The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-move #1-Context

When Teaching Mirrors Learning Series 

Unpacking The DNA of Learning Blueprint


     Each article in this 15 part series systematically unpacks the DNA of Learning Blueprint for kindling the spirit of learning and re-starting our passion as educators.  The collective series will represent a comprehensive outline of fundamental requirements for timeless learning across ages and disciplines.

Part  8: The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-move #1-Context

Context’s Role in DNA’s “wings OF INSTRUCTION”


“Context matters, even if you live in a vacuum.”

“We need mindsets of connection and relating, not coverage and completion”


What is Context?

     Whether we realize it or not, context is all around us. We live in it.  Yet, perceptions of influence vary from person to person, place to place.  Our context is the fundamental way we come to understand others, situations, ideas and ultimately—all information.  Everything that we see, hear, read, feel, and commensurately think and do, is a response to what the world puts before us.  This makes the role of educator vitally important as to how context is articulated to learners.  It has the power to change perspective, opinion and provide meaning.  Our current inundation of social media along with political, cultural and economic conversations demonstrates the clear need for context before conclusion.


Do You Suppose…

     that students might learn more from studying the American Revolution if they first explored facets of a local issue that was contentious? For many youth the times leading up to the revolutionary war are “yesterday’s news.”  They see little relevance in tossing bundles of tea overboard to protest taxation nor Paul Revere riding to spread news of a pending land or sea invasion.  Oh, and hold on a moment, Paul was not the only one heralding the advance of the British.  Four men and one woman made late night rides, alerting the colonists of what dangers lay ahead: Paul Revere, Samuel Prescott, Israel Bissell, William Dawes, and Sybil Ludington.  Sybil Ludington, a 16-year-old revolutionary rode twice as far as Mr. Revere.  She reportedly rode 40 miles on horseback mustering local militia troops in response to the British attack on the town of Danbury.  In all, some forty were involved in spreading the word across Suffolk County, Massachusetts.  Would knowledge that a young woman took part inspire connections for some?

     There are many current or local conditions that could serve to draw learners’ attention.  Student sentiment regarding the closing of bathrooms due to destruction by a few vandals at school may link personal meaning and attention.  What if we linked events of yesteryear with life circumstances of today?  We might start with local, current events, then move to align the big ideas of independence, rights, and the costs all must pay due to the acts of a very few.  Would studying the chronology of the American Revolution then take on more purpose?  Once we understand the context in which the colonists were protesting—alongside the concerns of the King of Great Britain, we might understand why choices were made.  When we bring the relevance of today’s world with us as we explore the many lessons of history, the transfer of thinking may be applied with greater understanding to decisions of today.  Isn’t that what education is about?

     Do we really think that studying an era of the past or a wartime of long ago, only to take a test on how much information one can recall toward getting a grade, will transfer to the lives of youth today?  Our experience suggests not. Context that provides a setting for understanding and transfer is essential for learning, but not always present for schooling.  What business are we in?

The Wings of Instruction: Neuro-move #1-Context

Unpacking Context

    For the brain to process effectively for retention, connecting interest and meaning is essential.  Constructing memory is supported best when meaning is identified early and  develops prior to being burdened with dollops of content.  Context is not the same as the objective or target of a lesson.  Contextual elements enhance meaning, buy-in, understanding and ultimately, active processing to memory.  Units of study must take this into consideration before the first lesson begins.  There is a body of knowledge, set of skills and understandings contained in each segment (chapter/unit) of learning.  The common approach is to teach, in sequential order, from a logical beginning place, toward a determined set of learning outcomes.  As the first lesson takes place, the teacher knows the context in which the content resides.  The student does not.  The curious brain will ask, “Does this new material relate to what I already know?” Without a contextual framework the learner becomes adrift, devoid of purpose and connection.  As such, they will create their own pathways to understanding based on whatever prior information is available to them.  If this happens, we’re rolling the dice.  Students’ complete assignments that result in minimal residual recall and no opportunity for transfer. 

     Active processing to memory is far more likely to occur when thinking is embedded in contexts that tap into prior knowledge.  When new information is introduced, it can overload working memory and taxes thinking capacity.  Comprehension becomes disjointed and elusive.  If we cannot sort things out and sufficiently relate as content mounts up, then many will make efforts to rehearse for an assessment.  Would-be learners “tread water” just trying to keep up.  When this happens there is less capacity available for working memory to process and make meaningful connections.  Tomorrow’s discussion and/ or a pop quiz become trial and error activities with blank, searching faces and palpable scrambling to recall “right” answers to questions.  This is frustrating for teachers and unproductive for student learning.



     A compass has 360 degrees on it.  If one does not know where they are going, there are 359 chances of not getting there.  If our flight to Los Angeles from Boston were to end up in St. Louis, well, that’s much closer than Miami—yet remains altogether ineffective.  As any journey begins it is crucial for the traveler to know where they are whilst in the midst of things.  This happens through continuous feedback and adjustments along the way toward learning goals.  When a learner begins exploring new frontiers, s/he needs to reference why they are making this journey, the general direction of interest, what will be involved and why it is important to embark.  If they do not understand the relevance of their investment in relation to the purpose, why would they be motivated beyond compliance or completion?  Context matters for processing and meaning!


Bottom Line for Educators

     Every brain seeks meaning.  Meaning gets and keeps attention, AND, meaning is always contextually personalized.  Context must be used to frame each lesson.  Repeatedly (every lesson) referencing connections to context will foster earlier development of meaning for students.  “How do we help each student unpack his/her existing understandings at the onset of new learning?” and “How can the overall context of the studies be articulated so that clear, explicit connections are available for learners to build upon?”  We need mindsets of process and learning, not coverage and completion!


A Science Lesson on Climate 

     A multitude of possibilities and issues arise, from many perspectives such as:  forestation cycles, logging, erosion, agriculture, fuelwood, coal, water management, fossil fuels, cattle ranching and so forth.  Perspective and purpose shift as variable foci are considered.  As students investigate, context enables greater reference for constructing understanding.  If you’re in a forest learning about water management and erosion, discussion and meaning will differ from that of other impacts on climate.  Orienting the purpose of study in context provides reference points for discussion and considerations that may lead to a more comprehensive exploration and deeper understanding of variables.  Given choice within the context of a learning targets, learners could select ways to approach the work and generate varied perspectives to share with classmates, enriching the experience for all. 


Moving toward tomorrow

     Step 1: Units of study need to begin by framing the arena (context) in which the learner will explore big ideas, the essential concepts, ideas, and content.  Initial activities must provide an opportunity for grounding purpose in the work.  One way is to develop anchor charts that represent student thinking, consisting of prior knowledge generated by the class.  This represents the starting point for clarification, choice of direction, emphasis, and purposeful learning

     Step 2:  Every unit of study must have articulated context in which the big ideas, concepts, key messages and ultimately content, reside for the learner

     Step 3:  Each lesson within a unit must reference context, even if briefly.  Context can be achieved with visual references (photos, diagrams, maps, representations), discussion, demonstration, statements, text, etc.  In time, students can generate varied references as to how context importantly connects their understandings

     Step 4:  Help students develop schema by relating parts/pieces of knowledge to overall concepts and contexts as they proceed.  Students need to understand the structure (relationships) within a problem, not just how to find answers

     Step 5:  Have students transfer their newly understood learnings to other domains.  This could be an extension of learning, mid-segment check-point or summative performance task.

Note:  Familiarity with vocabulary used can increase meaning and memory, however, context is more important to learning than generic reading comprehension activities (Willingham, 2015).

      Once the psychology of engaging a learning mindset occurs, then the biology of neuro-moves can align with a learning agenda.  If active minds-on processing generates more learning, then context is a fundamental foundational building block. The availability of context provides links for each brain to explore toward determining relevance.  It would be unfortunate for anyone to not see purpose in their work.  Without interest sufficient to connect to their world, perseverance wanes into temporary information acquisition.  Too often students do work largely to achieve a grade or score.  This is not learning behavior.

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