Notes on ‘context’

Here are some notes from our discussion at the Leeds University Theory Group meeting today:


Paper discussed

Edwards R (2009) Introduction: Life as a Learning Context? In: Edwards Richard, Biesta Gert, Thorpe Mary (ed.). Rethinking Contexts for Learning and Teaching: Communities, Activites and Networks, Abingdon, Oxon, U.K.: Routledge (of Taylor & Francis), pp. 1-13.

Discussion notes
In this chapter Edwards addresses “the problem of context” (Lave, 1996: p.5), and poses the question that “[i]f learning is lifelong and lifewide, what specifically then is a learning context?” (Edwards, 2009: p.2). He brings in the geological metaphor of “strata” to serve as a basis for arguing that learning can occur in a range of distributed ‘contexts’ and associational orders.

All contexts, therefore, are potentially learning contexts, and if we attune our attention to the social and material relations, or arrangements, which give rise to learning across different strata of people’s lives then we can begin to “lose the conceptual basis for talking specifically of a learning context” (p.2).

I was interested in asking: what really is an ‘off task’ activity in education, once we move beyond the dramaturgy of formal learning? As even sleeping is a part of the training regimen for many athletes, so what of learning?

The theoretical framing of Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) is one way of escaping the confines of a ‘context-as-container’ approach to learning, as are the frameworks of communities of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991), and complexity (Haggis, 2007). But to change the very notion of context is a wholly different matter. And it is here where Edwards draws from a material-semiotic approach to do this (Latour, 1993), as well as other influences.

In the meeting we talked about the reframing of the notion of ‘context’ in relation to learning, and how we make the best of pedagogic interventions with this framing; is it simply to allow learners opportunities to ‘(re)contextualise’ pedagogic content?

In my own research on digital literacy events, I’m exploring how learners mobilise the literacy practices of their personal and social lives into a classroom situation, and write assignments for their course using the connectivity of cyberspace. ‘Context’ is important to me as I don’t think it’s enough to say that learners ‘migrate’ or ‘transfer’ some of their vernacular literacy practices from one context to another. Edwards’ metaphors of ‘folding’ and ‘scrumpled geography’ certainly shed some light on how a context emerges through a socio-material arrangement. Where does learning fit in to this? And how do we maximise opportunities for it?

Edwards R (2009) ‘Introduction: Life as a Learning Context?’ In: Edwards Richard, Biesta Gert, Thorpe Mary (ed.). Rethinking Contexts for Learning and Teaching: Communities, Activites and Networks, Abingdon, Oxon, U.K.: Routledge (of Taylor & Francis), pp. 1-13.

Haggis, T. (2007) ‘Conceptualizing the case in adult and higher education research: a dynamic systems view’, in J. Bogg and R. Geyer (Eds) Complexity, Science and Society, Oxford: Radcliff.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern, Harlow: Harvester Wheatcheaf.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lave, J. (1996) ‘The practice of learning’, in S. Chaiklin and J. Lave (Eds) (1996) Understanding Practice: Perspectives on Activity and Context, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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2 replies »

  1. A quick thought. And it is that other G+ mob the SN tribe that prompts it. If we take the Latour notion that projects, change does not occur in a context but gives itself context. It is not too far from the notion of what the brain does. It has a lot of stuff with which to try and make a plausible story of anything new. We tend to simply teach at folk and don’t pay anywhere near enough attention to what each kid’s mind brings to the table so to speak. I don’t think there is any way to engineer this at all but being much more sensitive to difference is a better way to think about it IMHO.

  2. SN meaning Social Neuroscience? Yes, I’ve been looking in to that tangentially to my study, and I am noticing things that are consistent with ANT and other forms of what Edwards refers to in another paper as ‘non-representational’ lines of thought; e.g. Karen Barad (Agential Realism), Leibniz’s ‘monadology’, and even Plato on his theory of geometry (remember what was inscribed on the entrance to his school?) and ‘fysikes arthrosis’ (natural joints, as in his book Phaedrus) which I reflected on a while back. Basically that connections, joints (arthrosis) are what make phenomena.

    As for kids, and what they already bring, there’s Robert Fisher’s Socratic methods which come to mind. Used a lot of his stuff when mine were being home-educated. Highly recommended.

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