Sunday, January 15, 2017
What constitutes a learning context and why should we care?
It is a reasonably well-established view that context is in large part what determines the meaning of an utterance. Context – or more specifically, use, which occurs in a context - in part determines meaning (see https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/pragmatics/ for an elaboration). The point is that use and context are critical factors in determining the meaning of what someone has said. Likewise, the use and context are critical factors in determining whether, how and why learning might or might not be occurring in a particular situation. So, to determine if meaningful learning is or is not occurring or likely to occur, one needs to consider the learning context and what the learner might be doing or not be doing in that situation.
The simple approach to providing a description of a learning context is to indicate what is around the learner during a learning activity. It might be other learners, a teacher, a book, and a computer as in a typical classroom setting, or it could be music playing in a coffee shop with other people around who may or may not be learners, or it could be many other situations in which learning is intended to occur.
However, simply describing what is around a learner falls short of providing a good or complete understanding of a learning context. What the learner is doing or might do is also relevant. If the learning situation happens to be in a coffee shop with music playing, then a learner is not likely to benefit much from an audio or audio-video file played on that learner’s laptop computer. The coffee shop situation does not provide effective affordance or support for audio-based learning. Likewise, in a classroom setting, if the learner is working with a small group of students who are busy chatting on their smartphones, that context might have too many distractions to support learning to solve a complex problem, unless the chatting happens to be about that problem and is providing some insights about what to do.
The point I am trying to make is quite simple. When describing a learning context, it is reasonable to include all of the things that a learner can touch (or see or hear or smell or taste) as well as all of the things that can touch the learner. In addition, just as the speaker is part of the context when it comes to determining the meaning of what is said, the learner is part of the context when it comes to understanding to what extent (and why) meaningful learning might be occurring.
Of course what is to be learned is part of the learning context as well. What is to be learned includes the general topic, the level of understanding sought, as well as the specific knowledge, skills and attitudes that are part of the learning goal and expected outcomes.