Context Matters: Maple Syrup, Mass Transit, and Meaningful Learning

Devin Vodicka

This post was originally published on on March 7, 2020.

I was visiting schools in Vermont and had the opportunity to observe an inspiring, engaging, relevant, and meaningful program that they had developed.  Students at one of the local high schools were engaged in all aspects of producing maple syrup and then marketing and selling it through a number of local venues.  This provided the learners with a hands-on, collaborative, “real world” project through which they also learned about environmental science, developed writing skills, and developed a number of habits and skills that will undoubtedly help them throughout their lives.

Shortly thereafter I met with students in Manhattan who were working to analyze the best transit options to optimize efficiency on their routes to school.  They considered multiple modalities, including walking, bike and scooter sharing options, busses, and the subway.  Each of them had to propose several options for their daily transportation to and from their homes to school.  This was also a relevant, engaging process where the students applied mathematics, logic, and presentation skills as they shared their insights with others.  Here again was an excellent “real world” project that was yielding tremendous benefits to the learners.

I share these examples because far too often in education we have an assumption that once we develop an effective program it can be replicated in a technical “copy and paste” manner without adaptation.  The students in Manhattan would have had great difficulties implementing a maple syrup program and the learners in Vermont would have found little relevance in the transit analysis project.  And while these examples may appear dramatic, variation in context also leads to unique development of individual and collective identities. 

Several years ago while I was a Superintendent we engaged in a collaborative project that we called “COW” due to the involvement of a district from California (C), Ohio (O), and Wisconsin (W).  Middle school teachers and students worked together across our three districts on a competency-based, interdisciplinary unit focused on a guiding question with a focus on the interplay between environment and people.  It was amazing to see how our Southern California students were obsessed with jackets and snow (which were entirely novel!) and how the students who were not coastal were extremely curious about beaches and the ocean. 

The reason that the COW project worked for students is that the educators had developed a common process that also allowed for local contextualization of their studies AND connections to diverse contexts to broaden perspectives as well.  The principles of competency-based assessment and interdisciplinary, project-based learning can be held tightly while also being flexible about specific applications. 

I should mention that there are some learning concepts that can be decontextualized.  Letter names, multiplication facts, and many other foundational learnings can be taught in a very similar manner across contexts.  I have previously referred to this type of experience as “ladder” learning because there are relatively straightforward and linear pathways that lend themselves to self-paced learning and use of adaptive technology approaches. These experiences tend to focus on knowledge development that is also essential for students. 

With that said, more complex and meaningful learning that results in the development of knowledge, habits, and skills that help learners to know themselves and see themselves as full of possibility are almost universally context-dependent.  As a result, educators and educational leaders are advised to follow an augmented human-centered design process that begins with “notice” which requires attention to context.  This important phase also elevates awareness of structural inequalities including racist or sexist policies and practices. 

As a result, attending to context is the first step to creating relevant, meaningful learning experiences that develops the whole learner.  In addition, it creates an opportunity for reflection and redesign of systems and structures that we as human have created and can re-create.  By attending to context, we can not only improve learning for individuals, but also improve communities and society.  To me, this is the purpose of education.  Recognizing that context matters, let’s connect and learn to make the world a better place. 

Image result for human centered design notice reflect

Racism and inequity are products of design. They can be redesigned.  

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