In my preceding two posts, I’ve described the levels of two facets of a multidimensional learning model comprised of three: content, community, and context. If you haven’t yet seen those previous posts, you might want to review them before continuing here.
However, even though I’ve split this discussion across three posts, this model does not describe three elements that function independently; all three combine to create a single “cubic” learning experience. They’re parts of the same basic entity, facets of a single prism. Splitting them apart, as some learning models do, ignores the influences each dimension has on the others and elides the important ways they cocreate an environment for learning.
In this final post examining each facet’s structural progression, I’ll explore the levels associated with context. Then, in my next post, I’ll map specific teaching approaches onto these three dimensions, offering examples of how this “cubic” model can be used to assess and rate the efficacy of particular learning constructs. Finally, I’ll conclude this series by connecting our “cubic” model to other existing learning models and taxonomies.
* * *
From an educational standpoint, context is at once both a simple and an incredibly complex concept. It’s simple because we’re very used to seeing our classrooms and their equipment as the “theaters” where learning happens. We even have a standard minimum expectation for such spaces: seating and work surfaces for learners, special demonstration equipment for teachers — including chalkboards or white boards, projection screens, and so forth. We know that if we want to do something special — display 3D models, organize work groups, conduct lab demonstrations or explorations, connect in real-time to far-away experts, or stage a performance — we might either need special equipment or we might need to move into some sort of special facility that makes these activities possible. But why would we want to do any of these special activities? The answer is simple: we know that they’ll amplify some portion of content or will enable some form of collaboration that we think will benefit our learners — or both.
And this is where context becomes complex. We instinctively realize that even relatively minor changes in the learning context — introducing new tools, a new space, or even a new classroom “culture” — can powerfully impact learning within our schools. But if that’s true for the few changes or additions we can make inside of a school facility, how many more contexts from outside the world of school could we leverage for learning? And what could we expect from our learners if we could integrate those contexts and opportunities every day and not just once in a while?
Since context is a facet of the prismatic, multidimensional learning structure I’ve been describing, it can magnify the other facets — making them more vivid or bringing them into clearer focus. That’s what our current use of school-based contexts already acknowledges. But if we consider how and why context can act as a magnifier, then we have to understand context in a much larger and more comprehensive way. For example, we have to recognize that “context” doesn’t just describe the physical spaces in which we learn and certainly not just the physical spaces inside of a school. There are also social, historical, cultural, and disciplinary aspects to context — some hyper-local, some broadly universal. We know this enormous diversity of “spaces” outside of our classrooms (and outside of our control) — the homes, workplaces, civic spaces, and socioeconomic milieux that learners encounter and inhabit — can significantly impact learning, but the immense variety and complexity of it all can seem terrifying and overwhelming. And that complexity can discourage teachers from integrating more expansive embodiments of context in their everyday teaching practice.
But it doesn’t have to be scary. Recent research has shown the important role that deeper engagements with context can play in learning — without the need for a “teacher” to be at the organizational center and bearing all of the responsibility for everything. For example, James Paul Gee‘s work on “affinity spaces” has identified twelve “hallmarks” that make these spaces largely self-organizing and self-feeding, fueled by the participants themselves. As Gee argues in his 2013 The Anti-Education Era, without participation in such spaces — without a broader context than the classroom — learning can become unhinged and flawed:
“Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in school to hand young people textbooks in science, social studies, or art when they have had little or no (certainly not enough) experience that would give the words in the texts meaning in terms of the contexts to which they apply (and often a bit differently in different contexts). What they need is ample experience to allow them to draw generalizations across those contexts […].” (Gee 47)
Lave and Wenger‘s notions about “communities of practice” and “situated learning,” similarly, describe the ways that meaningful contexts can drive engagement and participation, moving students from the “periphery” to the “center” of disciplinary practices. As they note in their first book on this concept:
“[T]he mastery of knowledge and skill requires newcomers to move toward full participation in the socio-cultural practices of a community. […]. A person’s intentions to learn are engaged and the meaning of learning is configured through the process of becoming a full participant in a socio-cultural practice. This social process includes, indeed it subsumes, the learning of knowledgeable skills. (Lave and Wenger, Situated Learning, 1991: 29)
For Lave and Wenger (and this is also true of Wenger-Trayner’s ongoing work with his current partner, Beverly), the disciplinary context — the “socio-cultural practices of a community” — is what drives us to learn and grow precisely because it creates a space where we can move from observation to practice. In their model, rich contexts give us both the rationale and the resources to progress (here’s a further exploration of their work).
Context is therefore a vital component of learning, but few of us feel adequately prepared to embrace it in all of its texture and variety. Fewer of us still feel empowered to engage our learners in the real-world contexts beyond our classrooms. We need a language and a concept for understanding what context is, how it works, and how we can use it to extend learning — a way of thinking about this dimension that makes it comprehensible and manageable.
As we’ve said, the context dimension involves both the wide variety of spaces in which learners operate and their relationship to those spaces. Again, such spaces are not just physical; they can also be intangible or conceptual: cultural, historical, social, disciplinary, and so forth. Yet despite the variety of spaces surrounding a learner, there are times when the learner doesn’t engage with them, rendering them irrelevant. Thus, it’s once more important to focus not on the elements that comprise this dimension, but rather on the ways in which and the extent to which learners engage with them. Engaging deeply with context allows learners to apply their learning and see the results of that application, transforming what would otherwise be abstract or disconnected — generic — information into experience. At each level of this dimension, we see a richer and more productive form of interaction, requiring more agency and more constructive participation from learners. The four levels of context, which we’ll represent with an “X” to facilitate differentiation from the other dimensions, look something like this:
• Context level 1 (“X1”): At the most basic level, learners have a generic relationship to the context. I mean generic here in two specific ways. First, the space itself is “generic” in that it could be anywhere — the context provides no meaningful cues that connect the learner to a particular place, time, or background. The environment outside plays no significant or appreciable role in this context’s construction or function. It is simply a “space”: a classroom, a laboratory, a forum, a demonstration or performance space, etc. But I also mean generic in a second way. The learner is connected to the context only through its genre — as a kind of space — and that connection is superficial. The lack of significant elements with which a learner can identify or in which he can invest is coupled with the learner’s inability to contribute meaningfully to or to alter the function of that space. No matter what the learner does, his role doesn’t fundamentally change: it, too, is generic. This makes learning contexts at this level largely static and abstract — a classroom is a classroom, a learner is a learner, and a teacher is a teacher. Rather than rewarding agency, ability, and engagement, such spaces often work to stifle them, valuing generic concerns and functions over more dynamic, distributed opportunities. At this level, therefore, learners often feel little ownership of or identification with the context, and the context provides them with little motivation or engagement that might drive them to deeper learning.
• Context level 2 (“X2”): At the second level, learners have an artificial relationship to the context. In this case, the context has some meaningful environmental, social, cultural, or disciplinary cues, but these are artificial or constructed, often without the full development or interconnections we see in the real world. A case study, for example, functions at this level of artificiality. Learners are presented with information contextualized in a story or case; they must learn and understand the rules of this narrative context in order to interact productively with the case’s content. However, learners may have no significant or personal relationship with the context, and it may therefore exert only limited influence on them. Artificial contexts function for learners the way the picture on a puzzle box functions: it helps them locate and interrelate concepts, but it does so only in a flat, often somewhat detached way. Such learners might be able to piece together a picture of what they’re learning, but this isn’t the same as a full, immersive experience. Even with virtual reality, another form of artificial context, the experience is “flatter” than with a real-world experience. For example, a person might be able to learn the rules in a virtual game’s world and even have vivid experiences of it; but if one “dies” in the game, one doesn’t die in real life. The lower stakes mean that participants interact in a more superficial, distant, or even sometimes cavalier fashion with artificial contexts than they do with ones from the real world. Of course, such diminished engagement can sometimes be enormously helpful for learning. Lowering the stakes — especially where someone might experience pain, injury, or death — can construct for learners the sort of free “practice” space where they can experiment and explore, empowering later movement into a more mature practice of the discipline. In Lave and Wenger’s terms, artificial contexts can create the conditions necessary for “legitimate peripheral participation” that later enables a learner to move toward the center, “becoming a full participant, a member” in a “community of practice.” At this level, learners must demonstrate some agency and bear some responsibility for understanding and engaging with the context, but the limited nature of that context means their agency and responsibility are correspondingly limited.
• Context level 3 (“X3”): At the third level, learners experience a controlled interaction with context. This is not the “artificial” world of the second level, nor is it the “genuine” world of the fourth. It is a context where someone — a teacher, a guide, a director, or some other custodial figure — has established safeguards that protect learners from exposure to the full risks or complexities of a particular context. Some more limited forms of service learning, for example, involve learners making a project that will be used in a real-world setting — but only after it’s been vetted and corrected by outside agents or experts. In this case, learners experience only a controlled interaction with the context; intervention by others will keep them from going “off the rails” and from suffering the full consequences of mistakes. While this exertion of control may provide opportunities for scaffolding, experimentation, and metacognitive analysis, it can also diminish learners’ engagement. They don’t bear full responsibility for how their learning applies in the context and don’t need to perform at their highest level because a safety net is in place. Nonetheless, learners at this level still engage more robustly with context than they do at the preceding levels. Outsiders — teachers, guides, directors, etc. — play a controlling roll and still have the final say about the extent to which learners interact with context. But learners at this level bear important responsibility for comprehending and engaging deeply with context as they learn.
• Context level 4 (“X4”): At the deepest level, learners participate in a genuine context and are fully responsible for understanding and interacting with it. They must demonstrate the agency and insight necessary to navigate the context’s complex web of elements and expectations and must demonstrate an ability to use their learning productively and wisely as they engage those elements. The lack of outside control by a teacher or custodian means that all responsibility rests with the learners themselves; they are fully accountable for both successes and failures. At this level, learners are expected to be fully functioning producers — central participants in the “communities of practice” articulated by Lave and Wenger. The unbounded interaction with context at this level requires high levels of investment, ability, and accountability from learners, and this typically also drives significant in-depth interactions with both the content and community dimensions. While learners at this level may still be performing “for a class,” the requirements and complexities of context at this level typically eclipse academic concerns; learners are doing it “for real” and not primarily “for a grade.”
For teachers, one of the biggest challenges with integrating more robust forms of content concerns assessment. At the “generic” and “artificial” levels, teachers exert considerable control over context and can map it tightly to learning expectations and goals. This makes assessment relatively simple: did the learner take what contextual cues there were into adequate account to perform at the expected level? But as context becomes more complex, moving to the “controlled” and “genuine” levels, the decrease in teacher control often makes assessment far more complex. How does one measure the impact of different sorts of context on performance? Did Learner A, who built a project for an established organization working in an established discipline with few surprises, perform at the same level as Learner B, who created a project right at the cutting edge of an emerging discipline? Or how can a teacher assess performance in a context with which she’s unfamiliar or has had no experience?
Such issues certainly create challenges, but they point once again to a problem we’ve seen before: the need for teachers to be enablers rather than managers. As with the deepest levels of content and community, the deepest levels of context require not merely data and information, but knowledge and wisdom — the upper levels of the DIKW pyramid. This means that teachers themselves must be practitioners, participants in the very sorts “communities of practice” their learners will encounter. Teachers can’t merely download a lesson or assign a chapter of the textbook, therefore. Like the learners in their classes, they have to engage with context on a deeper, more productive level, and that can be disconcerting for some.
But engaging with context in a deeper way also provides important benefits. Context can give powerful and focused meaning to both content and community, providing a means for moving from more abstract or general semantic memory to episodic memory, which is more likely to endure. And engaging with context at a deeper level means that teachers can leverage the context itself for assessment. How did a learner perform? Let’s let the “community of practice” help with that determination, something that’s possible because learners are making real projects and releasing them in the real world rather than just simulating them inside of a classroom. Gathering feedback from viewers, participants, and others associated with a genuine context can offer valuable insights to both learners and teachers — insights both groups might otherwise have missed. And engaging with the deeper levels of context can keep everyone involved in the learning environment from calcifying. Context keeps us honest in the face of change and forces us to keep up with the innovations that characterize today’s disciplines.
Context is an essential element for learning. We ignore at our peril.
You can download a PDF summary of the entire “cubic” model here.
Put together, the three dimensions of learning give us a way to understand a learner’s relationship to the component parts of any learning experience. As we’ll see in the next post, understanding the levels of “dimensionality” for each dimension provides a means for locating and assessing the levels of engagement and interaction that particular teaching approaches require of learners — to calculate those approaches’ “engagement and learning multipliers” (ELMs). Built out of the three components of learning — content, community, and context — every learning environment or pedagogical approach creates a unique shape, some more dimensional and with greater potential to impact learning and some less dimensional and with less potential.
I hope you’ll join me for what’s next!
©2017 William Rankin