Context: One Key to Deeper Learning

Friday May 1st at the Graduate Centerā€™s Annual Purposeful Pedagogy Conference, the keynote address was given by Dr. Anna Stetsenko, a Professor in the Human Development and Urban Education Ph.D. Programs at the Graduate Center. I also was lucky enough to have taken a Ph.D. level course with Dr. Stetsenko about three years ago. Both from her keynote address and throughout the semester she was my Professor, she spoke of the importance of context in learning. She has opened mine as well as many other doctoral level studentsā€™ eyes to the relevance of providing our own undergraduate students with an understanding of how context shapes the theories and paradigms of thought that emerge at a given time in history and in a given field. Because of Dr. Stetsenko, I too have developed an eagerness to take a holistic lens to teaching. Her combined focus on the inclusion of context within pedagogy and encouraging active learning on the part of students provide us with wonderful lessons toward improving our teaching, regardless of whether we are relatively new instructors or have been teaching for many years. Below are three specific ways in which I now focus on context within my own classrooms and were inspired by Dr. Stetsenko.
Historical Context
The historical context of what was happening when a particular theory, area of research, or paradigm of thought emerged helps explain how and why it emerged in the first place. History including politics, power dynamics, wars, and other influences shape how knowledge is created and in fact affects what knowledge is given precedence at a given time. One such example of how I impart this to my students in my Social Psychology courses is to require them to read various older primary scholarly research articles (as well as current ones) throughout the semester and have them research what was going on at that time in history in regards to politics within the authorā€™s country and the paradigms of thought in psychology. As one example, my students read Milgrimā€™s (1963) original article about obedience and how the impact of Nazi soldiersā€™ obedience to Hitler served as a trigger for Milgrimā€™s interest in studying the ā€˜dark sideā€™ of leadership and obedience. The students learn to place all research in context through this type of exercise and to notice how the time period in which a researcher lives impacts what is deemed as valuable to study at that point in history as well as what was published during that decade. Additionally, in teams, my students present a topic that is interesting to them and related to the course, yet beyond the content that I provide them. This gives them the opportunity to search for historical context and teach it to classmates to further their learning.
Cultural Context
I consider demonstrating the value of cross-cultural perspectives to my students as one of my foremost goals in teaching. At this time, it is essential to acknowledge cultureā€™s impact on a given field as a whole and within a given theory (e.g., Does a given theory apply cross-culturally? Why or why not?), as well as how culture relates to our studentsā€™ own perspectives. To do so, I first take the time to teach at least two general class periods early in the semester about how culture shapes oneā€™s beliefs, values, and opinions in order to open my studentsā€™ eyes on the impact of culture, interspersed with small group work where teams of students generate examples of how they have seen the impact of culture in their own lives. I have found that when having students link their real world experiences to the research in this area through the use of journal-entry writing assignments or by focused discussions with others, they are quickly quite interested in the topic of culture. To implement this, I require them to define a related theory and then explain examples which were not discussed in class within a brief write-up (1-2 pages) and I assign scholarly research articles which include culture as a theme to provide a basis for class discussions. In addition, my students often complete short thesis statement papers where they cite sources beyond the assigned ones of the course in order to build support for their own original hypotheses. This can work well in other fields beyond my field of Psychology quite well also. Culture impacts what knowledge is valued and how information is considered important. I urge all instructors to attempt to establish the importance of culture as a contextual variable for how the leaders, theories, and ideas in your own field were shaped.
Scenario-based Examples
Lastly, I use scenarios in all my classes as a way to establish a concrete sense of context to the information students are learning in each class period. Examples that are vivid such as creative yet realistic scenarios allow for students to comprehend the course content in a manner that is relevant beyond their textbooks. If used as a scenario that students must explain in writing or if requesting them to write an example of something discussed in class, this pushes students to be able to use terminology in the course within their writing which also reinforces a deeper level of learning than simple term and definition lists could do.

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