Context is King – Forevermore

Motion and Learning – Part II of III

Image: National Dance Institute 2014

We are drowning in valid and reliable digital content.

Each and every tested fact that you and your students wish to know or to explore is easily and readily accessible within only a few clicks on Wikipedia, Google or other search engine, or any number of other online sources such as newcomer Quora. There’s even sites like and MOOCs consolidated on Class Central that let you learn complex software and coding sequences or sit through a course lecture online, on nearly any topic. Knowledge and facts are not difficult to glean.

But what about the context of our fact-based reality? What about living and learning fully within our multidimensional space-time reality with all of its wonders, variables, pleasures, complexities, threats, and analog flows? Yes, in-class ‘active learning’ is helpful and encourages the instructor to not cling to the lectern and forces higher education to move beyond the time-honored lecture. Alas, neither side of this current, shallow and stereotypical higher education pro- and anti-lecture ‘debate’ acknowledges that students must be first and foremost physically primed for listening and paying close attention.

Context is something that allows instructors and institutions to teach about concepts in ways that are compelling and that draw attention to the concepts. Context is that rich situational intersection of time and space, where the event and environment underscore a common narrative and line of thought, or help define some disciplinary or interdisciplinary concept. Context is that multi-dimensional reality that frames content, learning, decision-making, agency, and comprehension through primary, physical and intellectual exposure to that “context.” Neither lecture nor ‘active learning’ within the confines of a classroom alone are sufficient to support a true understanding of most contexts – which are and which happen, whether academia wishes to acknowledge it or not, outside of the classroom.

Instead of relegating ‘technology’ into the camp of ‘active learning’ as is done with casual disdain and regularity by faculty – for example by Molly Worthen in her October 17, 2015 New York Times opinion piece – it is time to get real about this topic of ‘active learning’ and the apparent connection to technology. Learning is much more about context than content whereby context happens outside of the classroom, and the classroom in turn is a place for sitting and being sedentary, whether lecture or active learning is the choice. Unfortunately, we sit far too much of the time due to the overconsumption and inappropriate use of technologies – whether it’s driving in a car to a destination that is easily reached by walking or riding a bicycle, or using a computer or other screen-based technology for far too many sequential hours over time.

This should be a red flag for higher education and those groups that are supporting teaching and learning, with and without technology – but especially those professing effective use of technology for teaching and learning such as EDUCAUSE, the New Media Consortium, Online Learning Consortium, and research groups such as AERA and AECT – to name but a few. Perplexingly, these groups remain aloof despite their critical role as intermediaries between the technology industry and higher education and its learners and the potential of technology to encourage outside exploration and physical exercise.

So let us start with some basics. There are many, many missed opportunities today to offer a superior learning experience within the confines of the classroom and campus. Building upon the flipped classroom practices that involve connecting online and out-of-class activities with in-class learning and activities for improved learning, imagine what is possible if the entire institution engages learning in this way – in the way that this site, the advocates, with lots of physically enjoyable activities incorporated into the curriculum in a way that heightens learning through context? Imagine if technology is applied and used in such ways that concepts and content are supported by the context.

First though, it is important to understand and accept that our physical surroundings and our physical selves in time and space are essential determinants of learning, our identity and role within that learning, and shape our ability to apply academic concepts to the real world that we live in.

Even in this time of Common Core testing burdens, there are examples of K12 institutions that aspire to reach new heights of student learning through experiential learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, and other pedagogies that force the learner into an environment of cause-and-effect, consequences for decisions, and uncertainty.

A couple of exemplary schools that recognize the need to flip the current curriculum happen to be in my own small town, Silver City, New Mexico. Both schools stand as testimony that neither scarce resources nor bureaucratic testing requirements can stop an institution of learning from engaging in such curricular efforts that transform and improve the value of learning.

Aldo Leopold High School (ALHS) is a charter school in rural New Mexico – the poorest state in the union today – with a mantra of “Think Outside.” As a school in proximity of the first wilderness area in the U.S. – the Gila Wilderness – ALHS offers its students large helpings of inquiry-based, experiential, and problem-based learning opportunities. Whether it is using a GPS device in the wilderness for way finding, geo-location, and other purposes, or by engaging students to generate valid questions based on the concepts under scrutiny, or by having students work as protégés with local mentors and experts in a real-world internship; ALHS starts with a core mission that focuses on “stewardship of our community and natural environment.”

Nearby is the private school Guadalupe Montessori School (GMS) with a decades-long tradition in Silver City, New Mexico of providing student-centered education to grades kindergarten through sixth. In the tradition of the original founder Maria Montessori, GMS offers key components of the Montessori method and classroom including a mixed-age community of learners, uninterrupted work cycles, student agency in choosing work, and the freedom to explore within a prepared environment — all supported by a trained Montessori Guide. GMS is all about the learner taking ownership of their learning, facilitated by a certified Montessori instructor.

An example of how GMS incorporates movement and motion into the curriculum is through their long relationship with the National Dance Institute (NDI) – New Mexico, which teaches students the basics of dance and which culminates in a complete performance in front of parents, families, teachers, peers, and members of the community. The program is available to other schools, and offers authentic connections between movement and learning. Local anecdotal evidence suggests strongly that student confidence increases through this performance-based learning, and is supported by research.

These two K12 schools are not alone. For example, Santa Barbara Middle School has a rich history of experiential learning focused on bicycling, hiking, and the outdoors and that puts an integrated, experiential, problem-based, inquiry-based curriculum ahead of the technology. Certainly other schools too put such student-centered, facilitated pedagogies ahead of the technology, and the author seeks more information on such schools and the ways that they are transforming education.

Not surprisingly to those familiar with higher education structures and institutional constraints, there seem far fewer examples of experiential learning institutions that place learning ahead of technology. Yet the opportunities and stakes are much greater for higher education given the advanced knowledge and methodologies associated with higher learning and the ability to engage motion and learning from a campus-institutional vantage.

For example, there exist exciting new, technology-driven ways to improve how campus denizens – faculty, students, staff, administrators – travel to and from the campus. Since 2012, Stanford University’s Balaji Prabhakar created the CAPRI platform that incentivizes commuters to ride-share, travel by non-car means, and to avoid traveling altogether on some days. Similarly, since 2006 Santa Monica, California’s RideAmigos platform offers a more integrated, institutional campus solution for connecting and incentivizing commuter behaviors.

Such platforms are extremely powerful toward offering the campus community a way to connect learning with something as basic as the daily commute. However, to use such platforms and the exciting smartphone-location-based research and learning strategies discussed and described in the next installment, it requires an institutional will and the leadership to ‘flip the script’ on our current, course-based, granular, and disciplinary (versus interdisciplinary) approach to higher learning.

This is where those tertiary organizations – EDUCAUSE, New Media Consortium, AERA, AECT, etc. – could play a critical role in supporting such change. Alas, this is not the case today and it is important that these groups change and properly, fully, and without vendor strings attached, engage this effort of motion and learning with zest and no compunction.

Next installment: Using technologies to support teaching, learning, and research strategies that support motion, context and learning.