How to Shift from Education as Content to Education as Context

29 January 2019
By Trace Pickering, Iowa BIG


Despite the call for personalized learning experiences, the focus has been on how to provide more learning choice in a prescribed, standardized system.

Trace Pickering
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Iowa BIG

Several years ago, my friend and mentor, Al Rowe, posed this question as he was exploring educational concepts and ideas to drive more productive and engaging conversations: “Conte_t. Which is most critical – n, s, or x?” I immediately saw the power of the question and for the first time, I seriously considered how context could drive a new, more personalized form of learning.

Most of us understand context as something that exists in all places, and yet few understand why and how context is an essential and incredibly powerful gateway to deeper learning and understanding. Without understanding context and the power it has to transform learning and experience, we have little chance of transforming the education system to be a truly learner-centered one. Werner Erhard, a leading scholar on transformation, made clear the power of context when he declared: “Context is decisive.”

Context changes and brings meaning–both shared and individual—to everything we see, hear, and experience. Yet, in education, both the idea and the teaching of context’s power, is largely ignored. Rather than looking at the context, we focus on what lives inside the context itself: content and contest—the belief that by knowing a bunch of “stuff” and learning it in a competitive environment, a person will be able to successfully navigate the future. The educational system implicitly assumes that learning in one context easily transfers to other contexts and that it has established the best, most conducive context for learning.

We have ample evidence that the focus on content, zero-sum games, and the larger design of education to deliver content in the context of standardized schools is inadequate. Poor college completion rates, the constant din from business and industry that graduates are ill-prepared for the world of work, and high rates of student boredom, disengagement, and depression are but a few of the most glaring pieces of evidence. No matter how much we attempt to adjust the content and contest of standardized education, as long as we ignore the context within which any content and performance lives, truly personalized and learner-centered education will be unattainable.

What is Context Anyway?

The Oxford Dictionary defines context as, “the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines context as, “the parts of a discourse that surround a word or passage and can throw light on its meaning; Context now most commonly refers to the environment or setting in which something (whether words or events) exists.”

Context, then, is the background meaning we—both individually and culturally—ascribe to what we see in front of us. Context is easy to forget or ignore precisely because it lives in the darker recesses of the experiences playing out in front of us. Yet, every day we are taught lessons about the power of context.

The email you send with one intent that is received in a completely different one. The lively, funny, engaging person you are with a handful of close friends at a party, and the quiet, reserved, uncomfortable person you are in a room full of strangers at a networking event. The quarterback who is good during the game and other-worldly on that last two-minute game-winning drive.

The context surrounding us and how we interpret that context—consciously or unconsciously—changes the very nature of the experience playing out in front of us. It fundamentally changes the content we must apply and how we apply it. What traditional education has missed is simple but profound: Learning does not easily transfer to new contexts. Let’s read that again: Learning does not easily transfer to new contexts.

If I learn how to shoot free throws in an empty gym (content = mechanics of shooting a free throw) and consistently make 90% of my attempts, why is it I can only make 60% in a game, and 40% with the game on the line in the closing seconds? The answer, my friends? Context.


Context is the foundation of a messy world where skills and mindsets interact in new ways with every new experience we face.

Trace Pickering
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Iowa BIG

It turns out that just knowing the content of how to shoot a free throw is a necessary but insufficient condition for hitting the game winning free throw in front of 500, 5,000, or 15,000 people. The context defines the conditions and alters the situation.

Context is the foundation of a messy world where skills and mindsets interact in new ways with every new experience we face. When the context shifts from the practice gym to the crowd-filled arena, knowing how to shoot a free throw isn’t enough. I have to learn how to control my emotions, remain laser-focused, eliminate contrary thoughts (“I’ve got to make this.” “If I make this, we win!” “I’m afraid I’m going to miss.” Etc.), remain relaxed, and remember my mechanics.

These are all easier to do in the context of an empty gym during practice, but when the context shifts to a raucous crowd, a tied scoreboard, and seconds remaining, things shift dramatically. The context playing out in the background absolutely alters the experience, emotions, and skill set playing out in front of me. My past mastery of content, and my ability to compete and “win” free throw contests in practice, does not guarantee my success in this new context.

Shifting Our Context to Education

So, what does this have to do with education? For 30 years, I’ve witnessed the endless conversation about the “Industrial Age School” and how its design runs counter to the emerging “Information & Interconnected Age” or as Todd Rose phrases it in his book Dark Horse, “The Age of Personalization.”

In recent years, and in response to this changing world context, education has been enamored with the idea of “personalized learning.” In most cases, this means: How do you personalize the learning experience so that the learner can grasp and understand the material, content, and standards they are required to meet? This is often said without any hint of irony–that we only wish to personalize one side of this learning equation.

Despite the call for personalized learning experiences, the focus has been on how to provide more learning choice in a prescribed, standardized system. One in which the curriculum is standardized, where “pacing guides” are designed to reach the “average” learner–called “the 80%” in the language of Response to Instruction (RTI). All to mean learners are required to be at or above a certain achievement level on a standardized test covering content in largely de-contextualized or faux-contextualized settings by a prescribed, arbitrary date.


With a focus on context, we see “content” and “contest” very differently than the traditional system.

Trace Pickering
Executive Director and Co-Founder, Iowa BIG

With minor exceptions, “personalized learning” has meant finding more than one option for a student to learn the same old content and standards under the same old contest rules inside the same old system of standardized school. As a result we see “new” things like “blended learning,” “flipped classrooms,” “project-based learning,” computers providing appropriate pacing for learners, and teachers providing more options for learners to show what they know. Yet, with the context of the standardized system operating in the background—always relying on the transfer of content and the psychological underpinnings of competition—we find ourselves producing the same old results.

What if we took the idea of “context” seriously? What if we understood that each individual learner’s context already shapes their experience in the standardized system? What if we were willing to admit that none of us really know—beyond basic literacies—what anyone will need to know and how they will need to know it in the future? What if we considered the seemingly blasphemous idea that not only should the learner’s experience be personalized by design but so should their own personal and vigorous educational outcomes? Beyond basic literacies in the various disciplines, what content does any individual person need to know to ensure they can self-actualize and be a contribution?

If we took the idea of contextualization seriously, we could finally loosen our grip on the idea that content acquisition and competing for the 4.0 or the 100 points is the one and only game of education. If we shifted our educational focus to context—providing learners with contextually-rich experiences within which to learn and apply content and skills suited for these diverse contexts and their own needs, aspirations, and interests—might our learners truly discover how to access prior learning and apply it to new and novel contexts and situations? Situations and contexts we could never anticipate them experiencing?

How Iowa BIG is Using Context to Transform Learning

At Iowa BIG, we have consciously chosen to build contextually-rich experiences for learners and focus intently on what Iowa refers to as the “Universal Constructs,” commonly known as “21st century skills”: accountability and productivity, creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, complex communication, and flexibility and adaptability. All of these constructs require the ability to access prior knowledge; know how to learn, re-learn, and unlearn; and how to both understand the current context and be able to adapt one’s performance to be successful in that context.

Inside contextually-rich environments and experiences, we are able to help students “see” the knowledge and skills required for diverse contexts and to learn and practice them in unique contexts. Being competent at the Universal Constructs enables a person to effectively navigate and succeed across a myriad of ever-changing contexts. My staff and I cannot know what any of our learners will “need to know” in terms of content or standards in the future. What we can do is ensure our learners are effective at reading context and having the skill set to know how to access and use the content and concepts necessary for their success in that environment.

With a focus on context, we see “content” and “contest” very differently than the traditional system.

What follows is a visual of the dominant educational beliefs and practices around content, contest, and context in traditional, reform-based education and learner-centered, transformation-based education. This is about the system, one in which we’ve all at one time or another participated or currently participate in with honorable intentions to cultivate the next generation. Wherever you currently operate, there is no right or wrong about what you are doing. There is only what was and what will become.

Table comparing the difference between content, contest, and context between the school-centered and learner-centered paradigms of education

As we continue to grapple with and understand this emerging “Age of Personalization,” we must dive deeply into the idea of context and what it means for education. How can we create mass personalization inside a system that continues to value standardization and a focus on content and disparate disciplined knowledge? One that relies on outdated notions about human brain development and how to “motivate” people?

An important first step is to consider the power of context as a primary driver of the learning experience. Context makes learning “sticky.” Context makes learning relevant. Context provides the opportunity for truly learner-centered, personalized learning. And, as Erhard says, “Context is decisive.”

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