ED 200 Week Eight Part 2 (Fall 2022)

Hi Everyone,

Context confers meaning.

If knowledge could be passed from one person to the next, as if through a pipeline, and deposited into students’ heads, context wouldn’t matter. But context matters. Context influences what is thought to be learnable, what is deemed important to learn, and how one is taught. These influences help determine what is presented to us for our learning. In addition, the context itself becomes a part of the neuronal assemblies that we weave into our understanding.


Each artifact that we have adopted and incorporated into our schooling contexts was adopted because it seemed to make sense to use within the context we had to begin with. In other words, there is something going on in the context that suggests that a particular artifact might be a good artifact to incorporate into our context.

I have mentioned the term ‘significant’. Let me provide some explanation as to what that might mean for us as we consider artifacts in schools. To the photocopier. When I say significant I am referring to something that is impacting the context in which we dwell. I will use a photocopier. This first figure shows how or why a photocopier will come into being. The causal modalities along with the background contexts have the photocopier make sense in schools. Everything is already in place for administrators and teachers to say, “Yes, we could sure use a photocopier.” Because of these modalities and the background context that makes these modalities meaningful, we have photocopiers showing up in schools.

Let’s think back to a time before photocopiers. The photocopier didn’t just show up at the school uninvited. There were things going on that triggered the idea that photocopiers might help. For example, content had been objectified, classes were teacher-centered with little student choice in determining content, students were already working in books and doing worksheets, and there was a belief that all students would benefit from being presented with the same thing.  Thus, when the photocopier was developed for business purposes, it seemed like a perfect fit for the school environment.




The figure above shows the many aspects of background context (in green) that are already in place allowing the photocopier to come into being within the school.

The figure below shows what I mean by significance. When something is significant it has an effect on the context. It has an influence on the context. Then, the changing context, in turn, affects the artifact. There is a reciprocal, or back-and-forth, action.

Once the photocopier is in place, school personnel can find even more ways to use copies. Photocopier manufacturers think of even better ways to improve their devices. Perhaps creating special key codes to monitor teacher use, or improving trays.



We can see in blue how the use of the photocopier might influence (amplify) procedures already in place:

“Hey, with a photocopier I can increase my use of copies ensuring every student receives the same worksheet. And, I can create multiple assessments, and send information home to parents.”

I chose to share the photocopier example with you. We could pick any artifact or procedure and see something similar.



Outside in, or inside out?

We have a long history of following a narrative that suggests that we have representations of the outside world that have made their way into our heads. We might call it the outside-in model. Suffice it to say, a better way to think about the way you perceive the world is from the inside out. That might sound strange at first. It is a bit counterintuitive. However, we perceive and we make sense of our environments as a result of what we already know. When you look at a cup there is six times more brain activity traveling from the inside of your brain moving to the receptor centers than what comes from the perturbations from the outside. 


Let’s apply some of this to education and schooling

With what we have been considering thus far, we are now in a better position to analyze schooling environments and schooling procedures to see how schools are enhancing the development of understanding or possibly hindering the development of understanding.

Of course, with the Three Branches of Government story, we noted how a schooling activity might hinder the development of experiencing all the necessary modalities required for understanding. 

Let’s look at a couple of other schooling narratives that might enhance or hinder the educational pursuit.



As you know, context matters and body matters when making meaning of a situation or for any artifact or process to be intelligible. Without knowing what a word means, you are unable to understand the context or to ‘feel’ the word. Your brain isn’t full of definitions so when you hear a word a definition pops into your head. Our brains aren’t like computers (even though that is a metaphor that is often used). Rather, your brain is continually having you re-enact parts of your visual, motor system. Your entire sensory system comes into play. You re-experience past experiences to understand a word.

This is one of the reasons why women who experienced pain, hardship, and death on the Oregon Trail can help us experience those feelings when we read their words.

But it is easy for us to forget just how important sensory, bodily experiences are.


Let’s talk iPads and Typewriters

For those of you have a horse, what would your understanding of horses be if your only contact with horses was limited to an iPad? Or for those of you who swim, or play a sport, or camp, or hike, or love. To what extent could someone, without any previous experience with any of these activities understand the activity the way you do having had real-life bodily experiences with these activities?


And yet people will still argue all the benefits of incorporating iPads or computers into young children’s lives. “Just think of all the state standards students could meet if only we had them using iPads,” we will hear people say. But is there a problem with this? As a true novice what can you re-experience on a two-dimensional screen when you lack experience? When I say lack experience, I mean when you don’t already have sufficient neuronal cell assemblies intact to bring rich meaning to the iPad.

Now, this is not to say we shouldn’t ever use computer-based technologies. Many of us use sophisticated music software, or graphics software, or architectural software regularly. But we have already established neuronal cell assemblies so that we re-live a rich past experience when we use the technological artifact. And, as far as my electronic music students — playing a trumpet sound on a keyboard to compose music is great, but only after the student has had bodily (physical/sensory) experience with brass instruments. It took me a while to understand that, but I did in the end.

Let’s use another Apple cinnamon bun example (I mean Apple the product)

Here is a child about to learn about cinnamon buns by entering into this technology-barren environment. Did you hear that many school districts have been very excited about this?

Sometimes it’s difficult for us to look objectively at what we are doing in school. We get caught up in the hype or the fads — just like the music teacher who thought his students were developing a depth of understanding by playing keyboards. I won’t mention his name.

The technology seems so amazing, doesn’t it? It is the wave of the future, just like the typewriter was.


Did you say Typewriter? I did! Time for a Blast to the Past!

Did you know that typewriters were once thought to be valuable educational tools?

Oh, I should remember that most of you might be too young to really remember the typewriter. I remember it well. I even took a typing class in high school. “Sit up straight. Feet on the floor. Fingers on the home row. F, F, F, H, H, H, f-o-x, f-o-x, f-o-x.” And so the class would go. Mr. Pobada, shouting above the clacking of the typewriter keys.

Ever hear about the typewriter study? Did you know that research showed that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods? That’s true. The research said it was true. And yes, I am talking about a typewriter. You know:

That’s me in the back. Wandering around looking at the interesting pictures rather than actually doing any work 🙂

From 1929 to 1931 Wood and Freeman (1932) conducted an extensive investigation on the “educational effects of the use of typewriters in schools.” The main purpose of the investigation, which was funded by four manufacturers of portable typewriters, was to study the nature and extent of the educational influences of the portable typewriter when used as a part of the regular classroom equipment in the kindergarten and elementary school grades. The magnitude of the investigation can be estimated from the fact that during the first year nearly fifteen thousand children and over four hundred teachers were involved in the study. The findings indicated that typewriter-based instruction had various advantages over traditional instructional methods. The conclusion was that the typewriter was a valuable educational tool that could be used effectively in most subjects.

The contemporary reader of this report is likely to be struck by at least two things: first, by the high expectations associated with the use of the portable typewriter in schools in the early thirties, particularly when we consider that fifty-eight years later, the typewriter is used primarily in experimental classrooms in the early grades; and secondly, by the striking similarities between these early expectations and contemporary expectations surrounding the use of computer technology in schools. In fact, the similarities are much stronger than the previous account suggests. In the Wood and Freeman study the reader is shown pictures of children working in small groups on the typewriter, “drawing” pictures with “X”s , and pictures of poems composed by children directly on the typewriter, strikingly similar to what we find today in books on the use of computers in schools. It seems that if we exchange the word “computer” for “typewriter” in this fifty-eight year old study, we would have a credible research study on the “educational effects of the use of microcomputers in schools.”


What does this tell us now that we understand the importance of bodily experience? Are we to conclude that educators in the early thirties were naïve and even blinded by this new machine and that they uncritically interpreted technical possibilities as educational possibilities? Or are we to conclude that the fate of typewriters in the curriculum reveals how educators have failed to take advantage of the pedagogic potential of the typewriter in areas such as reading, writing, visual arts, social studies, and even mathematics? Or should we perhaps take this story as an illustration of educators’ quests for patent solutions to educational problems? Now that we know about narratives, perhaps it seems a bit more obvious to us that teachers were told that typewriters were the wave of the future. And when we are caught up in a narrative, it is easy to lose sight of ‘understanding’.

This story should draw our attention to the similarities between the plans of implementing typewriters into the curriculum in the early forties and plans of implementing computers into the curriculum today. Not only do we all hear the benefits and possibilities for students in schools, but we also get a similar message from all the advertising outside of school. Then, when researchers test for the efficacy of product use, they focus on one causal modality and disregard the others.

Anyway, one thing we learn when doing research is if you ask the right questions you will get the answers you want — the typewriter company understood that well.

Let me apply our understanding of the importance of bodily/sensory experience to a topic I know well — the use of the Oregon Trail program.


Beware of the questions that we ask.

Some of you might remember the Oregon Trail game. It too was, at one time, thought to be a great educational learning tool. Researchers even wrote about the benefits of the game in educational computing journals. This was better than the typewriter. Just look at, and admire the glitzy graphics.

(This is a good example because the hardware and software are old enough to show the obvious flaws, and yet recent enough that you might still recollect something about this.

The Oregon Trail: A Glimpse of Gaming History

Ah, the Oregon Trail. Technology-rich we used to say.

We sometimes hear the phrase “technology-rich.” In reality, for novices (notice I say novices here), doesn’t the use of computer-based two-dimensional screens lead to a “technology barren” experience? It is technology-barren when we have not yet had a rich corporeal experience that can re-enliven the richness of authentic experience. I only have to say, think of the last time you had a soft warm cinnamon bun, warm out of the oven, and if you have been lucky enough to have experienced this in the past, the neurons that were wired together when you experienced this in the past are re-firing now. For those of you who have only experienced cinnamon buns by seeing them on a computer screen, I am afraid your experience will be rather barren in comparison. So much for ‘technology-rich’.

One of the things you know now is that words will activate neuronal cell assemblies. For example, when you hear the word cinnamon bun neuronal cell assemblies are activated to help you experience cinnamon bun. Consider for a moment how hearing people’s real-life stories might actually activate more neuronal cell assemblies than playing a game.


That reminds me of a story.


I don’t know if you will remember a computer program called The Oregon Trail. It was actually pretty popular in school quite a few years ago. Probably before your time. . . . . It was designed as an educational game, was played like a game, and was conceptualized like a game.

Now I think you will find this interesting now that you have some idea of how context confers meaning. What is the context of the Oregon Trail game? . . . Well, it is a game context. That in itself isn’t a problem. Now when I was teaching, I used the game in my Social Studies class. That in itself probably isn’t too much of a problem either. But, you probably know me well enough by now that you know there is some sort of problem here. . . There is.

Sometimes when we are teaching, we think we are accomplishing one thing, and we might not be. . . . If our purpose is to teach students about the Pioneers crossing the continent on the Oregon Trail, and hope that they have some authentic understanding of the pioneer experience by playing the game, that might be a problem. . . . Why?  When the game metaphor pervades our thinking, students experience the content in a game-like fashion. . . .

When I was teaching at Auburn University in Montgomery, I had a graduate class of mine break up into two groups. One group played the game, The Oregon Trail. The other group read the book Women’s Diaries of the Oregon Trail. Two different media through which one might access the lives of the Pioneers in some way. . . . I observed both groups. I observed students using the program putting together their imagined lists of items that they would load into the cartoon-like wagon and then set off across the screen from Independence, along the Missouri River, through Omaha, all the way to Oregon City. . . . I watched them excitedly poke fun at other groups when other groups weren’t progressing in the game as fast as they were. And, I listened to them laugh when one of the family members in the game dies from a snake bite. You see In the game, that sort of tragedy allows the other players to advance up the game ranks. And, of course, this is to be expected. It is a game. . . But contrast this with the experiences of the students who read the stories written by real women pioneers, mothers, wives. I watched the reading group well up with tears as they experienced the stories written in woman’s diaries of the Oregon Trail–stories of mothers telling how they watched their husbands and children drown while trying to cross a river, or how their children died from sickness along the way.

Think back to your model of the four causal modalities. We have the four causes, the person, the purpose, the materials, and the form. For the computer game, the person is the student, the Purpose is to learn about pioneer experiences along the Oregon Trail. The material is a computer program, and the form is a game. That context confers meaning on how we will understand pioneer life. Contrast the computer game frame with a diary reading frame. Once again the Purpose is to learn about pioneering experiences along the Oregon Trail (so same purpose), the person involved here is, once again, the student. But now change the form to authentic stories, and change the materials to Women’s journals. Real women, real mothers, real deaths and tragedies, real stress, real hardships. If we are clear as to the why and how we are educating, the environments we create must be taken into consideration. If I want my students to have some sort of ‘authentic’ understanding of the Oregon Trail experience, the technology of written journals that share the life of the time might be more appropriate than a computer game.

Let me emphasize something here though. The Oregon Trail experience can be depicted with two different technologies (computer game, and diaries), but one incorporates authentic language, and authentic stories, the other doesn’t. One calls upon full sensory bodily experiences, the other doesn’t. Both technologies, both mediating technologies, the computer and the journal, depict, create, and enliven particular neuronal cell assemblies so that we can re-experience our past experiences so that we might perceive and make sense of the stories or the game. But hearing real hardships, and playing a game, elicit very different sorts of understandings.

So let’s reflect on this for a moment. The folks who traveled the Oregon Trail lived a particular reality. If education has something to do with understanding reality authentically, how might a particular technology (or software) help or hinder understanding the experiences that shape reality in the first place? We should probably make a distinction at this point regarding understanding, fact, and information. It is probably easy to recognize that by playing the game, one might come to know the fact that many people died while traveling the Oregon Trail. I could also say, “Yes, I understand that many people died while traveling the Oregon Trail.” If, however, understanding implies some shared experience, that might be accessible through language and depiction of activity, the information might fall well short of depicting what really happened when we play a game on a two-dimensional screen.  Perhaps we should describe the experiences as encouraging or eliciting authentic or inauthentic understanding.

A history teacher, with a limited amount of time to spend with students, might be more interested in having her students acquire an authentic understanding of the Oregon Trail rather than an inauthentic understanding. In this case, the diaries would be considered media or technology rich (to use a phrase so often used by proponents of particular technologies). I bring this up because “rich” is a metaphor with numerous implications.  Next time you come across the phrase “technology-rich” it might be worth asking if the author is referring to a technology that is helping us gain an authentic understanding or referring to something that does not lead one to authentic understanding.

This is not to say that students should not have the opportunity to be entertained and to play games. I had fun playing the Oregon Trail game. I learned some interesting facts. And when I moved from Alabama to Oregon, I deliberately followed part of the Oregon Trail in part, because of the game. However, educators do have an obligation to be clear on their purposes and expectations and not to fall into a narrative that distorts what is happening educationally. And as we know, becoming educated is developing a depth and breadth of understanding.


We know that bodily experience is important for the development of understanding. But there are narratives that will tell us otherwise.

Back to the Three Branches of Government

If you recall, early on in the class I gave you many different “school-modifying influences” cutouts and you worked to put them in some sort of order. In this, we see many different sorts of influences that might shape the context of any classroom environment.


It might be helpful to think of each strand as a cell assembly that is eventually wired together into a new assembly.


For example, when we are developing new learning, we are weaving together cell assemblies that have been influenced by the school context.




When we talked about the three branches of government story, there were clearly some contextual influences that had the teacher and student think about how one learns, what one learns, how one is assessed, and how one uses that knowledge in the future.

Let us take a look at a variety of school contexts to see if we can notice how the environmental context might influence our learning.

As you watch the following, consider how the environments encourage a different way of learning, a different way of thinking about how knowledge and understanding are achieved, and a different engagement with materials than what we noticed in the three branches of government scenario.


Big Picture Learning


Innovations High School and Big Picture Learning



Learning Through Internships: Connecting Students’ Passions to the Real World



How does Big Picture Learning define personalization?



Advisory: Building Relationships for Student Success



Project-Based Learning

Project-Based Learning at High Tech High



Projects and Project-Based Learning: What’s The Difference?


Five Keys to Rigorous Project-Based Learning

Time Stamp

Notice:  “We would never put four kids together at a table and say, ‘Here’s a task, get it done during this time period.”

Notice how the teacher has given up some control, becoming more of a facilitator rather than a director or manipulator. Students take more control.

Think for a moment what would happen in each of these previous project-based video clips if we imposed a strict time regimen onto the environments.

This is not to say that we lose all sense of time. But, you will notice that the emphasis is different. Projects draw students into the educational durations, the flow of experience. Neuronal cell assemblies are given time to be nurtured.

Projects and explorations can not be formatted to fit the same rigid set of time constraints we saw in the previous video.

San Antonio Zoo School


Zoo School: Top 25 Coolest Schools



Flexible Classrooms: Providing the Learning Environment That Kids Need


Flexible Seating at Poplar Tree Elementary School



Flexible Learning Environments




How about a collaborative learning environment?

Remake Your Class Part 1: Planning for a Collaborative Learning Environment



Remake Your Class Part 2: Building a Collaborative Learning Environment



Remake Your Class Part 3: Exploring a Collaborative Learning Environment



Gever Tulley teaches life lessons through tinkering


Gever Tulley: 5 dangerous things you should let your kids do



The best kindergarten you’ve ever seen | Takaharu Tezuka

John Hardy: My green school dream