Contextual Education

6. Teaching Everything Contextually, with One Subject
All for one and one for all, the motto of the title characters in Alexandre Dumas’ novel The Three Musketeers, perfectly suits contextual education too. Just as one subject can be taught in the context of all others, all subjects can be taught in the context of one.

We normally regard literature as fiction and rarely resort to literary examples to illustrate scientific principles. But life as depicted in literature is not merely the product of a writer’s imagination. All great literature reflects realities of human character, society, values and aspirations. Literature can be used to complement the study of any academic discipline.

Many students and practitioners of psychology have said they have learnt about the human mind more from reading Shakespeare than from Freud and Jung. There isn’t a single characteristic, personality trait, behaviour or manner that one does not find in literature. Studying Shakespeare is like studying a cross section of humanity. A strong woman ruled by passion in Lady Macbeth, a lady with a heart of gold in Juliet’s nurse, the incorrigible old rogue Falstaff, the great old man Prospero, the quintessence of evil Iago, Hamlet with his internal struggles—Shakespeare has them all. Reading all great literature increases the vocabulary of thoughts and ideas, and gives a vicarious experience that one may never have otherwise. As we read lit­erature and charge at the enemy on the battlefield, cross the ocean and weather a storm, follow a family’s fortune over generations or the protagonist’s life from beginning till end, solve a mystery or laugh over a romance, as we love some characters and hate some, empathize with some and wonder at others, our study of human psychology becomes more rounded.

Plato, the Greek philosopher, was apparently familiar with contextual education, he used parables and conversational prose to teach his principles, his characters asked questions and generated discussions. His Analogy of the Sun, Allegory of the Divided Line and the Parable of the Cave teach principles of philosophy such as goodness, psyche and perception. He tells the story of prisoners chained facing the wall of a cave, who have only seen the shadows of objects behind them fall on the dark cave wall. They mistake these shadows for reality. When one of them is forcibly dragged out of the cave, the sunlight hurts him, but he gradually begins to see reality. But if he were taken back to the cave, he would be unable to see in the darkness, and his fellow prisoners would be convinced that being freed from the cave would only harm them. Profound, abstract principles of philosophy can be simply illustrated and explained with a short story. ‘Sour grapes’ and ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ are terms inspired by stories that convey a message succinctly.

Values cannot be taught effectively without literature. This is why we have a huge repository of folklores, fairy tales and fables in every society. Difficult thoughts can be communicated easily, boring topics can be made interesting and values can be made live through stories. Panchatantra is an ancient Indian collection of stories, somewhat similar to Aesop’s Fables. The collection is attributed to the 3rd century BCE writer Vishnu Sharma. Legend has it that a strong and scholarly Indian king had three ‘dullards’ for sons. The king despaired of the princes’ inability to learn, when his minister advised him that rather than teach science, politics, diplomacy—all limitless disciplines that take a lifetime to master—formally through texts, the princes be taught the wisdom inherent in them. Vishnu Sharma promised to make the princes wise to the ways of politics and leadership within six months. Conventional ways of teaching them would be ineffective, so Vishnu Sharma used fables to accomplish his purpose. Stories are not just for educating children while entertaining them. Any good piece of literature can give insights into life, as the writer is a seer of life. Rather than study the huge canvas of life, the same can be studied in miniature in a story. Anthony Trollope, one of the most prolific and successful novelists of Victorian England, has created 47 novels with hundreds of characters, each of which is a treatise in human values. The title character in the novel Dr. Thorne is a good hearted, selfless country doctor who values people above money. He is blessed with people who love him, and eventually, with unimaginable wealth. Lizzie Eustace, in The Eustace Diamonds, is at the other end of the human spectrum, cunning, calculating and unscrupulous. All her schemes backfire, and she finds herself married to a man who is more than her match in wiliness. In Ayala’s Angel, Ayala is a poor orphan dependent on her relatives, but with a strong sense of her destiny. She rejects suitor after suitor because of her aspiration for the perfect angel she has envisioned. Common sense, her relatives tell her, requires her to accept any marriage proposal that comes her way, but she clings to her dreams, and sees them come true. In Can You Forgive Her, Lady Glencora is forced to marry Plantagenet Palliser, though she loves Burgo Fitzgerald. Palliser sees Glencora is unable to give up Fitzgerald, and gives his wife the freedom to choose her own future, something her relatives had not given her when they forced her to give up her lover. When all circumstances are suited for Glencora to elope with her lover, she chooses to stay back. Palliser, in return, gives up his cherished hope of becoming the Minister of the Exchequer, and takes his wife on a tour of Europe. When he returns with a happy wife and successful marriage, he also finds the post of the Prime Minister of the country waiting for him. Patience, selflessness, integrity, falsehood, individuality, conventionality, and the response of life to these values come out through these and all other great works of literature.

Literature reflects people and society. Sociology studies can be aided and enhanced through a study of literary works. The gradual movement of status and prestige, from land and estate, to trade and money, is seen throughout the literature of the 18th and 19th centuries. The question raised earlier, as to why there was a French Revolution but no English Revolution is answered through a love story by Jane Austen in her Pride and Prejudice. The simple romance depicts with profound insight how England avoided revolutionary war between the classes by permitting upward social mobility and marriages between members of the different classes. The story is a simple romance, a wealthy gentleman is attracted to a country girl of humbler means. He sees the intelligence, strength and goodness in her, but is unable to accept the difference in social class. Eventually, his good nature overcomes the sense of social superiority, and he marries her. The same movement is seen among other couples in this story that was set at the time the French Revolution was unfolding in all its brutality across the channel. There the French aristocrat refused to part with his crown, so his head was forcibly cut off. Darcy gave up his pride, accommodated the aspirations of those below and voluntarily erased class barriers, thus saving his head. Darcy’s act symbolized the movement prevalent in English society, where class boundaries were gradually erased through the acceptance of trade, dilution of class consciousness, and inter-class friendships and marriages. This resulted in a peaceful social evolution, and spared it a violent revolution. Such ideas and movements in society and peoples can be traced in all books. Society’s conception of virtue and vice, and its hold on people are brought out in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. The growing opposition to slavery is depicted in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book is even credited to having influenced the course of the country. When Abraham Lincoln met the writer during the American Civil War, he is reported to have said, ‘“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” The human side of the Industrial Revolution is seen in David Copperfield and Hard Times.

Though literature does not directly focus on Science, it traces the development of the subject over time. The comic adventure of Phileas Fogg and Jean Passepartout in Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days shows us what an immense accomplishment it was, in 1873, to complete a trip around the world in 80 days, and how far we have come since. Technology happens to be an essential part of plots in writings today. Literature exposes us to new cultures, something much needed in today’s shrinking world. It awakens in us a sense of the aesthetic. Knowledge of any subject can be enhanced by a study of literature.

What is true of literature is more generally true of other forms of contextual knowledge including case studies, cinema, history, biography and art which can offer similar benefits to students of economics, politics, law, business, sociology and even the hard sciences. Everything can be taught with reference to one subject, completing the contextualization of knowledge.

7. Educating the Person, not the Subject
A student of English literature was writing his term end paper on Shakespeare. He hurriedly scanned the first question, read only the first three lines of an unidentified passage, ‘recognized’ them as coming from Hamlet, and wrote for 90 minutes on what the passage expressed, of Hamlet’s dominant themes. After completing the exam, he had time to go over the question paper a little more carefully, and found to his consternation that the passage was from King Lear, and not Hamlet. At the bottom of the answer booklet, he scrawled in a hurry, ‘‘The lines come from King Lear. I am sorry for being so careless and writing on the wrong play. I really do know, and could have written about Lear.’ The English professor, Dr. Elizabeth Pope of Mills College, Oakland, California returned the booklet with an ‘A’. She had added a comment, ‘Your closely reasoned, detailed argument very nearly persuaded me that the passage from King Lear would have served very well in Hamlet’!

In her 2002 book Contextual Teaching and Learning: What It Is and Why It’s Here to Stay, author and education consultant Elaine B. Johnson recounts this incident about her English professor Dr. Pope, who was interested in her students’ depth of understanding, more than anything else. She saw that mistaking King Lear for Hamlet was a slip, but she appreciated the student’s understanding! While teaching Shakespeare and other great authors and poets, Dr. Pope showed her students how the poets urged all to think about how they perceived others, how others perceived them, made decisions, resisted or succumbed to peer pressure, faced humiliation, handled power, exercised compassion and maintained integrity. She connected the centuries-old works to the modern day and the students’ lives. She helped them see meaning in what they learnt. She taught them, not Shakespeare!

Education has to be person-centered. Wholesome medicine treats the patient and not the disease or just one symptom. Similarly, education must be for the person, not one part of him. Enterprise Rent-A-Car, an American car rental company, is one of the top recruiters of entry-level college graduates in the US. It hires college athletes because sportspeople know how to work in teams and multitask. Marie Artim, Vice President of Talent Acquisition at Enterprise, says that there are a lot of transferable skills in athletes that make them effective employees even in a field unrelated to sports. Just as the technology company Google considers technical expertise as the least valuable skill, the car rental company knows that a wholesome personality is needed to excel at work, not just grades or specialized information.

It is not the MBA that prequalifies a CEO. Business Management students are taught project management, strategic management, risk management, human resources management, and so on. The human resource is assigned to one exam in one semester, whereas every part of business management, be it project, strategy, risk or marketing is about people!

A progressive school that is centered around the person rather than subject, course or expertise is New Technology High School in Napa, California. It has re-imagined education and created a model that educates the person as a whole, imparting not only textbook knowledge but life skills. A culture of respect, trust and responsibility is inculcated in the students. There are no bells that ring signalling the end of class periods. Students are trusted to keep track of their own time, just as they would need to do later as adults. They can organize their own projects, or work in groups of their choice. They are included in the decision making process in school. The curriculum is project-based and the teachers lead the activities, and not give lectures to students. One criterion on which students’ answer papers are graded is work ethic. Communication is considered important, even while solving Maths problems. Traditionally, students have been encouraged to compete with others and come first. But at the workplace, they need to totally reverse, and work in teams, in mutual cooperation. Somewhere between college and career, the students are required to pick it up. But New Technology High School makes students help each other and see the benefit there is to be derived when competition is replaced by cooperation. The exceptional skill sets and life knowledge that a dynamic CEO possesses can be taught to everyone in this way. Imagine an organization where everyone possesses the skills and capacities of the CEO!

Organization is a concept integral to all disciplines. It is a fundamental principle behind social evolution in every field of life—commercial, economic, social, political, religious, educational, scientific, etc. A family is organized, with different roles and responsibilities to each member. The market, city, government, health care, education—all these are organizations of people, structures and the relationships between them. But the true power of organization is rarely brought forth with sufficient clarity and emphasis in courses. To understand the idea in its entirety, the teacher has to be one who thinks contextually and teaches creatively. There are many teachers, at all levels of education, who use props and technology tools to make the classes more interesting and effective, analogies to explain, biographies to inspire and movies to make ideas clear. Movies can be a very powerful educational tool. A five minute clip from the opening scene of the movie Gladiator brings to life the power of organization. It depicts a fierce assembly of fearless German tribesmen fighting for their very survival against the quiet disciplined orderliness of the Roman military machine and being quickly annihilated by organizational precision more than strength, courage or determination. The Romans have many specialized divisions—infantry, archers, cavalry, the signal bearers. In the background, they are supported by physicians, blacksmiths, cooks, drivers, those who take care of the animals. They even have a man whose assigned duty is to fire the oil, so each archer can light his arrow at once. The Germans have a lot of courage, energy and determination, but cannot match the organization of the Roman army. The Roman side has a clear hierarchy, starting from the king down to the foot soldier. The fighters are grouped into specialized divisions, each performing a different task. The organization, co-ordination and specialization of tasks give the Roman army its power.

Films and documentaries are part of the curriculum followed by some progressive school and teachers. There are resources such as that recommend movies and corresponding lesson guides for teachers. The Department of Education in Alberta, Canada includes feature film in the minimum requirements for text study. Many teachers, mostly in Europe and America, use movies in their lesson plans. The concept of class differences is brought out in Titanic. Cast Away is a tale of isolation and perseverance. Matrix is about conformity, self-discovery and the influence of technology. Chocolat talks about the longstanding debate of Change vs. Tradition. A 21st century student in Asia or Africa, or even Italy itself, may find it hard to recreate in his mind the Roman streets and palaces while reading Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Watching the movie adaptation of the play makes the story more real. Otherwise, even the thought of a man in a toga would make them wonder how the Romans managed to move around, let alone have a flourishing civilization!

Like movies, biography is another field that serves contextual education by looking at the whole instead of the part. The study of an individual’s life can be a great lesson. How their actions altered history and how historical events shaped them, how personalities are formed and how a formed personality acts, are lessons that students of history or psychology need to fully understand the subject, educators need to understand students, politicians need to handle issues, leaders of organizations need to lead, business people need to negotiate—all those who receive an education can benefit from the study of biography. The great men and women can inspire the young and act as role models. Watching the movie Gandhi, or reading his biography, one can learn what is it in an individual that made an ordinary man a Mahatma, or great soul.

The biography of Lincoln shows how honest he was, to be called Honest Abe, and how that honesty served him. Lincoln, when a young legislator, ran for the senate. He and two others, Joel Matteson and Lyman Trumbull, were in the fray. Matteson had 44% of the support, Trumbull just 9%. Lincoln, who had 38% of the support knew that Matteson was not a straightforward man. He and Trumbull shared a common vision for the country. So he withdrew from the race. Rather than splitting the votes and allowing Matteson to win, he withdrew, and supported Trumbull. He asked all his supporters to do the same too. Trumbull at first could not believe it was happening. This man was actually giving up his huge advantage, because he wanted the right person, not himself, but a right person in the senate instead of a man of questionable character. So he sacrificed his chances for the greater good. Trumbull won the seat. When Lincoln later contested the elections at the national level, Trumbull was one of his loyal supporters, and Lincoln rose to the post of the US President. It is not so much a moral lesson as an insight into the workings of life. Honesty and political aspiration do not often appear to be the closest of allies, but when they do form an alliance, they take one all the way to the top. Values have been recognized as an essential driver of professional excellence. Biographies bring the principle to life.

Centering on the whole person, the ills in today’s education can be eliminated. ADHD, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a term that is heard increasingly with reference to children today. In the US, some 9% of all children are diagnosed with ADHD, and treated with different kinds of medications. The percentage of children with ADHD in France is less than 0.5%. In the US, child psychiatrists treat ADHD as a biological disorder, and treat the brain’s neural functioning. French child psychiatrists see ADHD as being linked to the child’s psycho-social circumstances, and focus on the issues that cause the child stress and underlie the ADHD. They treat the children with different forms of counselling. Hence the difference in numbers in the two countries. Similarly, a comprehensive, person-centered approach in education makes youth complete, and prepares them to face the challenges of the 21st century.

Pages: 1 2 3 4