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The Importance of Context in Learning

In June, some friends and I were invited to give a keynote presentation at ED-MEDIA 2005, a large international conference in Montreal, Canada. (At the time of this article's posting, the keynote's homepage is available at http://www.aace.org/conf/edmedia/speakers/weintraub.htm, though the date is mistakenly listed as ED-MEDIA 2006).

This was a great opportunity to express and put into action with a large audience our ideas about learning design and how to create empowered and respectful learners. Over 500 educators attended our early morning event, and most responded very favorably to different aspects of it.

All of us involved in this presentation were from Japan, with different backgrounds, but each was extremely interested in issues of design in learning environments. The main group of organizers were myself, Nobuyuki Ueda (Doshisha Women's College) and Yoshiro Miyata (Chukyo University). Six years ago, the three of us, together with Miya Omori and Lehan Ramsay had formed a group called Mudpie which created a book and workshop for CRN/Benesse (see homepage at: http://www.childresearch.net/PROJECT/PLAYSHOP/PLAYSHOP2000/1999/). This time in Montreal we were helped by Professors Jun Nakahara and Yuhei Yamauchi from the University of Tokyo. Also supporting our keynote presentation/workshop were members of BEAT (Benesse Department of Educational Advanced Technology), particularly Mai Nakano. See http://beatiii.jp/e/ for further information about this research group.

This conference was held during a very special time in Montreal - the Montreal International Jazz Festival was being held. Every afternoon and through the night for 11 days, free concerts, as well as ticketed events took place and the streets of Montreal would fill with people who loved music. I attended some of these events and was amazed to see how freely the term "Jazz" is being interpreted these days. So many kinds of music can fit this category, at least as defined by the Montreal Festival's organizers. But I was very happy to see this "postmodern" view of Jazz, rather than the purist view, which is more closed, traditional, and restricted. This fits my view of living and learning: that we can define our living and our learning styles in a variety of ways, depending on our own background and experiences, thus creating a more flexible sets of defining criteria. Of course, there needs to be explanation and understanding among people who use the terms if communication is going to take place. But one of the key points about postmodernism for me is that it's no longer acceptable for one group of people in a position of power or authority to define for everyone what the meaning is of "jazz" or "art" or "religion" or "learning" or anything!

The main idea which we tried to express through our keynote presentation was the importance of "context" in learning. That is, all action takes place within a specific time and place. Being aware of this in learning design, helps to ground or situate both teachers and learners. Conference presentations, too, I think can benefit from awareness of the time and place in which the conference is actually being held and which the attendants are in. In order to do this, there needs to be attention given to the body, as well as the mind, because our senses play a vital role in situating ourself personally.

Any teacher will admit that it's important to start where the student is, but when it actually comes to doing that, most of what takes place in classrooms or lecture halls or other formal learning spaces is lacking. Educators need to listen as well as talk. But how to do this with a class of 40 or an audience in the 100's - over 500 people attending our early morning event! - is not an easy task! During our keynote, we decided to situate the participants clearly in Montreal at the time of the Jazz Festival. We made theme of our presentation the connection between jazz and learning, trying to encourage participants to think about and share ways that they could make some similarities between learning and jazz. By offering them an opportunity to express their own ideas, we felt that we were taking into account their own learning place, allowing them to grow from there, rather than from some point predecided by us.

Furthermore, on the personal contextual level, recognizing that there are so many learning places and styles and expectations in any group, we tried to offer a variety of paces and pieces for people to be attracted to and learn from. We created different types of learning experiences for the audience: jazzy workshop style interactions, more receptive lecture type of presentation, multimedia bits, and finally a way for the audience to offer feedback through "flying media" - paper airplanes or rolled up balls of paper, which were tossed around the presentation hall.

The theme of our talk at one level - that is, what our interaction focused on - was the use of mobile technology (cell phones or keitai) as a part of learning environments. This too has a connection to contextualizing learning. Punching (!) in a text message, or taking a photo with a mobile phone camera, or talking with a friend are much more engaging and grounding activities than sitting and passively listening. In addition, expressing our ideas about something to others and having a conversation with others and ourself about these ideas through reflection and giving and receiving feedback is closer to the democratic model of education most of us aspire towards - that is, in order for a democratic model of society to work, we need citizens who can think for themselves, express their ideas, and work cooperatively. Contextualizing the learning process both for the group and the individual is one important step, we feel, for empowering the individual while working cooperatively and respectfully within a group.

What are your reactions to these ideas about "contextualizing" in learning design?
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