Location, location, location: The primacy of context in teacher education

By Morgan Appel, director of UC San Diego Extension's Education Department

‘Location, location, location’ is a mantra common among estate agents across the globe, underscoring and broadcasting the most significant elements inherent to one plot of land or another. Be it a scenic beachfront vista, vast desert expanse or tucked-in urban enclave, there is something to be said about where we find ourselves at any given time. Place matters, as does time and the affective connection between the two. Our fondest (and also our most abhorrent) memories are forever fixed in a particular space and time — and, as neuroscience tells us quite compellingly — the brain can only absorb and work with new information in context. This rather straightforward postulate forms the nexus of all learning — the principle of scaffolding on previous experience and expertise. This delicate weave of neurons and dendrites form the crux of who we are and serve as a foundation for who we will become.

Scaling up a bit, one can surmise that teaching, pedagogy and related licensure and professional development mirror these precepts in an axiomatic fashion. Yet, too often, as victims of cycles of school reform will tell you, teacher education cuts with a broad swath and offers one-size-fits-all solutions. Although we may find the Common Core and standards for teacher licensure relevant to the task and appropriate, they are (by necessity, mind you) more akin to the free jerseys distributed at baseball games than they are to bespoke formal wear. So, as postsecondary institutions address standards to the teaching profession, we find that it is typically more t-shirt than suit.

The Education Department at UC San Diego Extension wrestles with this issue in the delivery of its cohort-based programs, especially in contracted work with public, private and charter schools. In many ways, it is expected that beginning practitioners divorce themselves from context and immerse themselves in rather generalized practice designed to address the needs of all. Intuitively, however, we know that public schools face unique problems that distinguish themselves from private schools that face unique problems that differentiate themselves from charter schools that face unique problems that distinguish themselves from Independent schools that…well, you get the idea. And even within a typology, great differences exist. To characterize any organizational grouping of schools as monolithic is inexcusable and to deliver programming based on this understanding is a de facto waste of valuable intellectual and fiscal resources. How much more mundane would the world be if Robert Frost failed to take the road less traveled and instead heeded the advice of Yogi Berra — “When you arrive at a fork in the road, take it.”

Long story short is that as an instructional staff, we are committed to the prospect that incorporation of context in the content and delivery of instruction not only makes for a better seasoned and grounded professional, but facilitates the creation of capacity at the school site. In the Department’s Clear Credential, Teaching Online and Reading and Literacy programs, we understand that a rich appreciation of context provides more robust connections to the work being undertaken by teachers. Differentiatus in extremus. Results are immediate, focused and relevant — not diluted by absence of place and time. So, whilst broader standards are being met (and typically exceeded), sensemaking occurs in a viral way, driven by intellectual and physical proximity and the occasion to build upon existing shared knowledge. Is this not what we ask our own pupils to do? Is it not disingenuous to not practice what we preach?

It is incumbent upon us, then, to engage in meaningful deliberations around internal and exogenous challenges at the school site and to determine those things that are important to a given community through reflective practice. We know this will be different for a charter school that boasts of a cross-age, project-based curriculum rooted in nine guiding principles than it is for a private academy focusing on the gifted and talented. Although some in the postsecondary millieu may lament the effort involved in contextual sensitivity, we feel we owe it to our partners and posterity. Location, location, location, as they say, may just be the difference between a house and a home, be it on the beach or in the brain.

For more information about this article or contextually grounded programming at the Education Department at UC San Diego Extension, please contact Morgan Appel, director at mappel@ucsd.edu.

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