The concept of classroom context is rarely something we discuss, and yet understanding it is essential for creating learning environments in which every student can thrive. So just what is “classroom context,” why is it important, and how can we be cognizant of it in the classroom? Let’s take a look.
Gregory Palardy, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of California, Riverside, offers an excellent definition of classroom context. According to Palardy, context is a classroom’s characteristics, such as “the composition of the student body, classroom structures, and resources.” However, it does not include teachers or their ability to teach.
The reason that context is of particular interest to teachers and school administrators is that it may actually contribute to the achievement gap between students. In fact, in Palardy’s exhaustive study examining this very subject, context was the greatest contributor to the achievement gap among black and Hispanic children, who typically attend schools that either do not regard context as important or are financially unable to make appropriate context-based improvements.
Obviously, this represents a system-wide issue rather than one isolated to an individual classroom.
Many of the achievement inequities arise within the same school, as the Palardy study found that black or Hispanic children are often assigned to a less-effective classroom rather than on a random basis. Thus, it is important for schools and school systems to examine how they assign children to classrooms and for schools to make sure that the context for minority students is conducive to their achievement.
Closing or eradicating the achievement gap should be incentive enough to consider context. In this excellent article, researchers Julianne Turner and Debra Meyer offer four more reasons.
We have already established that context is not dependent on our teaching, but it is dependent on student learning. Educators need to consider what students already know and how that knowledge and framework influences their learning styles. It is important, for instance, to deeply consider what students have learned about what they can say or do in a classroom. If a student has been marginalized for whatever reason in a previous classroom, that attitude will certainly carry into the present classroom and will need reshaping.
We also need to think about the context surrounding the subject that we are teaching, as learning varies across disciplines. A concrete answer may be preferred in the sciences or mathematics, for instance, but perhaps not as valued in a humanities-type class. Different contexts can affect how well a student is prepared for each kind of learning. This can also affect a student’s view of learning and achievement in general and again places emphasis on understanding how students learn.
Context makes us question not only how we assign children to classrooms, but also how we determine success in the classroom. We certainly have goals for our students; how do these goals inform our students’ motivations to succeed? A classroom that focuses on improvement, for instance, may demonstrate a more positive context and higher achievement than one that does not. What’s more, we also need to consider the context a student brings to the classroom to set appropriate and achievable goals.
Context helps us as teachers question the ways that we teach and consequently improve them. A 1990 study published in the Elementary School Journal points to a teacher who changed her teaching strategies after discovering that while a subgroup of students were achieving high scores when tested on a certain mathematical concept, they did not demonstrate a deeper understanding of that concept. Their knowledge was entirely rote, and they were not connecting with the material. But we can’t expect students to connect with the material if we don’t connect with them. Getting to know our students and the context from which they come helps us think more deeply about how we can effectively reach them and help them develop.
Changing school and system policy to create deeper context can seem like a daunting task, but it’s certainly not impossible. Examining certain classroom characteristics, such as class size and access to special-education teachers, can strengthen context. Lower student-to-teacher ratios to offer struggling students individualized attention. Gregory Palardy’s abovementioned study indicated that minority students don’t have the same access to special-education teachers, which leads to such a high achievement gap among minority students.
Developing a growth mindset also creates deeper context. When classroom goals focus on success or failure, or the chasm between an A and an F, students find themselves labeling themselves as high achievers or failures. Conversely, a growth mindset focuses less on academic achievement and more on a student’s ability to work hard and grow. It focuses on making connections with the material and participating in class. Students actively participate in their own learning process.
Even if you can’t do much about your class size or school’s grading structure, there are many other ways that you can create richer context right in your classroom.
1) Create rich small-group or one-on-one learning opportunities
If you have a large class, develop opportunities to break students into small groups, or to work with students individually. This will help you build stronger relationships with students and tune into their learning abilities and the strengths that their individual contexts give them. Build small work groups, and work with a small group while the rest of the class works on a related assignment.
Carefully consider the arrangement of desks or work centers in your classroom. Do they invite learning? Do they seem to favor one student over another? For instance, a circular arrangement of desks places students on the same level, eliminating the “front-row overachievers.” Even how you decorate your classroom can send positive or negative messages to students. Are they helpful to students’ learning?
Knowing students’ names is not the same thing as actually getting to know them. Learn something about every one of them, such as hobbies, interests, pets’ names, or even favorite sports teams. Make connections between these student facts and the learning material by asking them to research their favorite sports star, write a song for their favorite singer, or have them teach the class about their hobbies. Not only does this show your interest in your students, but it also helps make learning more relevant to them. If applicable, get to know your students’ parents, and determine ways that they can help reinforce classroom topics at home. Building rapport with students helps increase their motivation to learn. When they know that they actually matter to a teacher, they’ll be more eager to do their best in the classroom.
4) Teach them to become learners
By implementing Universal Design for Learning Guidelines, you can actually teach students to become better learners, which will serve them well as they move to different classrooms. This may help mitigate future achievement issues should they find themselves in a future classroom that is not as context-friendly.
Context is a very real issue for today’s classrooms that can contribute to the achievement gap among minority students. Fortunately, the problem can be solved on the micro-level by creating a more learner-centered environment. We can create richer environments in our own classrooms that will serve students throughout their educational career.