Context matters as much as curriculum in the classroom

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In education, we like to say there’s a formal and informal curriculum. For example, open up any science textbook and you’ll likely find a handful of white, male scientists represented. The formal curriculum might be a lesson on photosynthesis or the human body; the informal lesson is scientists are white and male.

As we enter a new school year, we should consider how to intentionally expand our lessons to reflect and connect with the individuals sitting in our classrooms — a broad array of individuals from our society. How can we teach for a pursuit of shared humanity?


In an effort to elevate test scores, we’ve largely developed a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching focused on skills devoid of a consideration of context. But a curriculum can’t be created, taught or evaluated in a vacuum. It must be situated within a set of social contexts. In other words, we can’t and shouldn’t talk about curricula outside of relevant context as it would do our youth a disservice.

Students stem from all different social, racial and economic backgrounds. While subject matter and theoretical knowledge are important, an acknowledgement of a student’s culture is what will ultimately have a lasting impact on the child.


A story circulated last year about a social studies teacher in Georgia who taught lessons through popular rap songs. The teacher, who is black like most of his students, took a complex subject like U.S. government and connected it to his students’ experiences, showing he understands them, their interests and their motivations. His former students said they retained the knowledge — an ultimate aim of schooling, right?

This example probably feels organic in that it stems from a teacher of color working in a predominantly black school. But such a scenario is fairly uncommon.

Baltimore schools has a laudable initiative underway to recruit and retain more black teachers, but simply sharing the same lived experiences as their students might not be enough to contextually connect with them. We should be asking how all educators can bridge the gap and begin to inspire change in our nation’s school system.

A context-focused approach to teaching is at the heart of Loyola’s Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice program. It encourages teachers to think creatively and critically about education’s past and present inequities and its current place in society, and it provides visionary possibilities in our mediated globalized society.

We teach our educators that in order to produce schools that challenge the status quo, we need to start by acknowledging the long, deep history of inequality and marginalization in education as a system. While we’ve come a long way, there are still regular manifestations of this in today’s schools. For example, why not have students engage in a conversation to understand why over 60 Baltimore City public schools had to close early on the first day of school because of the Code Red heat day, yet their peers in Howard County did not?

Educators need a deep understanding of the challenges and hardships students face outside the classroom. That way they can consider a context before they dive into lesson plans. These challenges can be anything from deportation and food insecurity, to trauma, anxiety and violence.

In Baltimore, 43 percent of students surveyed in 2016 said they witnessed physical violence at least once a week, and 39 percent knew someone who had been killed before they reached their 20th birthday. For educators entering all of our nation’s schools, especially in cities, there needs to be a focus on how to implement trauma-informed teaching practices, focusing on the whole child.

Teaching with context in mind means stripping away educators’ preconceived notions about what it means to be a teacher who simply raises test scores. It means engaging in honest and critical conversations with students about current issues such as race, immigration and gun control. The goal is not to persuade students of a certain viewpoint, but to empower them to form their own opinions and to arm them with the tools needed to process complex dynamics and spark positive change.


It’s time we reevaluate what lessons we deliver and how we deliver them. It’s important that educators immerse themselves in the issues and interests of their students. By ignoring social context, we take the focus away from our nation’s students. The act of teaching instead becomes transactional rather than transformational. We challenge educators to be courageous and teach from a spirit of love.

Stephanie Flores-Koulish is director of the Curriculum and Instruction for Social Justice Program at the Loyola University Maryland School of Education. She can be reached at