Context is everything

I can’t stop thinking about context.

I mean; context is really-really important.
Pause

Pause.

Rewind!

Rewind.

Think!
Think.

Do you ever do anything meaningful without it being embedded in a proper context?

Perhaps I need to rewind even more, and take a brief look at definitions. What am I talking about when talking about context? Turning to Princeton WordNet, I am supplied with two interrelated and appropriate interpretations:

DefinitionsDiscourse that surrounds a language unit and helps to determine its interpretation

The set of facts or circumstances that surround a situation or event: “the historical context”

Context is that which surrounds, that which adds depth and imbues our decisions and actions with meaning.

Contextual learning

Turning to education, learning in educational settings has for way too long been confined to a life in isolation within the boundaries of the individual institution – and this to an extent, where students’ attempts to break the isolation are frequently considered “cheating“.

In the most dystopic of scenarios, schools “teach to the test“, as it’s (un)popularly expressed.

That’s terrible.

It’s as futile and meaningless as it gets, really.

Teaching to fulfil a very specific purpose internal to education without paying attention to the needs of the world. In addition, each topic is isolated from one another, effectively creating an artificial situation which in no way mirrors the interdisciplinary complexity of the world outside school. At the assembly line...

What it does mirror, unfortunately, is the industrial paradigm of the early twentieth century. When content is isolated from context, and the same goes for the different subjects taught, I can’t help but think of the tayloristic idea of scientific management.

Any distraction is removed in order to increase efficiency within a closed system, where each worker contributes only to one small part of the whole process. That worker probably doesn’t have any idea as to why she is doing what she does, or how her effort fits in a larger context.

It shouldn’t be like that.

Learning should be relevant, and ideally it should always connect to the world and the life of the students. It should be clear to the students why we want them to learn this or that, and how said learning could be applied in the larger context of society. This is not just me rambling, as many learning theorists have proposed similar ideas, most prominently probably Jean Lave & Etienne Wenger in “Situated Learning” and Wenger later in “Communities of Practice“.

In short; education always needs to build on contextual awareness. I’ve already labelled educators “designers”, but perhaps a more precise label would be “contextual designers”?

Mediated context?

So. We should not practice education without contextualising said education.

Fortunately, we may actively appropriate media as tools for building relevant contexts for learning. All kinds of media are imbued with the potential to bridge the gap between the classroom and the world outside.

Social education

Social MediaTake the wide array of freely available social media.

Traditionally, written communication remains in a closed circuit including only teachers and students. This has some serious negative implications for the experienced relevance of written assignments, as students see no value in their work, except as yet another possibility for the teacher to assess their current level.

Why not embed those assignments in the dynamic ecosystem of online media?

Whether you choose to let students write blogposts or Wikipedia entries, discuss topics on Facebook, produce videos for YouTube, engage in communication on Twitter, perform intervues – or all of the above – is less important. What really matters, though, is that you challenge the traditional borders of the classroom. Break them down with a sledgehammer. Set the students’ work free – but don’t let them off entirely on their own. They still need support, guidance, sparring.

If you doubt the value of this, think about your own motivation to do things, which have no clear purpose or which contributes in no way to the world.

I, for one, don’t care much about doing such things.

Playful contexts

Games, analogue as well as digital, make for another important example.

Every single good game in the world creates a framework – a context – within which the player takes certain actions in order to beat the game. Whatever these actions may be, they merely consist of pressing buttons, moving sticks, swinging a controller or jumping in front of the screen. This again leads to a variety of consequences – shooting russians, fighting dragons, managing resources, racing cars or solving puzzles – which seem relevant to the player, but only because of the context, in which they are embedded.

Was it not for this context, figuring out how to do those things would probably seem as irrelevant as figuring out how to do social sciences, math or chemistry.

Now, context in relation to games can consist of many different components. The fictional world is one such context, providing us with a more or less satisfactory narrative to explain our actions.

Another context infusing a sense of meaning and relevance to our in-game actions is rooted in the human need to be social. If our actions turn into interactions and in one way or another become meaningful for someone else as well, allowing us to build and nurture relationships, then we have a deep, meaningful and valuable social context.

This understanding of context lies at the core of the reasoning behind game based learning, as described by Shaffer, Squire, Halverson & Gee:

More than a multibillion-dollar industry, more than a compelling toy for both children and adults, more than a route to computer literacy, video games are important because they let people participate in new worlds. They let players think, talk, and act in new ways. […] These rich virtual worlds are what make video games such powerful contexts for learning. In game worlds, learning no longer means confronting words and symbols that are separated from the things those words and symbols refer to. […] In virtual worlds, learners experience the concrete realities that words and symbols describe. Through these and similar experiences in multiple contexts, learners can understand complex concepts without losing the connection between abstract ideas and the real problems they can be used to solve. In other words, the virtual worlds of games are powerful because they make it possible to develop situated understanding.

David W. Shaffer is himself pursuing the directions outlined in the above, when he is doing research in the “Epistemic Games Group“. They create games, where players take on the roles and the epistemologies of engineers, city planners, journalists, graphic artists or negotiators. They work within the context of the professions.

Serious Games Interactive have been trying to achieve something similar with their Global Conflicts-series. Here you take on the role of a journalist trying to uncover and potentially resolve a range of issues across the globe. As in any game, you have to learn something to win, and it is the context of the game that imbues this “something” with meaning, making it more than distant, isolated facts and fragments of information.

A very fine Twitter companion, Alex Moseley, is having yet another take on this. He’s “Educational Designer at the University of Leicester” and very interested in the importance of context, and he maintains that “games can engage learners through the creation of authentic contexts“. Alex has written several papers on this topic, and recently he discussed the importance of narrative context to solving problems in games:

Induction, research skills, key skills, work-based learning, assessment, activities… use any of these within a course without designing them with the subject/course context in mind, and you’re setting yourself up for unengaged, poor performing and complaining students.

One final mention this time around should be Simon Brookes, with who’m I’ve also had valuable discussions on Twitter (where he’s @pompeysie). Simon is working intensively with entrepreneurship education, and he’s using “alternate reality games” (ARG’s) to bridge the “reality gap” between education and “authentic experiences”.

Here’s a quite elaborate webinar talk he recently did on the topic (if you just want the presentation, it’s similar to this one):

What all of these examples goes to show, is that games can provide authentic contexts approximating real-life situations, where students/players are working with meaningful, situated problems instead of learning abstract “content”.

As the examples also illustrate, there’s not one right way to design proper contexts. On the contrary, there’s a multitude of inspiring and creative approaches. As a consequence, I’m obviously unable to supply any one simple solution.

Whichever kind of education (also the corporate kind) one is engaged in, context is invaluable. We’ll probably never become good enough at designing relevant contexts, but we should never stop trying. We should always strive towards embedding any kind of learning in a context, where said learning actually makes sense.