Contexts for learning

A few years ago I attended a CPD event aimed at linking primary schools in England with similar schools in France, to give children a real-life reason to practise the vocabulary they were learning: to give what they were learning in French lessons context. The course deliverer talked about the ‘importance’ of learning, and I was reminded of this last night during a Twitter conversation with @imagineinquiry, @redgierob, @educationbear, @MissHorsfall, @nancygedge and @michaelt1979. We were discussing the fine distinction between giving learning meaning and giving it context.

The course deliverer talked about a recent bathroom-flooding incident he had experienced. Forgive me if the detail is hazy – I am not and do not want to be a plumbing expert. He told a story where a friend had advised him to change some specific plumbing part (the word ‘olive’ rings a bell?) in his bathroom. He said he had paid little notice because he wasn’t interested and didn’t really need to know about this special olive. A few weeks later, after his bathroom had been flooded, he was keen to know exactly what this olive was, where he could get a replacement and whether or not he would be able to fit it himself. This new learning, all about the olive, was now important and had a very real context.

This is the definition of providing context to learning that rings true with me, and I’m pretty sure the fantastic proponent of MoE teaching Tim Taylor (@imagineinquiry) agrees, so I feel I can’t be too far wrong.

A few years ago, in my then mixed Y3-6 class, we investigated suitable fabric for making waterproof clothing for a puppet which was being taken to Antarctica by a teacher as part of a project to investigate science in the real world. (Visit Ricky the puppet’s blog at http://antarcticapuppet.primaryblogger.co.uk/). I could have just asked the children to investigate a range of fabrics to find which were waterproof and which were not. The investigations and the results would have been the same, but the ‘importance’ element would have been missing. Ricky the puppet (the context) was relying on us!

For me, the context makes the learning purposeful, and whether that context is real or imaginary is not really important. My Y3-6 class also wrote a very real guide to a local nature reserve that was being constructed on the edge of the school site. Again, their learning was important and their writing and maps all the better for it. There was a real client, and the children produced a real outcome which had a real purpose.

The Twitter conversation last night stemmed from a discussion about ‘topic’ teaching in primary schools, which I’m also a big fan of when the links are not forced and tenuous. I do believe, however, that topics are even better when real contexts can be threaded through them. In our recent Australia topic in Y2/3, some of our learning was necessary to answer questions sent via Twitter by a teacher currently working in the outback there. The questions gave ‘importance’ to our learning and almost rendered me a bystander: the children were so motivated by the context that much of the learning was child-led. That they were also co-constructors asking their own, very informed, questions via Twitter, was the icing on our cake!

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