Context is Everything

I’ve had two insignificant moments this week that have reminded me of this monumentally significant fact in teaching and learning. Context matters. It’s everything when it comes to learning difficult concepts in a way that leads to enduring understanding.

The first was listening to, and then joining in a conversation between a retired science education professor and a school superintendent. As I joined the conversation they were talking about choosing and prioritizing content. The professor was giving an example of teaching different acid-base reactions, or something of that nature. His point was it didn’t do any good to just briefly mention multiple of them and move on, but better to really cover one if you want enduring understanding. I added, that instead of, or in addition to the teacher covering, the students need to explore it. Yes, the retired professor agreed. Doing anything else will soon be forgotten.

Yet, this is what we often do as educators. We have a long list of content, either from a set of standards, a textbook, or our own understanding, and fall prey to the idea that we have to at least cover this concept. The thing is, just covering it to check it off is a complete waste of time for almost every student listening to you tell them about that topic. Many will remember it for a week or so for the test. Some might remember it a few months later if prompted with the right question or clue, and a few might remember it for longer, if and only if, when they were listening, it clicked in some way in their brain that connected it to a prior experience, knowledge, emotion, or other meaningful context. Context is the key for enduring memory and understanding.

The second example comes from a student of mine taking my Elementary Science Methods course. In addition to teaching methods, this course also contains considerable science content knowledge. The students explore the biology content in the context of “ecological identity” which I’ve written about before. The student’s comment was that the science content and concept of ecological identity was pretty “heavy.” The thing is, the biology they are reviewing in this course is no more than (maybe even less intense) than what they would have done in high school biology.

Here’s the difference. The biology concepts now are in the context of ecological identity–of understanding their place and connection to the natural world. And, every day we are seeing more and more examples of the homeostasis of the natural world being upended by human action. So yes, in that context, now the biology seems like heavy lifting. The difference is always context. Context gives what you are teaching meaning. Without it, it’s just stuff. Or as I’ve said before–random crap. Maybe even it was a fantastic lesson, so then I guess I’d call it random-craptastic. Still meaningless in the long run to most student to be forgotten after the test. Don’t teach random crap. Provide context.

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