Context Matters

In another life I was an English teacher.  I was reminded of this recently when a student of mine hit me with this comment: “Mr. Zulli, Ms. Palmer says that you were one of the best teachers and readers of Shakespeare that she ever knew. Why Shakespeare?” I sat back and looked into the deep recess of my mind looking for the answer. I took a deep breath and said, “Andrew, you have to understand the time and the place.  Shakespeare was never intended to be read and dissected like it is taught today.  You have to imagine the Globe Theatre with the groundlings, having only paid a penny, standing in the pit in front of the stage; vendors selling oranges with cloves stuck in them so that the groundlings could hold them to their noses to overcome the smell or throw them when they didn’t like what was on stage.” I told him that this was the environment that Shakespeare was performed.  That’s why his dramas were so big, his comedies so bawdy with action so physical and acting so over the top as to engage the “rabble” in the pit and the more well to do patrons sitting in the three levels of the theatre. “Shakespeare needs to be experienced for what it is; entertainment that touches on universal themes of life, love, courage, despair and honor.”  Andrew sat back in his chair and looked at me for a moment and said, “Wow, nobody ever explained that to me before. I never looked at Shakespeare in that context.”

And that is my point, context does matter.  The how we teach means as much to understanding as what we teach.

Today I teach Information Technologies and by extension Computer Science. IT and Computer Science do not need to be taught in isolation. By teaching the relationship that each has through project based learning the natural synergy that each discipline has can be exploited to the advantage of both. By using IT as the context students are immersed in project development, collaboration, business process development and high level critical thinking. The students identify problems and design meaningful solutions that directly impact the quality of classroom instruction. They work in a collaborative project environment where IT and CS teams must work together to be successful and they learn enterprise level development that prepares them for similar project development in college or business.

So why can’t we extend that thinking to the rest of the curriculum.  Today I have a student who is designing an interactive Kinect enhanced history timeline of the Civil War.  He is designing it so that a student can stand and manipulate a historical timeline of the period and “grab” artifacts corresponding to dates on the timeline and bring those to the forefront to interact with.  This student is becoming an expert on the Civil War; more so than if he would have sat in class and been exposed to this information in the more “traditional” ways.  He is learning American History through the context of Computer Science.

This past summer I was part of a team of educators thrown together at random during the Microsoft Partners in Learning US Forum. We were challenged to create a lesson based on a place our team visited during the course of the conference.  Our team was tasked with the historical Pike Place Market in Seattle. During the pre-planning our group took stock of the individual expertise in the group; three Computer Science teachers, a Math teacher and a Digital Media instructor and tried to find the common ground that would leverage our talents, something that would be our context.

Building knowledge and creating life long learners is the most important job of an educator.  If we continue along the path we are on today, with high stakes testing as the only educational context a generation of students knows, then we will not have built knowledge nor created life long learners. We will have created a generation of test takers that hate learning and fear failure because that is the only context they have known.

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