In our book, Social Studies as New Literacies in a Global Society, we introduced two metaphors – excavation and elevation – that we thought were useful for using inquiry in classrooms. When working with information sources or texts of any kind, excavation includes getting students to “dig in” to do careful analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of source content while elevation points to the need for students to consider the broader contexts of the source’s production, dissemination, and consumption.
Elevation helps us see things in relationship to their contexts. As we noted in our earlier post, the contexts of living in the 21st century require that we learn to manage increasing complexity, including complex information sources. We need to be able to understand the circumstances, settings, and conditions that give rise to any particular event, issue, idea, or information source. In terms of education, we need to fully consider what new political, social, economic, and cultural contexts require of us as citizens, workers, teachers, and learners. An elevated view can help us see and better understand the relationships between education and these contexts.
Understanding context, then, is an important aspect of elevation. The Latin root contextus means to join or weave together and it is this connecting of something to the conditions or circumstances that gave rise to it, formed it, or influenced it in certain ways that is important to fully understand whatever it is we are trying to understand. For example, to understand this single photograph of a 22-year old mother and her son living in transitional housing from the New York Times’ The Year in Pictures, requires us to know what was happening “outside” of the photo’s frame by knowing the context in which it was taken – who took it and for what purposes, who the intended audience was, and why it was included in the New York Times’ year in pictures. Connecting or joining together this photograph with why it was taken, how it was used, how and why the subjects in the photo were portrayed in this way are all important to understanding the photograph as a source of information.
Elevation also helps us consider the broader contexts necessary to understand this photograph as an information source. It is important to know something about the economic, social, and political contexts that have resulted in 1.6 million homeless children in the United States. For example, The National Center on Family Homelessness notes that child homelessness increased by 38% during the recession from 2007 to 2010 and that state and national governments have lacked the political will to develop policies that might support these vulnerable children. It requires knowing something about the causes, conditions, and effects of homelessness on young people to fully comprehend this source.
There are other examples that help us consider the role of an elevated view to understand sources of information. In David Byrne’s new book, How Music Works, his insight about creativity is that “context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed.” He goes on to say, “Genius – the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work – seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its contexts. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.” This notion of creativity, as well as its reception, as contextually-driven highlights the importance of an elevated view to understand the range of sources we encounter.
Of course, historians have always sought to contextualize people, events, issues, and sources in particular time periods and social, economic, political, and geographic contexts. Journalists as well try to provide background that helps readers understand what they are reporting. A. O. Scott and Manohla Dargis in their New York Times article “Movies in the Obama Age” provide an excellent example of elevation. Their review highlights the connections between popular movies and the political climate in the United States during the Obama presidency. Their thematic guide notes an emphasis on portrayals of leadership and community organizing (e.g., Lincoln, Toy Story 3, The Avengers), the recession (e.g., Arbitrage, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Inside Job, Les Miserables), and even the fear of apocalypse and real-world disaster (e.g., The Book of Eli, Contagion, Cloud Atlas).
This weaving together of movies as information sources with broader political, economic, and social contexts is the kind of elevated view that helps us understand these sources individually as well as together in the ways they might be understood historically. To help young people make sense of the world around them, we need to help them see relationships between what they are studying and other texts, events, issues, people, and contexts that can give them a more complete view. It is an education of relationship and connection to deepen and broaden understanding.
This is difficult work for students, but as educators we can help them learn to make connections. Facing History and Ourselves offers an excellent strategy for helping students make connections between a particular text or source of information they are working with and themselves, other texts, and the world. This “text to self; text to text; text to world” strategy provides a range of prompts that can help students make connection and more meaningfully build knowledge by weaving together what they already know with other information and the world.