Myth #5 (of 12): Context doesn’t matter

Just as Schon (Infed) made the distinction between reflection-on-practice and reflection-in-practice, I will make a distinction between ‘context-of-curriculum’ and ‘context-in- curriculum’. ‘Context of’ refers to the “why” we deliver content we do, and ‘context in’ deals more with the “what” – specifics of certain content.

“Why are we learning this?”

“What does this have to do with anything in my life?”

“Will this be on the test?”

These are very familiar statements to anyone who has spent time in a classroom. The problem is, too often content is delivered without providing a context as to why something ‘needs’ to be learned. Teachers spend a great deal of time in teaching students what they must know, and spend very little time explaining why they must know it. (Bolin, Khramtsova & Saarnio 2005)

As a Canadian kid growing up in Toronto, I had French classes (one hour a week) in grade 6, 7, and 8. However, no one ever helped me to see why I needed to know French – or any other language for that matter. No context was given in the as too the benefits. Now I wish I had studied Spanish in high school because so many amazing countries have Spanish as a first or second language.

This issue is not just language subject specific. Even in ICT, which you would think in the 21st century kids should be clamouring for, there still seems to be some disconnect. In a recent report about what students and teachers think about computer science, Klein (2015) stated, “Even though across demographics they value computer science, the important piece is students often don’t see computer science as for them, and it’s further reflected in who is confident to learn computer science.” Might this also explain the diversity and gender issues within Tech companies and STEM classes?

Could it be that these subjects are being taught in modules without any connection to real life activities? Lave (1988) thinks so, when she implies knowledge gained in the context of its use or application has an immediate salience such that it is remembered and its value understood.  In Myth #1, I stated that passing a driving test does not mean you learnt how to drive. A basic license does not necessarily prepare you to drive in adverse conditions (rain, sleet, snow, dust, etc.), or different countries (left-hand/right-hand), or even different types of vehicles (auto/standard, big/small, short/long, etc). How can you call yourself a proficient (or expert?) driver until you have experienced many of these conditions? Maybe we are spending too much time on general content (standards?) and not allowing people to become experts in their passion?

Speaking of passion, one of the many activities I use as an example of exceptional speech and presentation skills in every Biz Comm class I teach or design is the “I Have a Dream” speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It is also an excellent example of ‘context-in-content’. Even more so when you understand the vast majority of my class participants over the past dozen years or so were international students. When I was the Dean of Canadian College in Vancouver, we could have students from 15+ different countries in any class.

I would start these classes by giving just the text of King’s speech for analysis based on criteria we had covered in class. Then a few classes later I would let them listen to just the audio. After some basic discussion about the ‘context-in’ (Civil Right Movement) the speech – discussions inevitably ended up about racism in their home countries. Then I would show the video. Not only are they blown away by the force of his speaking, but the speech text takes on a whole new dimension and they all exhibit that ‘aha moment’ look as they are able to soak up the context of the diverse content in the video.

Final Thought: “Context dependent knowledge and experience are at the heart of expert activity.” (Flyvbjerg, 2011)

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *