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By Gregor Trpin

Only a few years back, we placed a great deal of importance on the memorization of facts, figures, algorithms and content. Regardless of training and credential courses, many of us taught the way we were taught.

Gregor Trpin

And then we swung the pendulum full tilt in the opposite direction and veered sharply toward the Common Core road of examining relationships, interactions and connections. This shift, often misinterpreted as devoid of foundation and structure for many, threw our community for a learning loop. The backlash of frustration from students, teachers and parents flooded administrators’ inboxes.

Now, it is time to merge our divided ideologies and allow for the balance of content and context to fully converge, so we can provide the most effective strategic learning for our students and optimize performance.

We know that academic content is the underpinning for learning. Yet without context, the circumstances, the time, the place and the story behind it all — we’re disconnected. Content and context go hand in hand like a class of kindergartners off to the library.

However, which approach should frontload the other? Should the engaging contextual approach lead to learning content, or the grounding of content be the conduit to further explore the context of a topic?

How do teachers approach this conundrum? The answer: like an actor preparing for a performance. Hear me out.

In rehearsal and before playing a character, an actor explores many options. One is to dive into the script with complete energy and investment, listening intuitively for sparks of ideas and curiosities to provide insight into how to play the role. The words inspire the action. In reflection afterward the actor makes note of successful discoveries. In this case, the content stimulates ideas and expands the context.

Another option is to read, research and learn the substance and history behind the setting, relationships and life of the character. The actor uses this knowledge as a basis to inform choices on actions with respect to the script, and to pursue their character’s objective. In other words, the content of background knowledge supports the presentational choices the actor makes.

“Should the engaging contextual approach lead to learning content, or the grounding of content be the conduit to further explore the context of a topic?”

Finally, many actors choose to memorize their lines completely before investigating their performance choices. The comfort and knowledge of the words in the script allows an actor to feel liberated from the inevitable task of memorization, and opens opportunities for the artist to explore strong acting choices.

All the methods are a pursuit in artistry, and neither technique negates the others. In fact, all are illuminating and insightful. One technique may work better for one actor than another, but this doesn’t discredit the technique. It’s a personal and professional call by the artist in their process.

Similarly, the classroom calls on the teacher to utilize the process of an artist. A teacher must discern, make choices, trust instincts, and navigate the landscape of students to determine which instructional choice will support engagement and learning optimally. The teacher’s professionalism and knowledge of their students and instructional craft dictate the road that will be traveled.

If students gravitate to engaged contextual precursors to provide momentum to learning a skill, then execute accordingly. If a class thrives on the impetus of a foundational academic base to provide security and groundwork for new knowledge, also execute accordingly.

Regardless of the order of these two pathways, this instructional truth remains clear: One cannot exist without the other if effective and engaging learning is the objective. Knowing the story behind a fact makes it so much more interesting. And academic language, framework and formulas are essential to ground a topic of learning. As an artist evaluates nuanced choices for audience engagement, so too does a teacher thoughtfully assess the implementation of lesson design for a stellar instructional performance.

Gregor Trpin, Manhattan Beach Unified Teachers Association, is a middle school humanities and social studies teacher.