Learning Science: Frames and Context

This is the latest in a series of posts that share my evolving writing from the Modern Learning Capability Programme: this piece explores ‘Frames and Context’ in the Learning Science Module. The previous post on the Learning Map will provide the best context on this. This work is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud, and forms a small part of a large module, so please bear in mind the context. It looks at how we are efficient in our thinking, but also trapped, by the sociocultural frame, and behavioural scripts that operate within them.

Learning: Frames

I find it helpful, empowering even, to be willing to include elements within my Learning Map, indeed, within my personal discipline of Learning Science, of which i am less certain. Your map does not need to contain all of the knowledge that you already hold: it can represent your areas of enquiry, curiosity, and doubt.

Remember the context: science does not give us one answer, but rather is a process and mindset to discover answers, and to edge our understanding forwards. Science is a discipline bounded by doubt.

A Frame provides the context of our understanding: it’s built out of two notions, firstly, our socio-cultural context, and secondly, the cognitive foundations of learning.

I’ll try to illustrate this by talking about coffee: when you order a coffee, in a coffee shop, you are tying into two established narratives. The first narrative is that you understand the cultural context of a coffee shop (you would not walk into a Police station and try to order coffee, because you understand how that piece of partitioned space carries different cultural meaning. The second narrative is that you have learned how to follow the specific system for ordering coffee, so walking to the bar, speaking, counting out your money (or using Apple Pay) etc are all easy, subconscious, activities.

Or to put it another way, you understand the mechanisms of purchase, and the social constructs in which that purchase takes place.

Both of these factors optimise your experience, but equally both of them constrain you in your imagination and activity.

I’ve included Frames in my core map of Learning, in the conversation about Learning Science, because aspects of both of these elements (socio-cultural context, and behavioural scripts) directly relate to our ability to perform economically, and our ability to change (and hence learn).

An example would be the use of smartphones: today it is perfectly normal for someone to be in a meeting, using a smartphone, whilst still talking to you, though you may consider their actions to be rude, or distracted. The ability to use the smartphone is an example of learned skills and behaviour, and the willingness to use it in a meeting relates to dominant social norms, all of which provide a Frame. Our understanding of the activity as ‘rude’ relates to our historic view of ‘normal’.

Currently, wearing a VR headset may seen outlandish too, but doubtless in time it will merely be rude and potentially just normal.

Frames can limit behaviour, but more fundamentally can limit understanding, conception, and ultimately, our ability to learn and change, so to understand the scientific basis of these features is important.

Frames: Context

In the example above, of buying a coffee in a coffee shop, the frame provides context. I’m currently sat in a co-working coffee shop, where the tables are old and battered woodworking benches: the visual language is shabby, informal, up-cycled. Yesterday i was in Starbucks, where the visual aesthetic was ‘lounge’, with large armchairs, and low coffee tables, with artwork showing coffee beans and smiling coffee growers. I understood both expressions of design to mean ‘coffee shop’.

In Starbucks, i queued and paid by App, whilst in the Coffee Saloon, i sat down and the coffee was bought to me, but both mechanisms of effect are equally well understood to me, so i was effortlessly able to adapt. Again: both fall within my expected range of behaviours, and all i have to do is to calibrate my actions to the contextual space.

In Starbucks, dogs are not allowed, but here in the Coffee Saloon, they are, which means that to ‘thrive’ in this space i have to understand the rules and context. Both are still understood as coffee shops, but the formal rules of each differ: some are the same, i have to pay for my coffee in both, but the specific skills of paying are different.

In Amsterdam, i visited a cafe where you just paid what you thought it was worth: this fractured my established understanding somewhat. Whilst i’m familiar and comfortable with different visual expressions of the coffee shop, one of the fundamentals i’m used to is fixed pricing. In the United States, i understand that i need to add a tip on top, but the price itself is clear.

If i visit a friend, the coffee will be free, and in a shop, it’s a fixed price, so the mixed model, where i pay what i feel it is worth, was challenging: it added a layer of socially imbued value onto what was previously a transaction based exchange (albeit in a nice setting). Suddenly i could offend someone, or reward them.

Frames exist well beyond coffee: they are social constructs that are nested: much as we looked at Skills being nested into Behaviours, so too both skills and behaviours are nested within Frames.

But not passively so: the frame can cue up a particular script. If i walk into a situation that i understand as ‘coffee shop’, i am primed to act out specific scripts. So i understand a broad range of ways that i may pay, by cash, App, card, or through exchange, and i simply need to be cued up as to which one i should utilise.

It’s worth noting that this contextual cueing is a key facet of disruption and failure, as well as deceit and fraud: by cueing someone up by applying context, you can cause them to deploy inappropriate scripts.

For example, to ride the London Underground train, you have to ‘tap in’ with a credit card. Once, somebody approached me, once i had gone through the barrier, wearing a dark outfit that appeared to be some kind of uniform. They explained that they were carrying out random ticket checks, and needed me to scan my card so that they could check i had ‘tapped in’. But in fact, they were carrying a new card machine so had i tapped my card, i would have just been handing over money. It was a fraud, in which i could have willingly participated: they did not have to intimidate me into giving them money, but rather create the social construct in which it seemed natural to do so. The outfit they wore was not specifically a uniform, but it was dark, with detailing that suggested the context of a uniform. And the action, that of a ticket inspector, was appropriate for the wider context that i understood.

About julianstodd

Author and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the Social Age. I’ve written ten books, and over 2,000 articles, and still learning...
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