situated, students are taken through a self-selected* intercultural ‘encounter’ via a sequence of prompts and questions aligned with Liddicoat and Scarino’s (2013) intercultural learning cycle, developed to scaffold the development of the elements of Byram’s (1997; 2021) intercultural competence framework. The full sequence of reflective processes is here in the CoE provided PDF. Reflection questions are designed to scaffold students through the stages of intercultural reflection process, such as those described in Liddicoat and Scarino’s (2013) intercultural learning cycle.

Interacting processes of intercultural learning (Scarino et al., 2009)

Students identify what they see in the image, which aligns to the ‘noticing’ phase in Liddicoat and Scarino’s (2013), for example, the questions below.

Students also work in the ‘reflecting’ phase in Liddicoat and Scarino’s (2013), for example, the questions below.

The comparing, interacting and development of the new cultural awareness are all supported by questions that compel students to indicate how they would move forward with the new reflection-originating understandings (CoE, 2013, p. 15). See the two images below for comparison and reflection in the first set (figure 4), and then interacting with new understandings in the second (figure 5).

Figure 4.

Figure 5.

For more information on the full process stepped out by Byram and the Council of Europe team, see this link.

Applying intercultural skills and attitudes: cross cultural exchange, 21st Century style

Following this analytical and reflective process, I intend to support students to apply their learning through experimentation with yet another research-informed pedagogical framework/tool.  

Applying and further developing intercultural competence through asynchronous collaboration and peer assessment, students will develop their own Canva profile of their own intercultural identity, as exemplified by visual representations — shared in a combined Canva team with a sister school in Italy.

Here students are also situating their selected images within their cultural contexts (Méndez-García & Lindner, 2021) and sharing these profiles via a Canva team, in alignment with Méndez-García and Lindner’s (2021) findings that an “OIE [online intercultural exchange] learning environment enriched the experience of working with the AIEVM and helped in particular to heighten critical cultural awareness of visual media” ( p. 230).

Drawing on the Images Module of The Cultura Exchanges Site, I have conceptualised a platform within which students may exchange their cultural understandings, learning from each other, in a technology-afforded asynchronous learning environment that both accommodates the considerable time difference between the relevant timezones, also allowing for students to interact in a low stress environment.

Cultura is an intercultural project that connects groups of students online to help them understand each other’s culture” (MIT, n.d.). It often involves synchronous exchange environments, however, in light of the research surrounding adolescent students’ confidence and self-efficacy (Allen et al., 2019), especially  with languages (Barnatt et al., 2020), an asynchronous experience for the collaborative phase seemed valid.

To support collaboration, students design an autobiographical (“all about me”) poster in Canva in a pre-established team/group, whereby they will be both invited and required to comment and ask a follow up question on several classmates’ posters.  They will then comment on each other’s profiles — developing their intercultural skills while using target language to comment.

Aligning with the Meighan’s (2020) exploration of expanding student “understanding of contrasting worldviews to construct narratives”, they will also maintain a reflection log on intercultural experiences as they emerge (p. 4). An exploration of digital literacy-focussed teaching and learning is what gave rise to this conceptualised practice, particularly examination of the SAMR model discussed below.

SAMR Evaluation and Integration Discussion

Intercultural factors are also relevant when evaluating the proposed activity against the SAMR Model, which provides a framework within which the technology employed in pedagogical programs and activities can be both planned and evaluated for their functionality within the broader aims of the teaching and learning (Puentedura, 2006). “When integrating technology, the purpose of this integration should be on enhancing and supporting student learning rather than using a particular technology” (Hamilton et al., 2016, p. 438), and by accessing visual media online, students are accessing a functional improvement.

I could have provided them with a set of images, sourced and selected by a middle aged woman who has not lived in Europe for 22 years. This would have allowed them to access images that are deemed intercultural through my own specific lens, but not to interact with online sources of target language/culture sources in a way that is authentic to them as emerging intercultural speakers of their target language (Liddicoat & Scarino, 2013). Consequently, I feel that this authentication of how realia is sourced serves to augment the learning activity, moving beyond substitution, which may have been achieved by my providing digital copies of the self-selected photos.

Intercultural exchange: disrupting the tyranny of distance

The second technological phase, which includes the asynchronous learning platform of Canva and the sharing of personal cultural profiles and commenting on other students’ work hovers between augmentation and modification. It augments in the sense that it alleviates the stress of synchronous cross-cultural exchange and allows for students in both timezones to comfortably contribute.

However, students are also participating in a learning environment with Italian students that simply would not be possible without the asynchronous aspect of the Canva Team — in addition to the program’s capability to allow multiple commenters to respond to a person’s personal profile in real time.

While this format of a person sharing and many other students may be possible in a monolingual subject setting, adding the Italian language speakers simply could not be achieved in an Australian classroom without this technology. Consequently, I place this activity at the cusp of Modification, due to its intercultural pedagogical affordances — primarily, exchange with target language speakers.

Click here for a full reference list.