If you’re a teacher, I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You teach a lesson with one group of students and it works great. The students are motivated and engaged. The technology works correctly. The activities you planned all make sense to the students and support their development. The students even laugh at your jokes. It’s like the clouds have opened up. The sun is shining down on your classroom and you can hear harps playing. Your lesson nailed it.
But then, you try the same lesson again. Instead of triumphant success, the lesson falls flat. Students get lost in your explanations or the technology isn’t working. Or maybe the students aren’t as motivated to learn or maybe they’re less engaged. For whatever reason, it’s as if a host of thunderclouds descended upon your class and you can hear the sound of a sad trombone playing. The lesson was a bitter failure.
I’m outlining these divergent experiences because they demonstrate the power of context. I’ve been thinking about the power of context a lot recently. Some of this was sparked by a keynote presentation I attended over the weekend. The Teaching Professor conference was held in Atlanta and the opening keynote was Dr. Stephen Chew, a psychology professor from Samford University. If you ever have a chance to see Dr. Chew speak, don’t miss it. He’s easily one of the most entertaining and interesting presenters ever. You will not be disappointed.
In his keynote presentation, Dr. Chew discussed some of the myths and buzzwords that are common in education. He led over a thousand educators through an active (and sometimes dissonant) analysis of different instructional beliefs and practices. As he wrapped up his presentation, Dr. Chew advised the group that cognitive science has taught us a lot about how people learn. But it was up to us as teachers to recognize the correct context with which to apply the concepts. For instance, something that might work in an elementary classroom would never work in a collegiate one. Working with first year students in a general education classroom is different than teaching seniors in an upper level course in their major. To be an effective educator, you need to consider a host of contextual factors as you plan and lead a lesson. In short, context matters.
But this mantra doesn’t just apply to educators working in classrooms. As some readers may know, I lead the faculty development center at my institution. After working in the role for the last six years, I collaborated with a colleague to lead a session for new faculty developers at the Teaching Professor conference. While we provided a lot of different resources and suggestions for the attendees, one of the clear takeaways was that faculty developers needed to understand the context of the institution where they worked. Faculty development strategies that might work at a small liberal arts institution may not work at a large research university. Strategies that are effective at a community college may be less effective at a faith-based institution. Context matters.
One of the challenges I see is how we respond to these contextual factors. I worry that some may take this to mean that anything goes. Since we can’t control the contextual factors and can’t always predict the effectiveness of our work, the logic could go, why even try? We should just plan something, anything, and assign any failure to the context of the environment. But this shifts the locus of control away from our roles as educators.
From my perspective, recognizing the role that context can play makes our knowledge and expertise as educators so much more important. We need to be able to identify different constraints and plan accordingly. And be able to change course when we see a strategy isn’t being effective. While context definitely matters, pedagogical knowledge and experience matter more.