Let’s Try Contextualism

Over the holidays I spent a lot of time reading and watching movies. My mind craved novelty and weirdness which led me down a wonderful rabbit hole of Spanish language films (yes, they were subtitled).

I also read a book more aligned with my non-weird interests called The End of Average: How we Succeed in a World That Values Sameness by Todd Rose (2016). The author explores the enslavement we suffer at the hands of standardization and preoccupation with the average. As a person who has spent her career working with, researching, and hearing stories from folks who don’t fall into the average and feel the struggle with marginalization, this book held so many poignant passages.

Now, I am going to share a sad story that turns out well but while it is sad, please be patient because it will illustrate Todd Rose’s point about Essentialists and Contextualists very well.

When I was doing my doctoral work at SFU, I ran a reading program on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. It was an upper-level class for a group of pre-service teachers; it was my job to teach theories of reading and language acquisition and then coach students through an intensive eight-week practicum in which they worked one-on-one with a struggling reader to improve decoding and comprehension. The first day I was approached by a little girl who walked up to me assertively and said, “Nobody can teach me to read. But they said that you might. Can you teach me to read?”

“What grade are you in?”

3. She was in grade 3. The backstory from the teacher was a struggling family, substance abuse issues, everybody tried but it was pointless etc. etc. I’d see, one teacher said. I was told a few times not to get my hopes up. Keep your expectations low so you don’t get disappointed. She’ll cry, even. She wants to read so badly but she just can’t.

That’s the sad part.

It’s sad because she was only 8 and she was begging to read but what was saddest was the Essentialism.

“Essentialist thinking is both a consequence and a cause of typing: if we know someone’s personality traits, we believe we can classify them as a particular type. And if we know someone belongs to a particular type, we believe we can form conclusions about their personality and behavior.” (Rose, 2016, p. 101).

She is a child who:

Cannot Focus

Cannot Behave At School

Gets In Trouble

Probably Has An Intellectual Disability

What this essentialist thinking meant was that all these characteristics added up to a child who would probably never read, learn, or amount to much because as much as you try, those traits, those features, just add up to a kid who is not going to make it. And in fact, it’s sad for both the teacher AND the little girl. No teacher likes feeling blocked and frustrated and at the end of their rope. Likewise, no student likes to feel it’s the end of the line and finally, despite everybody’s best efforts, nothing can be done.

Nobody likes to feel unhelpable.

Todd Rose contrasts Essentialism with the Context Principle or if/then signatures which hold that talent and ability must be understood in juxtaposition to the situation; given a different context, we can see a whole host of behaviors emerge and recede. The kid who can’t sit in a reading circle at school can be held rapt reading on the sofa next to his Grandma. The child who is quiet and withdrawn at school becomes gregarious when she goes to swimming lessons. Our personalities, traits, and behaviors may seem stable but in fact change and change quite dramatically from context to context.

Contextualists tune into the setting – you want to see a change in learning? Change the context!

The sad part of the story is over. The best part is next.

My job as the instructor of the course was not to teach the kids in the program myself, but to support pre-service teachers in teaching the kids. So I had a very special job for a very special student because I was about to craft a context. I selected the student I thought would work well with our 8 year old. She was soft and patient, she had asked keen questions in class about the impact of poverty on literacy, and had shared my peculiar interest in vowel sounds (key for reading intervention). I had a quiet word with her, explained we were going to go above and beyond to work on emotion regulation, attachment, and of course, phonemic awareness and phonics. Each session started with warm hellos and holding hands to walk over to the reading desk. The sessions were highly structured, encouraging, and everybody was forbidden to consider failure. Failure would never be on the radar.

Our little girl got frustrated and cried sometimes and she slowly learned to read. After two weeks she knew her alphabet. After three more weeks she knew all the vowel sounds and started stringing sounds together to make words.

“SEANNA, I CAN READ, I CAN READ! WATCH!” I looked at her student teacher who was quietly beaming. “It’s true,” she said.

What followed was a horrible debacle about what would happen after the reading program finished but I worked some magic, the student teacher continued with the little girl for another year, and got her well on her way, almost caught up to her grade four peers by the following year.

There were other tragedies in that class that semester and if I had to identify situations in which I became a Contextualist, how I learned to string together if/then signatures, this would certainly be a frontrunner.

I enjoy UDL because it allows me to look at and design context.

UDL is the opportunity to draw your attention away from your traits as a teacher and their traits as students and look instead on how we can create, shape, and change contexts.

What if we asked students what strong engagement feels like to them?

What if we create groups differently?

What if we manipulate the pacing of information?

What if we prioritize listening?

What if we design for ways of asking deep questions?

If we remember that people are complex and have different behaviors in different settings then we are provided the opportunity to imagine a set of circumstances where the learning behaviors that dismay us may change or disappear.  We may craft a setting for the emergence of really amazing learning. In the words of Dr. Rose, “only equal fit creates equal opportunity” (p. 187). As an instructor, you have the capacity to make things fit. Your enormous power and privilege is the chance to design context. And as always, if you get stuck, you know where to find me. Being able to jump into context creation with you is my enormous privilege.

Rose, L.T. (2016). The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. Toronto: Harper Collins.

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Seanna has worked with children, teens, and young adults with learning difficulties from the earliest stages of her career. She holds a PhD in Educational Psychology from SFU where she studied reading comprehension and more broadly, variation in language acquisition and literacy processes. Seanna was an instructor in post-secondary for ten years, teaching courses on instructional psychology, reading, and learning disabilities. Her interest in Universal Design for Learning is contemporaneous with her investigation of learning differences: what differences exist, are those differences meaningful, and how can we ameliorate those differences through strong teaching and curriculum design practices? Combined with her role in Accessibility Services at KPU, Seanna is excited to work on both sides of the fence supporting both students and instructors in equitable educational access for all.

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