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Posts Tagged ‘context

Recently I had to remind my son how to clear and rinse a dirty dish instead of just dumping it in the kitchen sink. That incident spawned lessons on values, Science, a brief the history on language, and perspective taking.

When my son left an uncleared dish in the sink, I realized that he should not only learn WHAT to do but WHY he should do it. The why was not limited to “because I said so”.

The lesson in values was obvious. He had to help out around the home because we do not have a maid. It was the responsible thing to do.

But I decided that he also needed a Science lesson to know why dishes are harder to clean if you leave them unrinsed in a sink. I had to teach him why gunk is hard to remove or starts to smell. I had to teach him about oxidation.

I had to link oxidation with something he was familiar with, our need to breathe. He understood how oxygen was necessary to burn fuel. The good thing about this type of oxidation was that it gave us energy.

But oxidation could also be a bad thing when you consider things like rust. Which was the common name for iron oxide otherwise known as ferrous oxide. Which was the link to the Latin roots for some of our English words.

I pulled us back to why oxidation was bad not just because it could cause rust, but also how it caused fats in food to turn rancid and smell.

In the end, it was an opportunity to look at something from different perspectives. Oxidation could be helpful or harmful. My son thought he was helping by putting the dish in the sink, but my perspective was that a job half done was one not done at all.

Later on I reflected on how contexts create moments for meaningful learning. Teachers need to think and operate outside their content silos to take advantage of such learning moments.

My son remarked that this was the best Science lesson he had, especially when compared to the ones he was getting at school. Flattering words.

I will only know that he has learnt something if he consistently rinses his dishes when he puts them in the sink. And if he can tell me why.


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This video was featured in LifeHacker and soon ended up on the popular list in YouTube. It provides arguments on why one should run instead of walk in the rain.

But the lessons here are not just in the video. They are in the comments in the LifeHacker page.

If you watched the video for a Science or Math lesson, then you are missing a more important point. Critical thinking is not just logical math or science. It is about thinking in context.

Look at it this way. If your context is the classroom or the textbook, then the argument is just an academic exercise.

In the real world, other contexts (like the ones highlighted in the LifeHacker comments area) present themselves. In the real world, some academic answers are not answers at all.

One might argue that some theoretical knowledge is important. But the ultimate test (not just the paper test) is whether the strategy works in context in real life.

I argue that there is no point having head knowledge without heart and soul knowledge. There is no point touting one’s test scores if they do not translate to real world use.

Here is one more reflection I had on last week’s MOE Work Plan Seminar 2011.

The image of this T-shirt was the closest thing I could find that matched what was on one of the Education Minister’s slides.

Whenever someone wants to show Singapore on the world map, you get the typical view of the Americas on your left, the Asian continent on your right and a little red dot where Singapore is.

I think that it was at around point #21 of our Education Minister’s speech that Mr Heng mentioned changes in Singapore’s context:

…education must suit our unique context. We must always be humble and we must always learn from the best in the world. But we must not simply copy what works elsewhere, or do what is fashionable, without bearing in mind our unique culture, context and circumstances, and what we have achieved. We should have the courage and confidence to do what we think is right, and evolve our system to what is best for us.

His point was that we must do what is best for our context. With the map on screen, visually and verbally I received the message that the context meant the red dot.

I read things further in between the lines (or dots in this case). In today’s world, the entire globe is our context. What happens far away elsewhere affects us locally. Take the haze and financial fallouts as examples. The waste products that we generate every day affect us not just space but also in time.

Our context should be global and we need learners with complex, worldly and systemic views. So what might we do to prepare such learners?

Stop dumbing down schooling and start providing as realistic contexts as possible.

  • Learning how to speak and write a new language? Learn it in context as an amateur news reporter or author.
  • Exploring a scientific concept? Solve a problem in real life or interact in a believable simulation.
  • Grappling with math? Again contextualize its use in life and emphasize the thinking over the drilling process.

I’m reminded of something funny I saw at 9gag. The math problem was: John has 20 donuts. He eats 13 donuts. What does John have? The answer: Diabetes. John has diabetes.

Let us not forget the wider context and to learn within realistic contexts instead of made-up ones.


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This Wikipedia article provides links to the theory behind the practice in the video.

When I watched the video, I thought about how this was mirrored in life. You can take the exact same practice and apply it in two different contexts and you will get different reactions or results.


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It’s strange how some things get triggered in one’s mind. I get most of my a-ha moments when I am about to sleep or when I shower. That is why I have my iPhone and Evernote near me all the time. Too bad they aren’t waterproof.

Anyway, this video of a journalist trying to tell the Dalai Lama a joke (that crashed and burned very quickly) reminded me of a conversation I had almost a year ago.

A group of us went on a study trip to the US to get ideas on e-portfolios amongst other things. At a social gathering, I mentioned to a fellow teacher educator how technology could be replicate, enrich, enable or transform what we do in education.

I mentioned how technology could be used to replicate or enrich how we already teach and how the other two concepts, enabling and transforming, had more to do with learning rather than teaching. I also presented my concepts as a hierarchy of difficulty (e.g., easy to replicate existing teaching, difficult to transform learning).

My conversation partner disagreed with technology as an “enabler” because she had a negative view of the word, e.g., how one might be an enabler of someone else’s addiction. My perspective more positive: Using technology in ways that enable learning that could not otherwise take place in the absence of that technology.

It dawned on me then how important context and semantics are when trying to sell ideas to other people. Take the use of the word “resistance” for example. It will have different meanings to a police officer, a freedom fighter and a physics professor!

Returning to the video, the breakdown in communication could have originated in a lack of a shared understanding of what a pizza was or what “one with everything” meant. This was an issue with semantics. But there also was an issue of context: Why tell the joke in the first place?

This is a reminder to me to be where my learners are at and to realize what they might not understand.

Being honest is how you behave when you with others; practising integrity is how you behave when you are alone. I can’t remember where I read that and I’m paraphrasing what I remember, but I think I’ve got the gist of it.

I had a chance to discuss the nuances of honesty and integrity with my son as we made our way to his school today.

We spotted a car that was parked illegally. The driver justified his or her actions by opening the bonnet of the car to indicate engine failure. That’s honest enough, right? No, not if that you know that there is a coffee shop nearby and the same car seems to “breakdown” at that same spot regularly.

I told my son that the driver was dishonest, but I changed my mind because it really was a matter of integrity. So I tried to explain with examples.

I reminded him how a canteen stall operator at his school was dishonest on at least one occasion by not giving my son the correct change and on another occasion overcharging him by making him pay twice for an item. That matter has been dealt with, but it was a painful lesson in life that he will remember because he was a victim of dishonesty.

On the flipside, I told him that “honesty is the best policy” was only a guideline and not a rule in life. If my wife ever asked her boys if her butt looked big, we would have to a) run away, b) change the topic, c) be diplomatic, or d) lie through our teeth. My son said that D is not an option because he thought that all of us had nice butts. Looks like he already knows how to use option C.

As for integrity, I reminded him of how he had to set a timer to regulate the amount of gaming time he enjoys. He does this without us having to remind or monitor him. He has to be honest with himself. He has to practice integrity.

After I dropped him off at school, I reflected on what I tried to teach my son. I had relied on serendipitous and contextual learning. The illegally parked car was a chance event and it served as the initial context. The meaningful contexts were my son’s own experiences.

As I head into the last week of my teaching semester, I resolve to design more serendipity (purposeful accidents) and meaningful contexts in courses to come.

Here are three videos on YouTube.

  • The first is Don McLean’s original Miss American Pie.
  • The second is Weird Al Yankovich’s parody, The Saga Begins.
  • The last one features Singapore’s own mrbrown in a political satire.


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My takeaway? It’s all about the context.

Two days ago I read a Straits Times article titled work starts on nature walk.

I bring this up because I used to be a biologist and a biology teacher in a previous working life. I also bring this up because I see a problem repeating itself.

Anyone who reads the article and who has lived long enough in Singapore will not be surprised that nature will be tamed and trimmed so that we can walk in it without getting too much of it on us.

In a way this is a good thing because most people do not know how to walk with nature. Instead, they trample all over it like clumsy toddlers in a toy store. So the authorities, being responsible parents, protect the kids from the store and the store from the kids by landscaping and manicuring what they can.

It’s a bad thing because the interventions are incomplete. They are well thought out in terms of planning, logistics, and infrastructure. They protect nature from stupid people with the hope they learn a thing or two. But the reality is that you get heavy cosmetics over badly scarred skin. Why else do visitors still leave litter on these walks and only learn whether something can be eaten or not?

What there isn’t enough of is social engineering in the form of values education. Yes, I know that the Nature Society of Singapore has programmes for this, but these are too few and far between to be part of our cultural consciousness.

We have a natural heritage to pass on. The next generation can either watch this shrinking heritage on YouTube dryly or live it messily. Creating a walk seems like a good compromise because you get a clean and edited simulation of the real thing. But it’s not. You miss the emotions you get when you startle a water monitor or when you discover brilliant colour in the forest gloom or when you figure out how to walk in mangrove mud.

I think that the manicured walks mirror our schooling system. We have a centrally planned curriculum that is relies largely on the model of decontextualized delivery. It is efficient and predictable. But it is so embedded in our culture that most teachers, parents and students know no other way.

Learning is messy and complicated. Our typical response is to clean it up and chunk (dumb) it down. In the process, authentic contexts get removed. Sometimes we realize this is doing our learners more harm than good, but we take half-hearted corrective measures that do not always get at the root of the problem.

For example, when we realized that our students were only exam-smart, we introduced things like project work and community involvement. But both have become formulaic in that you could practically get tuition centres to “teach” these “skills”.

Our approach is remaining reactive rather than being proactive. Look at the retrospective addition of elevators and safety barriers at train stations. At HDB flats, look at the retrospective addition of ramps and lifts that stop on every floor.

MacRitchie to Bukit Timah Briskwalk by inju, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  inju

Returning to the example on nature, I wonder how many people realize that when the Bukit Timah Expressway was built, it cut our primary water catchment and nature reserve into two. This has not only led to the drying out of our forests but also disrupted natural animal highways. Now there are plans to retrospectively link the two halves via a green path. Better late than never? Not when the damage has been done.

It is not possible to foresee everything, but some signs are clearer than others. Our learners no longer get information only from teachers and textbooks. They can connect with information via Internet-connected devices and with people who know who, what, where, when, why and how.

We need to teach them to connect the dots. We need to use the tools that they are already using so that we learn how to learn like them. Then only can we teach them how to use those tools better.

In other words, instead of building an artificial walk, we should walk the talk by being learners ourselves. Then only can we teach in more relevant and natural ways.

I read this Straits Times forum letter [archived version] and juxtaposed it with the videos below.


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The letter is written by someone in Singapore who laments the cultural and religious insensitivity of McDonald’s in pulling out the pig charm and replacing it with a stupid Cupid [photo]. The second video features an interview with Marina Mahathir, daughter of the former Prime Mininster of Malaysia, on the aftermath of the firebombing of a church in Malaysia. The latter makes the former trivial by comparison.

I am not trivializing race or religious issues. Those are important issues. But it is also important is to consider the contexts of these events. We take the relative stabilty here in Singapore for granted; our neighbours in the north have a more charged environment. We complain about small things; the Malaysians have a social tsunami to deal with.

The forum letter is trivial because that is all the writer sees. Likewise, teachers and educators here might not look beyond their own classrooms and schools.

I think that it is important to look at broader contexts because that is ulimately what we are preparing our charges for. If we look at the broader picture of how the family, the workplace and the rest of the world are changing, the trivial things fade away and the critical issues emerge. If we do not do this, we are not doing our jobs or heeding our calling.

I found this Vimeo video from a ReadWriteWeb article, You Can’t Squeeze Knowledge From a Pixel.


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It has little to do with education. However, it reminded me of something I try to emphasize in the ICT course that I facilitate and am now harping on in the EdPsyII course. What makes learning meaningful is context, not isolation.

I think that teachers or curriculum planners often remove context and complexity from a problem because they think that learners cannot handle the cognitive load. As a result, the problem is simplified into what seems like more manageable chunks, but it is devoid of context. Another result is that the issues that contribute to that problem get compartmentalized and isolated from one another.

For example, the complex skill of integrating technology in education might require content knowledge, technology skills and pedagogical approaches to be blended into a coherent whole. But we tend to teach these separately because each component is so complex.

I think doing this is acceptable as long as learners get to synthesize in context. So instead of simply asking my trainees to plan for technology integration (and thus show me head knowledge), I ask them to actually teach that topic via a demonstration. I also get them to sell their ideas via a walkabout format of presentation. They are teachers after all and designing, implementing, reflecting and strategizing is their context.

In new version of the EdPsychII course that I facilitate, I notice the broad topics of classroom management and inclusiveness again broken down into parts. There is the potential the pieces to remain disjointed.

To counter that, I am requiring all five of my classes to choose a subtopic and start writing about them from the first week of class. They will not only gain expertise in one area and teach their peers about their topic, they will also be able to critically examine a particular week’s topic from their lens. (We are using a Google wiki and Google Docs to do this.)

For example, classroom rules and routines are normally an individual teacher’s domain. However, they could also think about how their individual biases (personal pedagogies) and how school or cultural norms (collaboration and support) shape what they how they do this.

Facilitating this process is not easy. Learning this way is not easy either. But I think this approach will promote both creative and critical thinking. I also think that my trainees will be better teachers as they will think and act more collaboratively and systemically rather than individually.

But that is only what I think. The next few weeks are about putting these principles into play. Let the fun begin!


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