Cognitive tools: Changing contexts

One of the enemies of effective teaching and learning is students’ (and teachers’) boredom. One of the triggers of boredom is excessive familiarity and taking things for granted. John Bennett’s “law of mental declension” suggests that we always deal with any problem with the least outlay of intellectual energy possibly. Think of learning to drive a car. Initially you have to give it all your attention because the problems of keeping this moving mass of metal on the road are all-absorbing. After a while, as developing skill enables you to coordinate all the required movements of hands, arms, eyes, and legs, you still give a lot of intellectual energy to the task of driving because it is a challenge you are beginning to master. After some years of driving, you hardly notice the acts you perform to get the car from a to b; it becomes quite automatic.

Bennett suggests that this “mental declension” applies to all features of our lives. What is needed to stimulate us to increase the intellectual energy we gives to any task is the introduction of a challenge.

What has all this to do with teaching? Well, one of the problems is that the classroom can become a largely unvarying context that students gradually come to take for granted. Remembering Marshall McLuhan’s slightly mischievous claim that “the medium is the message;” we can see how the unvarying nature of the classroom can make much of what students experience in classrooms take on a uniform and somewhat boring cloak. At least, this is what most of the large-scale surveys of students’ experience of school tell us.

One way we can plan a challenge to the imagination-suppressing taken-for-grantedness of the daily classroom is to change the context now and then. This doesn’t mean redecorating (!) so much as changing the kind of attention required of the students.

As an example, we will repeat here a “personalized narrative” one of our teachers told us: “When I was doing my teacher-training, just after the Civil War, an ancient teacher (maybe 45 or 50) told me that if I wanted the students to learn and remember some important fact then I should walk into the classroom with a huge pile of books balanced precariously. Slowly, with the pile threatening to tip to one side or another, I should move to the center of the room, pause for a few seconds, then drop the books in a pile. ‘You’ve got about 10 seconds in which you can teach anything,’ he said. I tried it on the chemical formula for salt. When the books fell, and they all looked at me in the silence, I slowly said “NaCl”. Over the next few months, and in a few cases years later, when I asked any of the students from this class, every one of them remembered the chemical formula for salt, even though they couldn’t remember many other formulae we had learned in that unit. They also invariably laughed.”

We are not recommending that you wreck your library in order to teach a few facts! Rather this is a way of demonstrating that one kind of simple challenge to the students can greatly increases their attention and readiness to learn. So what we will look for are ways of more routinely, and less destructively!, changing the context in order to presents an appropriate challenge to students. Though the example above can be seen as from a science class, you can easily see how the same principle can be applied to any grammatical rule or form of usage that you want remembered.

So students have available this ability—this “cognitive tool”—to heighten awareness and attention in response to a simple challenge or puzzle. Traditional ways of changing contexts have involved such activities as fieldtrips. But we want here to focus on a different kind of context changing, a kind that is concerned more with the intellectual activity required of the student and that doesn’t take hugely elaborate preparation by the teacher—though of course there’s no end to the time and energy the teacher can expend, as all teachers know.

Give me a few quick example of how I might use changing contexts in teaching literacy.

1. Students can learn about different styles of writing by a simple change of context. Imagine you want to have them write about what they did during their recent holiday. But instead of writing it from their perspective, ask them to imagine that they were being spied on by someone who suspected them of being a master criminal, or by an alien trying to make sense of what earth people were doing, or some other “watcher.” How would the watcher make sense and interpret what the student was doing? They could also be asked to imagine that they are to write accounts of how someone famous might write about what they did on their holiday: the President, the Pope, a movie star or sports hero, etc. These are simple changes in the context of a common assignment that can engage students’ imagination and energy in writing.

2. What are adjectives and how can students begin to develop an understanding that using adjectives can enrich their writing?  Teachers commonly ask the students to think of words that come to their minds about an apple, say. The students may come up words like yummy or red or green or sweet or mushy. Having some apples ready, the teacher can then ask what words come to their minds when they look at an apple, then, after noting some words on the board, ask what words come to mind when they close their eyes and feel an apple—so words like smooth or hard of bumpy might emerge, then, having prepared some slices, the students can be asked what words come to mind when they taste the apple. The descriptive words are called adjectives—words that tell us something about an object. This is a fairly routine way of introducing and exploring adjectives, and can be effective. But one can enrich the activity by changing the context a little. After such an introduction, one can ask the students what words they think an elephant might want to use when seeing an apple, or an ant, or a worm that might bore into it and eat its way through. What words would a cat who finds an apple on the lawn want to use to describe it?

3. For lessons with older reader one might introduce the idea of proofreading—going over what one has written to try to see where there might be mistakes and correcting them. The teacher might change the usual context for teaching these activities by introducing a family called the Proofreaders. There was Momm and Daad Proofreader, and their two children Dawid and Kirstn. They described their job this way: “Wen peoples have writ something we read it again and make write all the rongs they have writ. Evryones shud do this al the time so there are no mistakes in the writin becos that’s not polit.” Unfortunately, they weren’t really the most successful people at their chosen job, and in fact were treated rather shabbily by the professional group of Proofreaders. But they were really a very nice family, and wanted to be as helpful as possible. The problem was that they going to be expelled from the Proofreading profession if they didn’t do their job a lot better. The class can be enlisted to help them.

In future, whatever was written in the silent writing times in class would be given to the Proofreading family to check it out first, but the class would be enlisted to help out and make their suggestions first. If the class is fortunate they might have a set of portable computers for writing and wireless connections so that files can be shared around easily. The children might be first invited to help the family with their names and the description of their job, showing how they should carefully proofread what they had written and correct it, and helping their children David and Kirstin become better at the job than their parents had been. We can play up the human quality of courtesy as basic to proofreading, and raise it, in a not heavy-handed way, at frequent intervals. Mainly we can emphasize how proofreading before “publishing” their scripts is a courtesy to their classmates and also to other readers whom they may not know. By changing the context in so simple a way students can take on a role that makes the task more imaginatively engaging.

4. “An etymology a day” It is too easy to let the task of teaching a particular skill to focus us exclusively on the task and to forget somewhat the human meaning behind it. In building vocabulary, we can consciously put back some of the human meaning and add a dimension to students understanding of words. This isn’t difficult, and can usually involve a simple story that can help make the student’s learning effective and entertaining.

Most languages have a number of words generated as a result of the quirks of some individual, or the power of a story in which a character’s behavior or fate leads to a new word.  Students might find it interesting to be told, when the word “sandwich” is used, about John Montagu.  It appears he was so addicted to gambling that he did not like to take a break even for meals.  He had his servants bring him slices of meat between two pieces of bread.  He didn’t originate this form of meal, but Montagu—the Earl of Sandwich—demanded it so frequently, and publicly, that it took on his name. “I’ll have a sandwich” might have become “I’ll have a John Montagu.”

money potAll the words students use come from complex worlds of human activities, and just occasionally it will enliven a lesson to evoke something of those past worlds.  In English, everyone uses the word “money,” but not many know its origins.  In ancient Rome, the goddess Juno (for whom the month June is named) was seen as the source of advice or warnings—in Latin, “moneta”—at least, this is the smart money guess about why the temple to Juno was so named).  The temple of Juno Moneta (Juno who warns) in Rome also housed the mint where coins were made.  In due course ‘moneta’ came to be used for the mint, then the stamp from which coins were made, and then the coins themselves.  So our word ‘money’ comes from Juno’s temple, where people once made coins.  While this does not locate the word in the life of an individual, it does remove it from the arbitrariness that surrounds most of our words (to those not wild about etymology) and puts it into a meaningful context of human activities.

How can we employ changing contexts in teaching?

Here we will give a series of examples of how a teacher can use and develop students’ literacy capacities in everyday classrooms, associating “changing contexts” with many of the other cognitive tools in lesson plans you can use. Click here to link to a variety of lesson ideas.

You can read more about changing contexts here.

Final words

It is too easy to “de-humanize” the classroom by focusing on the skills we want students to acquire and forgetting the human qualities that they exemplify or are produced by or that they serve. By constantly thinking of human contexts and the ways the skills find expression and meaning in human lives, we are able to make classes more interesting to both teachers and students. Initially, some teachers might find it a bit of a strain, but quite quickly, if they are like most we work with, they will begin to find it more natural and easy to think and plan and teach this way. If one learns to look at the material of literacy textbooks and their often-decontextualized instructional strategies in terms of human qualities, a dimension of richer meaning is added that can help to clarify for children, and for teachers, what the exercises are all about. It helps us to see things afresh, as through better lenses. As in one of the above examples, proofreading isn’t just a set of skills, it’s primarily a matter of courtesy. And recognizing it as, first, courtesy is to imbue the skills with human meaning.