Learning Science Guidebook #4 – Nested Contexts

This post is part of a series where i am sharing work from my collaboration with Sae on the Learning Science Guidebook. It’s early stage #WorkingOutLoud, and should be taken as such. Today we consider ‘nested contexts’ and how they may impact learning and learning design.

When we consider ‘learning’ it’s too easy to reduce the discussion to materials, learner, and (where applicable) a teacher.

Design it right, and distribute it right, and the learner will learn. Of course, the reality isn’t so simple – but why is that?

Part of the reason why we can’t follow recipe-like formulas for learning is that we’re all different. We each have varied and highly individual contexts, both internally (our personal psychological makeup, worldview, experiences) and externally (our physical environment, cultural overlays, and social contexts). These contexts are a mix of ‘real’ things, internally created and held constructs, and collectively co-constructed conditions. 

We can consider these to be nested contexts.

At the most personal level, we all have a unique individual context. At the small group level, we may share certain external contexts like a physical classroom or social learning cohort. We may also be influenced by contexts that are a gestalt of individual and group factors, such as the cultural context of the learning experience, which may not reflect a universal context for all learners but instead vary according to individuals’ seniority, power, or belief.

[By “gestalt” we mean an emergent property more than the sum of its parts. In other words, when the components are combined, they produce a distinct, evolved new outcome – like eggs, sugar, and flour into a cake. NOTE that Sae thinks these things make a cake. In our half-Dutch household, these things make pancakes…]

We recently wrote about mental frameworks and collective narratives as the lenses through which people understand the world, learn, and make meaning.

Consider these seven layers of nested contexts:

Individual Characteristics: Personal context may encompass everything from our structural differences (are you tall or short, have good eyesight or struggle to read), to our individual skills and personal psychology (expertise, anxiety, confidence), language (native or secondary), educational background (experienced learner) and so on. These personal attributes can be grouped in various ways, but we consider four categories: (a) capabilities such as prior knowledge, skills, and experiences; (b) traits, which are personal characteristics that are relatively stable over moderate timeframes, such as culture and identity; (c) abilities such as sensory and cognitive functions; and (d) states, which are short-term personal characteristics, such as fatigue and motivation.

Learning Activity: The structure of a learning activity interacts with our individual characteristics to produce a unique context. That is, the design, delivery, and artefacts that create the conditions for learning also create a context, but that context is interpreted through – and altered by – our personal lenses, expectations, and interactions. You can see why we used the word ‘nested’ now!  The characteristics of a learning activity include things like the instructional tactics used, level of complexity, and mode of delivery. These interact with the individual characteristics mentioned above. For example, someone with little background knowledge might struggle with a complex learning experience, even if it’s well-designed. In contrast, a more experienced person might be bored by and lose motivation when exposed to an oversimplified activity.

Human-System Interfaces: Learning activities typically involve artefacts, from textbooks and chalkboards to AI-driven immersive virtual worlds. The experience of using that interface – including its design, usability, technical performance, and fit for the personal characteristics mentioned above – all influence learning outcomes. Even the best designed learning experience, if delivered through an unreliable and frustrating platform, won’t succeed. Similarly, accessibility matters. If learners are meant to access online learning through a spotty internet connection or read a dense text written in single-spaced 10-point font, that will affect learning.  

Physical Environment: The space learning takes place influences its outcomes. From the temperature of a room to the comfort of your chair, the physical space can facilitate or distract from the learning process. This is especially true when considering social and collaborative learning and for learning ‘in the flow’ where we learn as we work. The physical environment is a part of the learning context, not simply the backdrop to it.

Social Environment: Like the physical environment, the social environment where learning activities occur affects their outcomes. The context may include obvious factors like the availability of mentors and quality of peer-learning interactions. It also includes factors that influence an individual’s sense of safety and wellbeing, including potentially complex factors like social dynamics and the tribal context. This takes us into considerations of power, consequence, control of narratives, and accountability as well as the effect of formal hierarchies and structures of control. (But those are topics to explore more deeply in a future post!)

Organisational Environment: The distinction we’re making between the social environment and the organisational environment involves both scale and formality. In terms of scale, the organisational environment affects a broader range of the people involved in a learning experience, such as the instructional designers, learning technology engineers, teachers, supervisors, and (of course) learners. In terms of formality, Organisations undoubtedly have informal customs and cultures that affect learning, that is, the social environment described above but at the organisational scale. In addition, Organisations have unique formal and structural mechanisms, for instance, leadership can create a context of trust or one of fear, learning outcomes can be rewarded (or minimised) in tangible or reputational ways, and individuals’ workloads may allow them more or less (insufficient) time to learn.

External Environment: Beyond Organisations, the wider world context influences learning outcomes too – as is evident in the pandemic’s effects on worldwide education. In addition to public health conditions, many other factors create this high-level context, from global affairs to the Dominant Narratives of a society (which, for instance, may favour certain groups). 

If we map out the context of learning – from generic to individual, from central to distributed, from ‘knowledge’ to ‘meaning,’ and so on – then it’s easy to see how so many factors affect learning outcomes.

And although we can’t necessarily control the learning context, we can bring to the surface the elements that comprise that context and adjust the design of learning activities to accommodate them – and, in some fortunate cases, even modify some of those contextual elements for greater benefits. 

As we consider the context of learning (let alone the complexity and dynamics of nested contexts!), it rapidly highlights one of the broad trends in organisational learning: shifting from the generic to the personal, from the fixed to the adaptable. If we wish to move towards learning that’s more contextualised to individuals and can adapt to individuals’ performance and behaviours, then we need to embrace the  complexity that this change demands.

People often debate “learning styles” – to the extent that it’s become a shibboleth. Hopefully this post helps explain one reason why learning styles are derided by most learning science professionals. The idea isn’t that learners are all the same! On the contrary, people are so unique, with so many different facets affecting their learning experiences, that trying to reduce those differences down into a handful of universal, arbitrary buckets just doesn’t work.

But we shouldn’t be too disheartened. Whilst individuals’ contexts are unique, we don’t have to cater to every variable in every way: rather, understanding these nested contexts gives us a palette to work with. They describe the canvas, brushes, lighting, texture, and other materials we have – both given to us to build upon (fixed factors to accommodate) or as resources we can choose to employ (adjustable factors for us to use as tools). Within the fuzzy boundaries defined by context,  we’re free to be creative.

Within Organisations, we’re always limited to some extent by time and budget. There’s no practical way to uncover, let alone adjust to or address every relevant factor, but even within these constraints, there are some clear takeaways about nested contexts that may help us design more engaging and effective learning experiences.

[1] Some understanding is better than none. Calculating the infinite number of interacting contextual variables is a fool’s errand, and there’s certainly a point of diminishing returns – but that point is a nonzero value. In other words, while it’s unreasonable to investigate the full context, it’s even more unreasonable to turn a blind eye. Small investments of time time to consider the relevant contextual components, conduct some informal interviews, develop shared language, have conversations about context, and observe stakeholders in action will pay dividends because the elements that comprise contexts are the building blocks of the individual (schemata) and collective (paradigm) lenses through which we make meaning – the lenses through which all successful learning takes place.. 

[2] Some action is better than none. Relatively small accommodations for, or modifications to, some contextual elements may have outsized effects on learning outcomes. For example, in a workplace context, creating space for individuals to apply their new learning – say, on a new project – and giving reputational awards for demonstrating learning – like praise in a meeting or the opportunity to teach-back to the team – may make the difference between a fruitful or a squandered learning experience. It’s also OK to ask learners and other stakeholders (like coworkers and supervisors) what they think they need.

[3] Look beyond the curriculum. When designing or shaping learning experiences, think beyond the design and delivery of material – and even  beyond knowledge retention and skills performance. Consider outcomes such as  attitudes, narratives, and cultures – these too can be affected through an intentionally designed learning process. In fact, when you are designing an organisational learning project, it’s useful to focus on the desired outcomes and consider which factors – across the broad context – offer the highest return on investment. For example, is the best investment…?:

  • Building  knowledge
  • Building skill, to include applying knowledge practically
  • Fostering  realistic confidence
  • Encouraging  motivation 
  • Building teamwork behaviours and skills

Or, perhaps, are there contextual resources missing or barriers in place that may prevent otherwise knowledgeable, skilled, confident, and motivated persons from acting? 

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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