Context is king

My family likes doing jigsaw puzzles.  If you’ve ever done a puzzle, you know the drill:  you buy a puzzle that has an interesting picture that hints at the right degree of difficulty, you spill the pieces on the table, and using the cover as your guide, you spend many enjoyable hours putting that puzzle together.  About that all-important cover:  It tells you where you will end up when you’re done and, during the process, it helps understand the myriad inscrutable puzzle pieces dotted around your table.  Only the most hardcore puzzle fanatics, those seeking the greatest challenge, do away with the box cover — and even they look at it before starting the puzzle and put it away only after they begin their work.  The cover is context and, for puzzlers, no matter how much or how little they ultimately rely on it, context is king.

What constantly boggles my mind is how educators seem so immune to context’s benefits.  At traditional school, educators have adopted an incremental approach.  To this end, they break difficult materials down into bite-sized abstract pieces, confident that when the kids have mastered a sufficient number of these pieces, they will have a sudden, blinding revelation about the whole.  In sports, coaches teach the kids individual techniques and skills, but they forget to give them an overarching picture of the game, its strategies, goals and rules.  In chorus, they begin to teach the kids the lyrics and hand out the music by measure, without ever just singing the song for the kids.

Actually, all of these methods work, at least for the bright kids, who have committed teachers and education-rich home and school environments.  What irritates me about the whole situation is that it’s such a crazy, difficult way to do things.  It’s the opposite of Occam’s razor, with the educator choosing the most difficult, infelicitous, circuitous route to conveying information.  It gives children neither goals nor guidelines.  Children feel frustrated and lost, just as the amateur puzzle-maker feels frustrated if his box cover vanishes.

My question for you, because it’s one I am completely unable to answer despite years of asking it of myself, is why do people think there is a virtue to teaching kids in puzzle pieces, without ever showing them the larger picture?


20 Responses

  1. […] [Discuss this article with Bookworm over at Bookworm Room…] Share Article jigsaw puzzles, education, school    Sphere: Related Content Trackback URL […]

  2. Our family loves to play games – cards, board-type, athletic. The most effective way to teach a new one, whether to kids or adults, is to play it through once to get the big picture (the cover of the jigsaw box) and then break it down. I remember learning songs in elementary school (1950s) and we would always first hear a once-through w/music and lyrics.

    So I guess I’m not answering the question you ask, BW, but am asking another question: WHEN did it become the practice to instruct piece by piece without a general introduction – be it a song or a game?

  3. Sadly, I think it’s because they are teaching to a test. Tests ask for small pieces of concrete information. I think teachers know better but just don’t have the time it takes to show how the pieces fit together. “No child left behind” really leaves all of them lacking.

  4. Bingo! Beautifully said! What you cited was exactly why I had so much problem with Calculus when I was a kid – I could not understand what the heck I was doing until someone pointed out that calculus formulas were all about “measuring change”. It didn’t click until the context was provided.

    I think that this lack of context is a big problem in education today – most teachers don’t know how to put information into context so that kids understand why it matters.

    You are right, Book: “context is everything – from puzzles to science to psychology, history and politics…especially the discourse that you entertain on these pages.

    Mark Steyn, in describing the breakdown of British society just recently, made a brilliant (as usual) analogy to what constitutes “context” in the make-up and health of societies, as follows:

    “A functioning civilization is like an iceberg: the unseen seven-eighths of codes and assumptions is the accumulated inheritance, the wisdom of the ages. Once it’s gone, what’s left just bobs around on the surface.”

    I think that what he said applies just about to anything: without context, we all just all bob around on the surface. I suspect that much of the disagreement that we see on this blog has much to do either peoples’ lack of or variances in context.

  5. Problem is, Helen, this has been going on long before teaching to the test or no child left behind. It’s the way I was educated 40 years ago. Rote memory was king and context did not exist. Teaching to the test is actually an improvement.

  6. All,
    I agree with Bookworm – context is everything. In my field we try and make pictures from the pieces without the context; it is far harder than it seems and often leads to dead ends. For kids it is much harder; I was talking with my wife the other day and showed her some patterns for doing multiplication tables and explained why they worked. It was the first time she understood the methodology; she never did have the darn things memorized.
    My kids are growing up in a house full of books, educational games, and learning toys. While school is a part of their education, both my wife and I (as much as I can from here in Kosovo) are teaching other things in context. My son at four is starting to learn the concept behind addition and subtraction; he’s still fuzzy on the whole squiggly-lines mean numbers but he’s got down one plus one equals two and the like.
    The promise of no child left behind is a poor one; however, it is better than what came before. At least the kids are getting all the blocks for the puzzle; too many had not even gotten out-of-context information because of laxity and/or poor teaching.
    There are steps to be taken; I’d prefer to see a functional literacy test and writing test required for grade advancement; it will likely never happen. At least we have moved away from peer-driven promotion and tried to establish a standard. How devastating was it in the late 70s and early 80s when my age group watched everyone move up, regardless of their actual effort? At least I went to a private school; I know of several people my age that had to go back for adult literacy classes in their mid-20s that graduated the same year I did from the nearby public school. And worse, they were not the “bottom” of the class. Most were athletes that seldom came to class and were passed with C and B grades to keep their eligibility.
    Am I happy with the educational system? No. Could it be worse? Yes. And in my opinion, the teachers’ unions are largely responsible. But that is another rant in and of itself.
    Be well and have faith that such things will pass. Otherwise we shall be bitter and sour the next generation as a single foul act can spoil an entire life’s good work.

    SGT Dave
    “If we were perfect, we’d not be human.”

  7. HelenL is back? Hi, Helenl.

  8. This may sound uncharitable, and offensive to any teachers reading, but:

    Educators don’t teach context because that would require _them_ to understand the context. The small puzzle-pieces of information can be memorized (or looked up in the teacher’s guide), but grasping the Big Picture is hard in any field.

  9. In the short-run, it’s easier & faster to teach out-of-context, like it’s generally faster to sort the pieces of a puzzle into the clouds/sky, buildings, and vegetation. This was advanced as teaching “specialized” fields, so students started to know everything there was to know about all those blue & white pieces, or that red-painted barn. But they stopped learning about the rest of the picture as a result.

    What is a Ph.D, but proof that someone knows almost everything about almost nothing, and almost nothing about almost everything else.

    I trace this development in schools to when people wanted to start specializing in narrow fields not just for post-graduate work, but for undergraduate degrees as well. Gone are the days of a true liberal arts education, where students were taught more how to think than what to think, and exposed to constant broad topics and expected to make connections between events of a thousand years ago and their current lives. Because knowing the difference between Fermat’s last theorm and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle is far more important than understanding trends in Western or world civilization…at least to people in the appropriate field.

    Worse, the surviving general fields of study have become nearly unemployable; if a person doesn’t specialize as an undergraduate they pretty much have to go on for more advanced degrees, because specialization is the name of the current employment game.

  10. Yet again, Bookworm begins with premises and conclusions and supplys neither datum nor case history to advance her case.

  11. I agree with Trimegistus — teaching the context requires an understanding of the context and I don’t think schools of education teach this to future teachers. It’s also more difficult to test on context than it is to crank out (and grade!) a matching or multiple choice test on facts.

    For the first time, my son is participating in a debate club, and they’re learning Lincoln-Douglas style. For weeks he was lost until the coach had some experienced kids do a debate in front of the class. Suddenly he could see the point of the work he’d been doing. If the coach had scheduled that demonstration on the first day of class, my son would have covered more ground at a quicker pace.

    Bookworm, your argument is also one of the reasons I’m a big fan of teaching history chronologically. That, along with a timeline, really helps kids — and adults! — see the big patterns and flow of history.

  12. Hi Danny, I jump over here upon occasion. Mostly I’m busy doing other things.

    And DQ, I think you have a point. I was thought in that same fragmented manner, but then I think teachers were taught to do a better job, and all the improvement was legislated out of them. I know as an Education major (who earned a BSE in 1969) I was taught to teach by units rather than following the text from beginning to end. That way, the vocabulary complements the stories and well, you get the idea. Teachers are not autonomous in their classrooms. That’s the problem plain and simple.

  13. If you put a test on the front end, which is real with real consequences, than students will see the reason for learning.
    But that assumes you are teaching competence or skills, schools don’t always do that.
    I wrote a blog about this in relation to Traditional Chinese subjects the other day. I call it Gates vs. Stone Bridges. I try to teach stone bridges. I would love to teach stone bridges. But unfortunately, students don’t see the bridge, so I have to teach something intermediate, known as a gate. Gates are all the little things you learn along the way that make it possible to embody something more difficult.

  14. Hi BW,
    My answer to your question is that it is easier to be a technician
    than an artist. Which is a variation on the rest of the gang’s responses. The most irritating example for me of this peicemeal teaching behavior is when a choral conductor will go over 3 or 4 measures of music again and again and again so the choir “gets it right” instead of running the entire piece of music so we can get an understanding of where the music is going and how we can get there.
    Great post.

  15. Does greg always have to talk about himself, Danny?

  16. My question for you, because it’s one I am completely unable to answer despite years of asking it of myself, is why do people think there is a virtue to teaching kids in puzzle pieces, without ever showing them the larger picture?

    because the teachers themselves don’t understand the larger picture.

  17. I see the Y and D TAG TEAM (you guys should turn pro) are alive and well ! IMAGINE how far some people(hint;: second last letter of the alphabet) ARE behind IF they think teachers can’t even see the big picture (hint::again second last letter of the alphabet). Greg as usual has got it right.BW sending the cart out the barn door before the horse. As Kramer of Seinfeld fame would say GIDDYUP !

  18. Swampacreage,
    I am a pro, just not in this field. I have to meet Y when I get back to the states again; he and I often agree on things.
    As to Greg, while BW doesn’t have facts at hand, she does have personal experience as a parent. I am drawing on experience both as a parent and on my mother’s experience as an aide at the Special Learning Center in Jefferson City, MO. The SLC works to get pre-school aged children with learning disabilities (including autism, seizures, and other neurological/physical issues) ready to join the mainstream school system. They use a holistic teaching approach that has had a surprising side effect. The parents carry over the teaching approach for their non-disabled children; the “normal” kids tend to be in the top quarter of their class and have much better testing on cognitive, comprehension, and writing. My family got involved in the 80’s when my neice took part in the SLC’s programs (it was the Peter Pan School at the time). She suffered from severe seizure disorder; she’d have over 20 petit mal seizures in a normal day – we called them “head drops”- lasting 1-3 seconds each. And those were the good days. She managed to mainstream with the help of the SLC, a bunch of fine people in the JC public school system, and a lot of family support. I’ve seen what holistic teaching can do for kids on the edge; I also know that it is time and money intensive – the teacher/child ratio must be down in the 4-6 range and the parent(s) need to reinforce learning in the home environment. I agreed that the system could be worse; it does, however, need fixing. No we don’t know how to do this – we’re not the experts in that field. All I know (and I infer that BW knows) is that as parents this system is failing to do the best job it can for our kids. Like the little child I can point out that the emperor has no clothes – but I don’t need to know how to make a suit to do this.
    Enough rant; I’m doing what I can for my kids (my wife and I have acquired a library of about 5000 children’s books and a slough of workbooks, educational materials, and projects) and try and help the families we know. I’ll try and make myself an expert and fix it when I get back from here.

    SGT Dave
    “There is no try, there is only do or do not.” – Yoda

  19. I agree it all begins in the home ! Best of luck . I’m cheering for you !

  20. he and I often agree on things.

    Easy with the same philosophy.

    Those that agree on politics may be like Book and Ann Coulter, though. But those that have the same philosophy started at the same place, they didn’t just arrive at a similar political position called conservatism or Leftism or any other ism.

    I would rather trust and drink with an enemy that has the same philosophy that I do, then to do the same with a Benedict Arnold that is supposedly on my side.

    Such understandings are rare in our modern wars of ineffective lawfare and protections for soldiers/civilians that only end up protecting pirates and terrorists. Although Petraeus pulled such a rarity from the Triangle of Death. Something for Sanchez to write about in his memoirs I believe.

    No we don’t know how to do this – we’re not the experts in that field.

    It is always hard to judge who is actually an expert in a bureacratic or desk jockey environment. In war, it is rather simple. Victory and/or survival can give you the signs. A war waged through numbers and the education of entire generations… now that has a slower feedback system.

    Enough rant; I’m doing what I can for my kids (my wife and I have acquired a library of about 5000 children’s books and a slough of workbooks, educational materials, and projects) and try and help the families we know. I’ll try and make myself an expert and fix it when I get back from here.

    Like Tim Larkin said, if you can reduce the principles of joint breaking down so that a 8-12 year old can understand and apply it, then you know you got something that is workable. A lot of this critical thinking stuff can be learned simply by taking any subject and upgrading the student’s proficiency in it from beginner to higher and higher levels. You could do this by teaching general principles or specific techniques that apply to math or chess.

    The principles by which one learns to play chess better is the same principles by which one learns history better or math better. There are always the specific “scenario based” conditions and what not, but why bother spending time learning specifics when you can learn principles that apply to everything?

    A child doesn’t need hours to know the context of why safety and hunting are important. Avoiding pain and getting food are context enough not to need complicated explanations. Nature will motivate the child for you. All this abstract stuff, though, needs a systemized method of explanation. No motivation=no productivity. I don’t care how much money is being thrown out there. But, of course, comprehensive instruction requires that the instructor understand it himself, which is rarer than should be.

    Greg as usual has got it right.

    Indeed. Great minds do think alike, Book.

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