Parking Lot Archaeology: An engaging angle on teaching academic English (by Ron Campbell)

Every car tells a story

“Every car tells a story; all you have to do is listen”

It’s become something of a cliché, but every teaching situation presents its own unique set of challenges. However, my challenge wasn’t all that unique – in fact, it was pretty well-worn itself. My students were falling asleep as I tried to guide them through science readings and lectures in preparation for the TOEFL.

What I’d like to offer you here is a brief review of a class project that seemed to catch my students’ interest and got them deeply involved with academic material.  This one simple exercise opened a wide door into helping students interact with abstract material and getting them to build a set of experiential and critical thinking tools that they could call on later when trying to understand and appreciate other technical topics in English.

Several years ago I was working as an in-house instructor for a large paper company in Japan. The executive management had decided that they wanted to reward the best and brightest young workers in the company (and hopefully retain them) by offering them the chance to go to the US, on the company’s dime, and earn an MBA. As these MBA candidates would need to score high on the TOEFL, I was relieved from teaching standard business English and TOEIC and transitioned into academic English instruction – with absolutely no training of my own.

Not surprisingly, we had some smart students, but those coming from a sales or management background often had no patience with working through introductory science material or connecting with any technical content. They were willing to do TOEIC-style review and grammar drills, but not the level of prediction, interaction and projection that TOEFL and IELTS-type materials require.

I remember specifically one class where the topic was archeology. The text was not focused on a particular reading or question set. Instead the book was trying to encourage students to look at an example “dig” and make inferences based on the types of relics found and their arrangement. It was a great exercise, I thought, that attempted to get students more actively involved in class content as opposed to passively answering questions. My class responded to it as if I had dumped a dead rat on the table.

They didn’t understand the value in trying to respond to college content at a more functional and interactive level; they wanted me to show them how to find the answers to the unit’s questions and review the vocabulary in the “new terms” box. It was frustrating. Especially as the ability to imagine abstract content and personalize it is a fundamental step to success in academia.

After about an hour of trying to get them to offer their own inferences about the sample archeology slides and getting not much beyond, “It’s a trash pile,” I decided on a different tack.

“Well, yes, you’re right. In essence, archaeology is just that – studying the ‘trash’ of previous civilizations and cultures and making guesses about their lives. For example, what if we go through our class trash can? What does it say about us?”

dust bin

Picking up the trash can and emptying some of its contents onto a desk, “What insights can we make into the lifestyle of the Japanese salaryman in the 21st century?… Well, he seems to have had a terrible diet – all chocolate bars and sweet bread rolls…. There are a lot of official notices and forms in here – so his work culture was probably very controlled and bureaucratic…” Going through a stack of notes a student had trashed earlier that day, “Oh look at this! This tribe seemed to do a lot of foreign language study… Although they obviously did not value that study very much, seeing as it is here among the used bento boxes and tissues.”

The joke worked. They understood what I was doing and the mood of the class changed markedly. “You are all familiar with Sherlock Holmes, right? Well, his neat little trick of looking at some tiny detail about a person’s clothing, personal items or make-up and then being able to come-up with a long summary of who that person is and what kind of problem they might have… That is the process of inductive thinking, or making inferences (to use a term that all of their TOEFL texts stressed). You start with some small clue, and from that clue try to expand it to make a story about a person or their life.”

Sherlock Holmes

Later, we would talk about how this process is applicable to all scientific insight and experimentation. Newton supposedly sees an apple fall and comes up with a theory of planetary motion and the mechanics of gravity. Millikan is able to calculate the charge of an electron based on how oil swirled over metal plates. Mendel discovers genetics because he was fascinated about the characteristics of different pea plants. From small details, huge conclusions can be drawn. But, that was later.

The next day we went straight to Sherlock Holmes videos in the first stage of this exercise. One video, which we watched with Japanese subtitles, is from the story “The Blue Carbuncle” and in this excerpt, Holmes comes up with a series of inductions based on just a hat.

For my students, since the focus was not the English in this clip (which would have been too hard), I gave them Holmes’ inferences on the left and asked them to write his justifications. Then we went around the room making sure everyone was comfortable with the process. We repeated this with other clips from the series as well.


Following this, I asked students to make a list of two or three inferences and justifications about their partners (or me). I was worried that my students would be too timid to do this but I set the stage by using myself as an example. “I can conclude by his (my) belt that he lives in Asia… Notice how worn and broken the belt and the holes are. He has a good-paying job and could afford a new belt, so he must live in a place where he can’t buy a belt his size. Which means that he must live in a country like Korea or Japan.” Students took to this exercise and had fun with it. Of course, it was made easier by the fact that they already knew the details of each other’s lives.

Some of their inferences were surprisingly direct. (Names changed for privacy.) “Koji doesn’t love his wife anymore because he often comes to class without his wedding ring.” “Hiroshi dreams of being rich and free because he always carries lots of cash with him.” “Kenta is single because no wife would allow him to wear shoes that are as ugly and old as his.” All of which was offered with the best of humor.

The next step was more fun though. We moved out as a class and started working our way through the building’s parking lot. I sent students to several cars and asked them, with their partners, to look inside through the windows, pay attention to the outside of the cars and their condition and then make a list of inferences about the cars’ owners. I told them to take pictures with their cell phones and we would make presentations the next day. (One note: you should only do this in a private parking lot… I don’t know what the legality is about photographing the interior of cars in public spaces.)


Each team presented their inferences on their one or two assigned cars. Using PowerPoint to showcase their photos and written summaries, each team profiled the assigned cars’ owners. Their inferences were sometimes insightful, sometimes wildly imaginative but were always interesting. “The driver of this car is a single woman, probably in her 20s. You can see this because of the fashion magazine we saw in the front seat.” “This car belongs to a family man. There are children’s toys in the back seat but there is a fishing sticker on the back window.” “This person is probably a bad worker and lazy. Their car is dirty on the outside and there are many convenience store and fast food bags inside. We also assume that he is single, overweight and probably doesn’t enjoy his job.”

The kicker was then giving the students a list of names of well-known workers in the company and seeing if they could match the cars to their real owners, in essence a final test of their inductive skills. This was great fun for the students and a number of them were surprised how well they had profiled their target cars’ owners.

Students reported later that once they did this exercise, it was hard to stop. They would find themselves in slow-moving traffic and start trying to extrapolate what kind of person was in front of them based on their car’s condition, any stickers they could see and how the person drove. Likewise, several other students said they sometimes found themselves musing on car owners’ personalities while walking through parking lots and glancing in windows. Others noted how this has made people-watching much more interesting for them.

This project was very simple in its form and goal. But at a real level, I believe it helped a number of students, who did not have a background in science or technical fields, develop a better appreciation for the role of observation in study and research and helped them connect with science literature. Additionally, it gave them a touchstone for readings about social science and gave them an engaging way to utilize critical thinking skills.

Note: This article by Ron Campbell originally appeared as a guest post on Teaching Village and is licensed under a Creative Commons, Attribution-Non Commercial, No Derivatives 3.0 License. If you wish to share it you must re-publish it “as is”, and retain any credits, acknowledgements, and hyperlinks within it.

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1 Response

  1. Barbara says:

    This is amazing, Ron! I can imagine it being a really fun activity in many other type of classes, as well. In fact, I’m going to have my senior citizen class walking through the parking lot at the social welfare center at some point soon. They will love this type of archaeology 🙂