The importance of context in learning

Photo courtesy Kerrie DeFelice, Unsplash

Background

Long before I started coding, I was training people. And I still get the opportunity, but not as frequently as I used to. For the better part of 18 years, I was in training roles for workplaces and classrooms (physical and online). The people I trained were students, employees and trainees with ages ranging from 18–86. And, most of the training was nationally accredited vocational training, along with some non-accredited and undergraduate degree subjects.

The training experiences were diverse; not just because of the age differences but because of the subject matter (technology, healthcare, retail, business admin, management) and work environment (corporate, NGOs, private colleges). And if you put all of these things together, you come up with some pretty different contexts. But more on that later…

For the love of training

I’ve always been passionate about training — it’s not about what I know, it’s about what the student is going to know through the learning journey. And it’s about the celebration of outcomes, those ‘lightbulb moments’ people experience and the absolute humbling privilege of imparting a piece of knowledge in a meaningful way.

But educating is a two-way street — there are always lessons learnt when you’ve not hit the mark and caused confusion halfway through an explanation. I always cherish the learning from the students themselves; about their experiences, struggles and dreams. All of these reasons are what keep me engaged in training.

More recently I have presented digital literacy training for people aged 36–80; educating them on technology fundamentals such as “what’s a USB drive?” to how to build a website using Wordpress. And right now, I’m preparing for a workshop focussed on small business and technology. I’m really excited about the opportunity and there is lots to consider. Which brings me to the point of context.

Context is everything

This is true because it’s closely linked with our ability to comprehend and remember information. It also relates to our potential for interest and capability in a subject area. If I said to you, “the pink birds will fly higher”, you would be wondering; what breed of birds, how will they fly higher, when and where could/will this happen etc.

But if I put some context into it and said “the Roseate Spoonbill will fly higher than the other birds in Rosney Park because a recent study has shown that their diets contain more nutrient-rich food, enabling them to have increased stamina in the winter months.” You might still have questions but at least you’ve got more context!

And so it is with technology — explaining how to open an e-mail is a relatively straightforward task when you look at it in isolation. But what about the context of:

  • the learner (experience, learning style, association, attitude, aptitude to technology)
  • the device (phone, tablet, desktop)
  • the operating system
  • the email client
  • the peripherals (mouse, keyboard, screen reader, trackpad)

And these are just the high-level considerations!

That’s why all training tasks (regardless of size) need to be seen wholistically, part of a bigger picture and goal to achieve something greater than one task. By taking the time to build a pathway for the student, we not only create a safe learning environment — we create a way for the student to return. If a student knows how they arrived, they can re-visit as many times as they like.

The opposite to this scenario would be sitting someone down to tell them how to open an e-mail, without providing any explanation or context. Compared to building a pathway, this is more akin to placing a blindfold over someone’s eyes, spinning them around before they enter the training room, resulting in complete disorientation.

For me, educating is not a routine that you act out on demand, nor is it predictable. It’s as fluid and individualised as all of us. Because at the heart, it’s not about the material you’ve prepared, it’s about the people who are receiving it and how they are receiving it.

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