The Importance of Context in Learning
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The Importance of Context in Learning

The Importance of Context in Learning:
Boredom is to Integrated Learning as Cyanide was to Roman Emperors

By Claire Madgwick

“Boredom was everywhere in my world, and if you asked the kids, as I often did, why they felt so bored, they always gave the same answers: They said the work was stupid, that it made no sense, that they already knew it. They said they wanted to be doing something real, not just sitting around. They said teachers didn't seem to know much about their subjects and clearly weren't interested in learning more. And the kids were right: their teachers were every bit as bored as they were.” John Taylor Gatto in Against School (Harper’s Magazine, 2003)

The dictionary describes boredom as “the feeling of being bored by something tedious.” At six years of age, my son didn’t have the words to sum up his school experience; the closest that he could muster was to provide me with the description of the feeling that it evoked in him. This feeling was “boredom.” Furthermore, he often relayed to me that he did “nothing” during his school day. I knew this could not be entirely accurate, however I sensed this was a reality for him. In time, I reached the conclusion that if he had the wisdom of experience he would have communicated something along the lines of: “Learning in school is making little sense to my life; I am therefore unable to engage in the activities being presented to me; consequently I live in this state of tedium which makes me feel bored.”

“We ask children to do for most of a day what few adults are able to do for even an hour. How many of us, attending, say, a lecture that doesn’t interest us, can keep our minds from wandering? Hardly any.” John Holt in How Children Fail

In contrast, whenever my son spoke about football his eyes would light up. He would clue me in on anything that I wanted to know about the subject, from rules of the game to top scorers in the premiership league table. He would press me to take him to his favorite team’s matches and would spend every spare minute practising his football skills outside. When someone had some tidbit of information on football, he would stop and listen, and add his opinion. He would read the latest football magazine from cover to cover and save up every penny to purchase the football cards that he religiously collected. When passionate about a topic, we are much less inclined toward tedium. This was one of the main reasons why we started to home educate nearly eight years ago.

Despite characterizing our home education approach as “life learning unschoolers,” I recently found myself falling into the trap of providing a schooling-style approach to learning during a weekly lesson with my daughter and five of her friends. Another mom and I assumed the running of some science based lessons. Every child chose to attend these lessons and could leave at any time; in other words, they wished to learn about science via these lessons. For the first six months, the children seemed engaged as we followed the Usborne Science book, working our way through basic science kitchen experiments. However, in the latter months they appeared to lose enthusiasm. As their interest waned, I lost spirit in these gatherings. Disheartened, I could hear myself coercing them to participate, even raising my voice so as to be heard over the top of their disinterested chatter.

“The biggest enemy to learning is the talking teacher” John Holt in How Children Fail

My instincts warned me that these lessons had lost their mojo. I found that I couldn’t continue any longer; this way of learning had developed into lessons that went against everything that I had come to believe in. We held a meeting with all of us ensconced on the floor in a circle. In this non-judgmental setting, the children were able to express their lack of connection to the science that we had been attempting. Through this dialogue, a phoenix of an idea arose out from the circle, gathering form as we animatedly visualized the unexpected shape of our future science meetings.

In mock Harry Potter style, we now arrive every Monday morning and symbolically enter our Room of Requirements, where each individual is working on a project that they have selected to study. A project may take one week or many months. The boys are currently building a potato rocket launcher, one of the girl’s is mastering a deeper understanding of gem stones, and the remaining two girls are building their own doll house – complete with working solar lighting and a water fountain. This process demonstrated to me the power of non-judgmental listening and hearing; none of us could have ever imagined this would be the outcome.

“We learn to do something by doing it. There is no other way.” John Holt in Teach Your Own

One of the main keys to the success of integrated learning is to “do” and through the doing we learn. There is another crucial element to successfully integrated learning: The learning needs to be in context for the learner – those subjects that pique the learner’s interest. I had reassured myself that we were “doing” the experiments but, unfortunately, the lessons being explored lacked context for the children. The random experiments, grouped roughly together under themes, held no meaning in the children’s lives. One of our lessons involved an experiment that demonstrated ice melting at a different rate when salt was applied to it. It’s an interesting fact, but how does that fit in with our lives here in Africa? In Canada, this experiment would have a higher probability of being in context, particularly during winter time when driveways need to be cleared of snow with minimum effort.

Formal teaching normally approaches learning in reverse, initially teaching a concept, which is then followed by applying the doing, and the context is relegated to last position and often entirely neglected. There is a hornet’s nest of problems associated with this unnatural approach to learning. The largest issue is that often the lessons taught have little relevance to the children’s lives, resulting in detachment from the subject matter and ultimately boredom. When the learning process is reversed and the children get to choose what they want to learn, they are inspired and motivated. With context firmly in place, it is more likely that integrated learning is the end result.

When initially presented with a new learning experience, we naturally look for prior hooks that we may have in place. We ask the questions: “Have I tried to do this, or something similar, before?” “What was the experience like?” “How successful was I?” “Where did I fail?” “What did I learn?” John Holt, in How Children Fail, wrote that we learn through doing and the prerequisite to that is to be able to imagine ourselves doing the doing. We have to picture ourselves swimming, skiing, playing a particular song on the piano, and prior to the taking of our first step when learning to walk. This leads to a trying-it-out period of learning, doing it, learning from our mistakes, and trying again. At this point, we may need some instructions from someone who has mastered this experience previously. It makes sense for us to watch her doing what we were trying to do, and then we can try the doing ourselves. It is important that it is the learner, not the teacher, who drives the learning process at the pace that best fits him, whilst this is in place then context remains king.

I remember my daughter, at five years old, being concerned that she would be leaving behind her toys and bed, when we explained that we were moving to a new house. With no hook for her to attach this unchartered experience to, she was left with feelings of confusion and worry. Prior to her first hook of “the meaning of moving” being in place, if we had described to her the abstract act of moving house, it is unlikely that she would have little interest in this out-of-context experience. Unfortunately, this is what a school setting applies regularly – teaching subjects that have little context in a child’s life. We may have been able to capture our daughter’s interest by giving her an account of someone moving house in story form. Possibly, through identifying with the person in the story, she may have become more engaged, although I would argue that this is a whisper of the real experience. Successful resolution of “what it means to move house” would involve her having a complete understanding of what it feels like and what it physically means to move house. It is the actual experience of moving – the doing of moving in context – that truly engages the integrated learner in the child, providing the full meaning behind what it means to move. It was this “doing of moving in context” that settled once and for all the questions that my daughter had regarding her bed and her toys accompanying her when she moved to a different house.

“When you teach a child something you take away forever his chance of discovering it for himself.” Jean Piaget

Learning doesn’t always have to involve being there physically. I’ve been reading aloud Harry Potter to my nine-year-old. Those of you who have read the books will be aware of the character Sirius, Harry Potter’s godfather, who changes into a large dog at will. In a separate discussion with my daughter, I relayed to her that there is a star in the sky that is called Sirius and it can be found in a constellation referred to as The Great Dog. It was a classic integrated learning moment when she made the connection, for herself, between what we had been reading about in Harry Potter and the information she had just gleaned. Taking it one step further, she commented on the cleverness of J.K. Rowling basing a character on the name of a star and connecting this character, through its actions in the book, to the name of its constellation. Moreover she has created an additional hook to build onto in the future: what it means to create and name characters when planning to write a story.

The learning process is sacred to the individual, whatever their age. Hijacking an individual’s natural learning approach is tantamount to theft and something we should guard against at all costs. When this occurs, learners are left with boredom as their only line of defence. In a learning setting where boredom is prevalent, used as a barometer, it will red flag that somewhere in the learning approach something has gone awry. When we entrust the learning process to the learner, context is a given; the learner naturally selects that which holds meaning for her and the poisonous trickle of disconnected boredom is eliminated.

Claire Madgwick and her two home-educated children, ages fourteen and nine when this article was published, live in Johannesburg South Africa.

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