Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

Why Teaching With Context Always Wins

Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results.

– John Dewey

My high school algebra teacher “phoned it in.” Her classroom instruction consisted of slapping one transparency after another on the overhead projector and in a monotone voice going over the each and every line. She explained the concepts of basic algebra by just reading the slide on the screen. There wasn’t any enthusiasm and there certainly wasn’t any way for me to relate to my world what she was teaching.

Relating what you’re teaching to your students–teaching with context–is one ingredient of helping your students succeed. Your students could be in a classroom in front of you, viewers of a digital training course you created, or the readers of documentation you wrote. Your students could even be the attendees of a talk you’re giving at a conference.

Three Useful Examples are Better Than None

The ExpressionEngine CMS has always had thorough documentation. For non-developers, the concept of relationships between content entries–and how to think about them and output them–can be more difficult to grasp than other parts of the CMS. Because of that the creators of ExpressionEngine wrote up three different contexts in which you would use relationships between entries in ExpressionEngine.

  • Creating a menu for a pizza shop
  • Creating a schedule for a music venue
  • Creating a teams and games schedule for a community sports league

These are examples. But they’re not just completely contrived examples. They are examples that the reader of the docs might actually encounter while using ExpressionEngine (or at least related enough that they have something to hook into and get started). Each one has detailed information and code; exactly what someone struggling with the concept of relationships in ExpressionEngine would encounter.

Learning Geometry Through Carpentry

I had another teacher in high school (my two experiences were so vivid that I remember this all 20 years later) who taught Geometry. All of his examples had to do with him and his Dad working in their carpentry business during the Summer months when school was in recess. Whether it was the Pythagorean Theorem or finding the area of a rectangle, he always had an example about a problem he faced in the previous summer’s carpentry work.

So what was the difference between the two teachers and approaches? I was bored in my Algebra class and attentive in my Geometry class. I also did better in my Geometry class (although I was never a great math student in general).

My geometry teacher gave me a real world situation with which to frame the geometry he was teaching. The context he used help me relate the geometry concepts to something I’d better understand.

His examples also kept my attention. And if a teacher loses her students attention it’s over.

Reusable and Repurposable Information

Beyond just teaching within a real-world context is filling that context with information that the student can reuse and repurpose later on. If I’m teaching how to use a piece of technology like a content management system I always try to teach the concepts in a context in which the student will most likely find herself using them.

If I’m teaching how to use a file upload and management part of a CMS I might use it in a tutorial to create a slideshow or carousel; these are both very common use cases on websites we build today. The student learns how to use the tool in the CMS while creating something she’ll probably have to create a dozen times. That information now has more value than it ever did before.

Getting Started

Take the time to decide how you want to frame what you’re teaching. You do need a checklist of teachable items, but along with those you need to decide how you’re going to frame the entire lesson. Will it be in the context of a building contractor working on a house and using geometry? Or will it be in the context of a designer building a portfolio website using a content management system?

Both of those are very practical applications of the information that help us learn better, faster and retain more.

The courses I produce a Mijingo are all delivered within a context that helps form the lesson. Watch one for yourself to see teaching and learning in context in practice and why it always wins.

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There’s more to read in the archive.