Importance of Context in Defining a Phenomena

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Context is defined in the Oxford dictionaries as the circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea in terms of which it can be fully understood and assessed. This implies that to define, understand or explain any given term, phenomena, or situation one must look at the settings under which the situation is taking place.

Context matters because, it would be the relationship created between the writer and the reader. Whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, context is a practical tool that will help you build meaning, trust, and interest for the reader (Samson, 2017).

Context is what gives meaning to the details. It is important, however, that you do not confuse context with cause. ‘Cause’ is the action that creates an outcome; ‘context’ is the environment in which that action and outcome occurs (Fleming, 2018).

Different scholars even outside the domain of comparative education have stressed the importance of context. One panel discussion in computer science described context as follows; ‘When humans talk with humans, they can use implicit situational information, or context, to increase the conversational bandwidth.

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Unfortunately, this ability to convey ideas does not transfer well to humans interacting with computers. The use of context is increasingly important in the fields of handheld and ubiquitous computing, where the user’s context is changing rapidly. Context is defined as any information that can be used to characterize the situation of an entity, where an entity can be a person, place, or physical or computational object. To further expand the discussion, context awareness is included, which is defined as the use of context to give task-relevant information and/or services to a user.

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‘ Abowd et al., (1999).

In comparative education it is important to understand what you are comparing and under what circumstances. These assumptions can give you a better understanding of your study, i.e., you are trying to understand your context. Bray, Adamson, & Mason (2007) showed the importance of context by trying to show how the goal of education can be defined from different points of views. i.e., an economist worries about degree of real abilities of human resources produced in relation to cost of acquisition, a sociologist tries to find out whether education prepares for adaptation and change, and philosopher tries to inquire from a wider perspective the general meaning and goals of education (Bray et al., 2007). These definitions tried to show how a given term can have different meanings when used in different context. What can be inferred with respect to the importance of context is that, it is difficult to fully understand how things work if the unit of study is unaided individual with no access to other people or events in carrying out the task at hand (Nardi, 1996).

One of the important things learned from this course is the importance of context. Starting from the very first class, different topics were discussed in diverse ways depending on the context. “Well the context really matters” one of the common phrases quoted by Dr. Nutsa Kobakhidze. In the field of comparative education, comparisons have been carried out at various levels, not even once was the issue of context neglected. What is wrong in one society can be a daily practice in another, and on educational policy the issue of context opposes the notion of one size fits all.

This essay will try to elaborate the importance of context by exploring different examples and will sum up the main points of the discussion at the end.

Importance of Context in Understanding the Phenomenon of Shadow Education

From a methodological perspective, qualitative research method is designed for generating an in-depth knowledge on a given topic of study. Qualitative researchers take an ideographic rather than a nomothetic approach meaning that they locate their findings in specific time periods and places (Bray et al., 2007). Research conducted in such manner does not have the aim of generalization to other places, but it is focused in the immediate context. Researches done using qualitative approaches no matter how reliable and valid the methodologies might be, it is less likely that the results will be replicated if employed with the same scale and intensity in another location. Professor Mark Bray when talking about his book ‘Researching private supplementary tutoring; methodological lessons from diverse cultures’ stressed on the issue of context as follows

‘Be careful do not just take an instrument and think just because it worked in Hong Kong it will work similarly in Iran, Malaysia or Singapore. You must test your instrument and adapt your instrument. It may miss some of the most important things in different contexts. Context is really important.’ (The FreshEd Podcast Episode #6 – Mark Bray)

Looking at the phenomenon of shadow education, there can be various explanations projected to it from different angles. A private tutoring in Hong Kong and private tutoring in Myanmar, the topic can be defined or described in some separate ways. Several factors that drive the shadow education phenomenon can vary depending on our context there by leading for broader understanding of the concept.

The reason behind the existence of shadow education varies in different areas of the world. East Asian countries, has long tradition of private tutoring which can be linked to Confucian tradition which values educational achievement and considers educational qualification as route for personal and family advancement (Kwok 2010). If we look at some South Asian countries, there is also a long history of this phenomenon but the driving forces behind it are partly social competition and the desire of teachers to earn more income, thus teachers see their students as a captive market (Nath 2008, Sujatha, and Rani 2011). Moving to the other parts of Asia, Silova (2009a) pointed out that one major reasons for the existence of shadow education in most former Soviet countries was the collapse in the purchasing power of teachers’ salaries after the 1991 demise of Soviet Union. Though from my earlier understanding I consider some market driven capitalist agenda to be present behind the practice of this phenomenon, looking at it from a different context made me understand and examine it critically.

The organizational diversity of the private tutoring is clear in the providers and curricula of shadow education (Bray and Lykins 2012). Bray and Lykins further explained this term by using examples of Cambodia and Hong Kong. Where in the former one the private tutoring is given by the academic teachers with in the school premises and for the latter provided by individuals other than the mainstream teachers, small and large tutoring companies. Bray (2009) included ‘patterns in Australia and USA, where the government encourages private tutoring for low achievers are different from those in Korea and Japan where tutoring is more likely to be received by high achievers. Again, patterns in Singapore where teachers are forbidden to provide tutoring for mainstream students for whom they are already responsible for is different from those in Mauritius where such features are the norm.’

This phenomenon can also be discussed from another context, which is the time of the year it is provided. For most cases the peak participation will be in the years where national exams are given (Bray 2009). When comparing the intensities, one should not draw a wrong conclusion depending on the raw data obtained from studies, instead a thorough analysis of the context should be carried out. For policy makers they will have to employ different techniques to address the issue. The power of context is undeniable, and one has to be aware of his/her context when addressing the different aspects of shadow education.

Importance of historical context in understanding a Phenomena

Historical context is an important part of life and literature and without it, memories, stories, and characters have less meaning. Historical context all the details of the time and place in which a situation occurs, and those details are what enable us to interpret and analyse works or events of the past, or even the future, rather than merely judge them by contemporary standards (Fleming, 2018). No work of literature can be fully understood without historical context. Fleming mentioned an example on the use of certain languages.

“A good example is Mark Twain’s ‘Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,’ published in 1885. It is considered an enduring work of American literature and a biting social satire. But it is also criticized by modern critics for its casual use of a racial epithet to describe Huck’s friend Jim, an escaped slave. Such language is shocking and offensive to many readers today, but in the context of the day, it was the commonplace language for many.” (Fleming, 2018)

Given the historical context of when the novel was written, is Huck’s treating Jim not as his inferior but as his equal—something rarely portrayed in the literature of the time (Fleming, 2018). The use of that racist language would be offensive nowadays, but it was a common language used those days.

Another term that can be described with the aid of historical context is freedom of choice in adolescent’s adult roles and other aspects of adult identity. Triandis (1989) distinguished between tight and loose societies, in terms of how much latitude for individual choice and variation they allow. Western societies evolved from tight to quite loose. This allows people much greater scope to choose and change their circumstances and adapt their identities as they wish. On the negative side, however, it has increased the pressure on the individual to create his or her own identity, a pressure that reaches a major peak in adolescence (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996). Many years ago, the people’s options were mostly decided by their gender, or family background. Which means their freedom of choices were limited. These adolescents did not have much of control over their decisions. This scenario can be better explained when the different changes and progress made through time are discussed.

Historians have provided evidence that adolescence has always been a time associated with mischief, disobedience and conflicts with authority, unruly behaviour, and the risk of sexual and aggressive misdeeds. In short, adolescent mis-behaviour is an age-old problem; adolescent identity crisis is a modern one (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996). In medieval Europe adolescents did not have much of a choice as most people were going to be farmers. But with the rise of industrialization, urbanization, the rise of trade and corporate life, increasing social and geographical mobility, and other modern developments the range of potential choices that society has to offer the individual has increased (Baumeister & Muraven, 1996). The emergence of modern education has played a role in these developments. Education now serves as an all-purpose background for a broad range of options. This reliance on education somehow frees the adolescents from the confinements of gender based or family background restrictions.

This can imply that one can pursue any profession he/she likes nowadays with the number of opportunities provided. Asking a person who graduated from college in the 1950s why he did not study computer science would be wrong. At the same time the range of choices provided for an individual were quite different. Thus, the historical context can give ample amount of information on the ways the freedom of choices and the number of choices has changed.

Importance of Context During Policy Borrowing and Implementation

If a certain educational policy works in one country it does not necessarily mean that it will be successful in another country. The cultural, socioeconomic, and other factors need to be taken in to consideration when one plans to borrow any educational policy. Context is central in policy implementation and in the broader pursuit of system transformation (Harris & Jones, 2018). For a successful policy implementation, attention need to be given to the context if the intended out comes are to be achieved. This means more contextually proper approaches to educational policy choice are needed and that borrowing approaches from other countries many bring unintended consequences and unfortunate side effects (Harris & Jones, 2018).

Large-scale international assessments, like Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), have encouraged policy-makers to look to other education systems and, in some cases, to seek ready-made policy solutions (Tucker 2011). It has been argued that PISA is now a major driver of policy choice, globally, and has encouraged the adoption of certain policies over others (Sahlberg 2015). But adopting a successful policy could prove to be problematic, as Alexander (2012, p. 4) notes, it is hardly surprising that policy-makers believe that the better performing systems ‘have something to teach us,’ but cautions that it is the translation of policies from one context into another that is highly problematic. Sometimes governments and policy makers rush to match the performance of the ‘best education systems’, it is argued that important contextual and cultural differences, which exist within and between education systems, are often ignored or conveniently side-lined (Harris and Jones 2017).

There is large quantity of evidence that shows how strong contextual and cultural influences affect policy implementation in significant ways (Zhao 2016). This implies that ignoring and side-lining the context can have a catastrophic effect. The above argument reinforces the notion that the effectiveness of any policy cannot be independent of context and culture but is rather profoundly shaped and moulded by it (Sellar and Lingard 2018).

Thus, the same strategy implemented in different contexts may result in variable outcomes and impacts (Harris & Jones, 2018). Successful educational practices of small states and nations like Singapore and Hong Kong might not be replicated in the same manners and yield the same outcomes when tried and implemented in more centralized and larger nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. This is due to the social, political, cultural, and micro-political architecture within each country significantly influences the priority given to certain activities and certain policy imperatives (Harris & Jones, 2018).


“Content is king, but context is God.”  Gary Vaynerchuk

Possession of a million dollar during the ages of barter means nothing. No matter how rich and relevant the content of a given phenomena, it would not make a sound meaning without giving much emphasis to the context. As a pioneer of the field of Shadow education, Prof. Mark Bray pointed out to understand the concept of shadow education across the world and the policy implemented in response to Shadow Education considering context is the first aspect that needs to be considered. It simply implies that the context in which policy implementation is undertaken needs greater consideration and understanding (Crossley & Jarvis, 2001). To define and describe a given concept, historical context plays a key role as the other types of contexts. The way we see and understand concepts nowadays were understood differently at a different time in history. The use of racist language, freedom of choice and many more terms and phenomena could be explained differently across time. Regarding policy implementation and borrowing, the notion of “one size fits all” can only be possible if context is avoided or side-lined. The challenge for those working within education reform and policy will be to anticipate, understand, and factor in the unique cultural and contextual dynamics that shape any education change process. When discussing the impacts of the contextual consideration up on certain practices with in a given society, Harris & Jones, (2018) quoted, “the contextual and cultural make-up of certain countries means that the same policies aimed at developing human capital may have remarkably divergent and different outcomes. In some societies the idea of social capital, which is inherently bound up with ideas of empowerment, collective decision-making, professional autonomy, and shared leadership, will not be necessarily welcomed, endorsed, or delivered.”

Context must be brought ‘out of the shadows’ in policy terms and firmly factored back into explanations of policy success or failure (Hallinger, 2018). Policy borrowing, and implementations can have the best out come if direct borrowing and replications are avoided and the variability in the contexts in which this implementation takes effect is thoroughly considered. Studies found that contextual and cultural factors affected implementation processes in powerful and often unanticipated ways (Harris & Jones, 2018). A given word can have different meaning when used in different sentences, i.e., language experts always recommend considering a contextual meaning. Similarly, any concept or phenomena will be described by looking at what is happening in its surrounding or where it is taking place. Context which is seen as relevant to the description or analysis of any phenomenon always need to be considered.

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Importance of Context in Defining a Phenomena. (2021, Oct 15). Retrieved from

Importance of Context in Defining a Phenomena
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