When studying an educational setting, it is important to remember that teaching and learning does not take place in a void. What I want to do in this post is to discuss one way of understanding the context of language education. To do this, I distinguish between four interacting aspects of context, the physical, the institutional, the methodological, and the human.
Physical aspects of context
The physical aspects of the learning context refer to the space, time, and resources that are available for learning. The physical aspects of the classroom constrain teaching and learning activity, and at the same time creates teaching and learning opportunities (or affordances). For example, a classroom where desks are placed in rows facing the board makes group-work harder, and therefore constrains activity to teacher-fronted instruction. Similarly, having access to a coursebook creates affordances for teaching according to the syllabus of the coursebook designers.
Some focussing questions that can help us to understand the physical aspects of the classroom include the following:
- What is the classroom/learning space like?
- What kinds of activities are possible / hard to implement? Why?
- What aspects of the learning space can change?
- What resources are available? Who can use them?
Institutional aspects of context
The institutional aspects of the learning setting refer to the rules, norms, and expectations associated with teaching and learning in this classroom/learning space. The institutional aspect regulates the interactions of teachers and learners. Some examples of such considerations include the rules of the school about tardiness, placement and exit tests that learners are expected to sit, classroom routines such as greeting each other or taking turns speaking.
Some focussing questions that can help us to understand the institutional aspects of the context include the following:
- What are the rules of the school / organisation?
- What are the established norms of this learning group?
- Do learners tend to arrive late or leave early?
- How regular is attendance?
- What are the aims of the syllabus for this learning group?
- Are there any immediate goals to be met (e.g., assessment)?
- How often does the class/learning group meet? For how long?
Methodological aspects of context
The methodological aspects of the context are not an inventory of approaches and methods, but rather a set of principles and rationales guiding the methods. The guiding questions in this section draw on Kumaravadivelu’s (2001) postmethod framework to guide my questions, although I would encourage you to read these as examples only, and to adapt these to your own needs.
- What does the teacher do to maximise learning opportunities?
- In what ways does negotiated interaction take place in the class?
- What attempts are made to promote the learners’ autonomy?
- In what ways does the teacher try to foster language awareness?
- How does the teacher / do the materials contextualise linguistic input?
- In what ways are language skills practiced in class?
- How is the social relevance of the lesson ensured?
- In what ways does the lesson build the participants’ (learners’ AND teacher’s!) cultural consciousness?
Human aspects of context
The human aspect of the learning setting refers to the diverse types of linguistic and cultural capital that people bring to class, their feelings and preferences, and the interpersonal dynamics that develop among them. I was deliberately vague when using the term ‘people’: I believe that this should also include the teacher and the observer, especially if one is doing participant-observation; however, in the context of observing a class in advance of teaching, the focus is on the learners.
Some questions that can help us to better understand the human aspects of a learning setting include the following:
- How old are the learners?
- What is the gender distribution like?
- What is their academic background / literacy level?
- How proficient are they in the target language?
- What linguistic skills can they draw upon from other languages they know?
- What language can they fall back to if they face difficulties in the target language?
- What are the classroom dynamics like?