The Thing about Contexts

Thursday 18 June 2015

This week I have been reading Daisy Christodoulou’s excellent Seven Myths about Education. The title may be a little inauspicious, but it is I imagine (clearing throat) a much more satisfying read than, say, Fifty Shades of Grey, despite book sales intimating that it is probably otherwise.

Christodoulou’s book is underpinned by research data and is lucidly written. It confirms a great deal that classroom experience has taught me. If nothing else, that’s comforting. One of the key findings of the book is that students need to know stuff. Without knowledge, it is difficult, and perhaps impossible, to develop into a critically minded problem solver. You simply can’t think critically without something to think about. That may be to state the blatantly obvious – but stay with me.

More controversially perhaps is the author’s claim that, for dovetailing historical reasons, many school systems – Christodoulou is primarily interested in the English National Curriculum – are eschewing the teaching of knowledge. That is, schools are increasingly less likely to teach much in the way of ‘facts’. Teachers, moreover, are being discouraged from teaching and are instead being encouraged to ‘facilitate’. The ‘sage on the stage’ versus the ‘guide on the side’ are the well-worn phrases that frame the shift Christodoulou identifies. What schools and their students really require, argues Christodoulou, are teachers teaching facts and doing it in a more direct manner. Christodoulou is a little sketchy in terms of what precisely constitutes effective direct teaching practice and she is somewhat evasive on the kinds of factual knowledge teachers should teach. As significant as these reservations are, they can for present purposes be put on the proverbial back burner.

In one of the chapters, Christodoulou turns her attention to reading. She suggests that ‘good readers are those who tend to know a little bit about a lot’. Christodoulou cites an experiment in which junior high school students were asked to read about a baseball game and at various points in their reading their comprehension was tested. The key conclusion of the research was that what a student knew (about baseball) was much more significant to comprehension than whether they were a skilled or less skilled reader.

This experiment reminds me of sample Paper 1 that the IB circulated in the early days of the Language and Literature course; it was, if memory serves me right, a sports report of an international rugby match played in Wales. You may have seen it. Since I know little of rugby, except that it is (most often) played by men with an odd-shaped ball, I found, even as an able reader, aspects of the text slightly challenging to comprehend.

As a further example, consider the Standard Level Paper 1 from the May 2013 examination session (specimen responses can be found here and here). This exam included an appeal, published in The Guardian newspaper on behalf of the Crisis at Christmas charity. To show a significant understanding of this text – and thus do well in criterion A – students would need to draw on a wide range of contextual knowledge. But what contextual knowledge? Well, for example, students may like to consider the literacy practice in English of reading from top to bottom and left to right. As banal as this cultural convention may seem, it needs making explicit to students, and is surely relevant for considering the organization of the text. This kind of context - and it certainly is contextual - can be taught in the classroom, and the understanding can be usefully applied to many different texts. But, to really appreciate the text, it is surely also important to know that Britain tends to be cold in December (the warming effect of the Gulf Stream is a myth Christodoulou doesn’t tackle). And, it is significant to know that homelessness is an enduring social issue in Britain. Knowing something of the cultural and historical meaning of Christmas in Britain informs one’s reading too, as does an awareness of the global financial crisis of the period, a knowledge of charitable giving, and some insight into The Guardian’s political stance and readership. If you are like me, you are unlikely to give any explicit teaching time to much or any of this. I mean you don’t have a special Language and Literature lesson dedicated to understanding Christmas (or Easter, or Shrove Tuesday) do you?

This seems, then, to lend credibility to at least part of Christodoulou’s argument. To wit: students need to know stuff. Even if as a teacher you separate ‘contexts of production’ from ‘contexts of reception’, and patiently explain the distinction to students, these abstract concepts have no significant meaning that exists separately from what students may or may not otherwise know. Teaching contexts, then, is hard to do. It is more straightforward to do in preparation for Paper 2, but much less achievable in preparing students for Paper 1 given that the exam is ‘unseen’, and an understanding of the text(s) depend(s) on unstipulated a priori knowledge. It follows that when students know something about their world, they are potentially more inclined to do well in Paper 1.

For those who think that education’s mission extends beyond exam success, let me reassure you that I am on your side. A head full of propositional knowledge will help you in a pub quiz, but it doesn’t necessarily make you compassionate. Whilst this is true, neither Christodoulou nor I are proselytizing for a Gradgrindian teaching of facts for the sake of it. And in any case, compassion surely builds on an awareness of the world.



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