Context Matters……for Dogs and Humans

Context Matters… for Dogs and Humans.

Place provides the context for dogs. History provides the context for humans.

“What should I do next?” asked the man with the Labrador dog.

“Well, I think you might train that behaviour now in some new locations” I answered.

“Oh, I never thought about that. Great idea!” the man smiled in delight that he had a new technique to work with now.

Afterwards, I thought about that.

Of course, it is not a new technique at all. It is (I think) a part of what anyone who is involved in training does. A core principle if you like. If we want the dog’s behaviour to be reliable then we train him in different locations. We vary the context. We change the place where the dog is accustomed to being worked. And if we increase the distraction level by moving the dog into a new Context, we compensate for this by reducing our demands on the animal. We don’t ask as much initially from the animal in the new context.  Because learning in the context of Place is important for an animal.


And then I remembered that not everyone knows this. Including myself when I started out in training dogs a long time ago.

My first competition dog was a large German Shepherd Dog and, because I knew no better, I determinedly “trained” him every day in the same way and in the same place. Then when we went to compete at a dog show it all fell apart.

We live and learn. I know better now. And so do most of my friends who still compete. I think.

Understanding the “Context Factor” is vital. If we train dogs then we learn – eventually – the need to introduce the trainee dog to varied contexts …the local park, the football pitch, the shopping centre, the car park and so on.

If we teach other humans then the context factor is equally important for understanding. For humans, the important context factor is History.

In recent years, a Minister for Education in the current Government of Ireland, Minister Ruairi Quinn, proposed that History as a subject should no longer be effectively compulsory for the Junior Certificate, the state examination taken by Irish teenagers around the age of roughly 15 years.

I believe this to be a great mistake for our country.

No History, no Context.

Teenagers arrive at Leaving Certificate level three years later and they are expected to study things like English literature. What in English? What are they to study? How can they understand their reading if they have no understanding of the contexts of what they are reading?

And so, we have bright, intelligent, eighteen year olds who declare, for instance, that the poetry of Yeats is “not relevant” to them in their modern lives in new millennium Ireland. After all, he wrote all his unintelligible poetry a hundred years ago. Some teachers advise their classes to avoid the poet  Yeats altogether as he is “too difficult”.

And so there is no examination of where that “Terrible Beauty” arose from. No hope of students spotting any corelation with modern day aspiring revolutionaries. No possibility of linking The Arab Spring and its like to our own history and culture. And no hope of seeing what such movements could possibly lead a people into.

What drove the Omagh bombers? Same spirit that drove recent men in Paris maybe?  Has Yeats’ “Rough Beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born” at last found its embodiment in ISIS?  Modern contexts for a poet that wrote his “stuff” a hundred years ago? Surely not.

Context is hugely important for understanding. It is important for an animal to experience varied contexts if we wish to make its learned behaviours reliable in all situations.

Context matters.

We humans learn from contexts too. If we wish to truly “understand” something then we need to examine it in its context. Native Americans knew this truth when they encouraged us not to judge another until we had “walked in his moccassins”.

Take the study of English poetry, for instance, Some students seem to imagine that a “Poet” gets up in the morning , stretches and decides,

“Today I’m going to write a poem about… Fish. Or Clouds, maybe”.

If the student wishes to appreciate the poem he’d better learn where it came out of.  A knowledge of historical background is a basic essential.

For example, why was John Montague (a poet on the 2015 higher level English Leaving Certificate course) sent from America back to Ireland at the age of four? This happening in 1933 colours much of his poetry. It affected his relationship with his parents, for a start. Was he just abandoned? Was he not loved by them? Rejected? Was the truth of the matter really that his mother, as Montague claims in one of those Leaving Cert poems, had “wanted a girl”?

Young people study Montague’s poems. Some of them learn a bit about Montague’s biography. But many of them have no awareness of the Great Depression. Never heard of the Wall Street Crash, let alone know the date of it. Can’t appreciate the poverty, the fears, the pressures. Don’t know that Montague, despite his pity me poems, had two older brothers who were also despatched to be reared by relatives in the homeland. Maybe because of the dire circumstances their parents were in back in America. Bright kids trying to engage with the poetry of a man like Montague without any reference to his poetry’s context. It’s unfair.

Speaking of the Wall St. Crash? What about our own “Most Destructive Own Goal in History that sunk an Entire Nation”?  ( Prof. William Black at Irish Banking Enquiry February 2015). Is our financial circumstance today in any way similar to America in 1929? Can we perhaps look forward to our own Great Depression? Connections anyone?


Or perhaps History does indeed “teach us nothing …except that History teaches us nothing”. 

In our country the study of History is increasingly being seen as an irrelevance. After all, why would we need to know about stuff that happened in the past? What’s that got to do with getting a job at Google?

And so, in my local, large, all girls secondary school where more than a hundred youngsters will be sitting their Leaving Certificate next June guess how many of them will sit the History paper?

None of them.

Not one.

Next year, our Government will spend a great deal of time and energy and lots of millions in trumpeting the Anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.

I suspect there will be a lot more than the one hundred young ladies who live in my locality for whom it will all be a complete waste of energy.

No Context you see

About consistentclarity

I have been involved in education all my working life. I am trained as a teacher and have taught both children and adults. I am fascinated by how people and animals learn and all that they have in common. Music and literature have been central in my life.
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