On the importance of context

My wife is a remedial teacher at a primary school situated in a coloured township.  (See bottom of post for a short explanation of the terms ‘coloured’ and ‘township’ as they are used in South Africa.)  Her school has a large proportion of children experiencing barriers to learning (the new, politically correct term for ‘learning disability’), and her job is to help them catch up in those areas of the work (generally Math and language skills) where they are struggling.  Some days she comes home dejected, convinced that she’s not making any progress, the next she’s so excited about a kid that had a breakthrough she can’t stop chattering about it.

Yesterday, though, she regaled me with a story of something that happened in her colleague’s second-grade class that made me think about the role that contextual analysis play in tasks such as teaching.  Her colleague was trying to teach the children about subtracting.  She used the terms ‘take away’ and ‘make less’ to explain the concept, but to no avail.  The children simply could not get it.

Then one kid made the observation that the minus-symbol looked like a knife.  He promptly explained to the class that subtract means, if you have five guys, and you knife three of them, there’s only two left.  Immediately the entire class understood and were able to do the rest of the exercises.  Considering the Weekly Writing Challenge set by the Daily Post this week and my response to it, I should mention that townships in South Africa are characterised by very high levels of crime, and coloured townships especially are plagued by gangsterism.  The knee-jerk reaction is to be shocked at the violent imagery, but that’s what these kids know.  It’s what they’re exposed to every day and knowing this could give them the math skills to make progress in life one day.  For a white teacher living in the suburbs this is alien territory, which makes it that much more important that one should analyse the context and learn how to use it in the classroom.

I actually said as much to my wife only last week.  She’s struggling to teach her kids the phonetic alphabet and would use the standard approach of ‘b is for bus’, only to be met by uncomprehending stares – some of her kids have never seen a bus, or whatever the example-word might be, so they can’t remember it.  I suggested she use the names of football clubs or cricket and rugby players, or anything else the kids are familiar with.  Keep their context in mind and use it to engage with them in a way they can understand.

And this not only holds true for education, but any endeavour where we are engaging with other people.  All my books I’m studying now make a big deal of contextual analysis – you cannot counsel someone if you don’t know and understand their context, their back-story.  But the same can be said for sales, or advertising, or dealing with an employee in a human resources matter.  We need to start caring where people come from.  Realise the person sitting across from you is not simply a client, an employee,  a potential sale, a boss, but a human being enmeshed in a specific situation.  Someone with history, burdens, worries and dreams.  It could take your interaction with them to a whole new level.


(Quick history lesson for any non-South Africans reading:  In 1948 the South African government implemented a system of racial segregation called Apartheid.  Only whites were considered citizens of South Africa and blacks were relocated to ‘homelands’, according to their respective ethnicity.  However, blacks were needed in the towns and cities as labourers, so townships were established outside the city limits where they could live without mixing with whites.  The term ‘coloureds’ refer to people of mixed race, and they had their own townships, separate from blacks, as did people of Indian descent.  The Apartheid system came to an end with SA’s first democratic election in 1994, but many people still live in townships and informal settlements.  The term ‘coloureds’ is not considered derogatory, nor is ‘blacks’, though the term ‘African’ is preferred.  I’m not fond of the term ‘African’ as it implies non-blacks who were born and live in South Africa are not Africans.)