Some of you may be aware that I started my professional life in the museum world, and one of the great challenges of working in museums is context. You need to be aware of where an artifact originated, where it was discovered (if it wasn’t with the originating culture), what its impact was and is…and you have to be able to do all of this at the same time. Because they’re all related, it doesn’t seem like that much to keep up with. But when you start looking at the artifact in relation to other things, it becomes everything. What is this artifact in the context of the originating culture? What is this artifact in the context of the discovery site? What is this artifact in the context of multiple fields of research? What is this artifact in the context of the museum’s mission to the community it serves?
Not so simple now, huh? And museum professionals, regardless of their role, deal with this on a daily basis.
No one really thinks about it, but educators deal with context pretty often, too. They have to think about the skills and information they’re teaching in terms of the students they’re working with, the topics they’re covering, and the standards they’re trying to address. A skill that might have focused on one discipline with one group of students may need to be retooled to a different discipline for another group of students. A lesson may have to be retooled to a different age group when the teacher changes the grade level they teach. Things change constantly, and so the context of the lesson has to change with it.
That’s what makes context so difficult. You need to keep something in its proper context relative to the discipline, audience, and setting; but at the same time, you want to create the context in which the learner interacts with something. We’re all familiar with the learner asking why they have to learn something. If you create the right context for the learning, the student sees why you’re teaching it to them, how it’s going to benefit them, and hopefully multiple ways they can apply it in the future.