Where am I? The importance of context
By Andy Curtis
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Where are you now, as you are reading this? And how important is where you are now? Apparently, where we are is very important. For example, Stanford University has established a Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, and that relationship — between what we do and where we do it — will be at the heart of the new TESOL series Perspectives on Teaching in Different Contexts. The initial call for proposals went out July 3 in the English Language Bulletin, and the deadline for proposals is Sept. 30.
Since the call for contributions first went out, in addition to proposals, we have received inquiries asking what we mean by "context." That's a great question, partly because it's something we may take for granted, or that we may be too busy to stop, think and write about. But reflecting on our teaching and learning context is an essential part of our understanding of what we do as TESOL professionals.
You may be teaching English on an intensive English program (IEP) at a private language school in Australia, or in a provincial elementary school in China, or working with adults at a college in India. But wherever you are teaching English, you are doing it in a context that is unique.
We all intuitively understand that no two individuals are exactly the same, not even so-called identical twins. Therefore, a class of 25 students with one teacher is a collection of 26 unique individuals, which is one reason why no two English language lessons can ever be exactly duplicated.
In presentations I have given in North and South America, Europe, Asia and elsewhere, I have claimed that every lesson, including every English language lesson, is a work of art. At that point, someone in the audience usually asks: "Really? Even the 'bad ones'?" To which I reply: "Yes. Especially the bad ones." What makes even the lessons that "go badly" works of art is their uniqueness, which arises, in large part, out of the uniqueness of the context in which the lesson took place.
What about connectedness? We may or may not subscribe to the idea of "six degrees of separation," which claims that we all know each other through no more than six other people, or what some researchers are now calling the "Small World Phenomenon."
But during my years working as a clinical biochemist in hospitals in England — before I saw the light and turned to language teaching — I saw many powerful examples of similar we are. We are connected, not just at the biological and physiological level, but at all the levels of Abraham Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, from Physiological to Self-Actualization Needs.
Balancing the uniqueness of our context with the connectedness and commonalities is one of the main goals of TESOL's new Perspectives series, which we hope to achieve in a number of ways. First, we're asking the authors to locate their classroom within a series of expanding concentric circles, starting with the program, the classroom and the school, then the city, the state, province or region, and eventually the country. In that sense, in relation to what we mean by "context" for the Perspectives series, we hope to be able to move from the classroom-level to the country-level — and then go farther.
Beyond the national boundaries, we hope to be able to make international, contextual connections. For example, someone reading a book in the series, about teaching on an English for academic purposes (EAP) program with international students in a university in Canada or America, will be able to make use of that book in their context.
Whether the reader is teaching on an EAP program with international students in a university in Asia, Europe, the Middle East or elsewhere. If each book in the series can identify the needs of learners within a given context and document the lesson formats, strategies and resources that most effectively address those needs, the series will ultimately benefit teachers, students and the field of TESOL.
Andy Curtis is the editor for the new TESOL series Perspectives on Teaching in Different Contexts. He received his MA and Ph.D. from the University of York, in England, and he served on TESOL's board of directors from 2007 to 2010. Andy writes a biweekly TESOL blog about teaching and learning online.