What Is Contextual Learning?
What is the best way to convey the many concepts that are taught in a particular course so that all students can use and retain that information? How can the individual lessons be understood as interconnected pieces that build upon each other? How can a teacher communicate effectively with students who wonder about the reason for, the meaning of, and the relevance of what they study? How can we open the minds of a diverse student population so they can learn concepts and techniques that will open doors of opportunity for them throughout their lives? These are the challenges teachers face every day, the challenges that a curriculum and an instructional approach based on contextual learning can help them face successfully.
The majority of students in our schools are unable to make connections between what they are learning and how that knowledge will be used. This is because the way they process information and their motivation for learning are not touched by the traditional methods of classroom teaching. The students have a difficult time understanding academic concepts (such as math concepts) as they are commonly taught (that is, using an abstract, lecture method), but they desperately need to understand the concepts as they relate to the workplace and to the larger society in which they will live and work. Traditionally, students have been expected to make these connections on their own, outside the classroom.
However, growing numbers of teachers today (especially those frustrated by repeated lack of student success in demonstrating basic proficiency on standard tests) are discovering that most students' interest and achievement in math, science, and language improve dramatically when they are helped to make connections between new information (knowledge) and experiences they have had, or with other knowledge they have already mastered. Students' involvement in their schoolwork increases significantly when they are taught why they are learning the concepts and how those concepts can be used outside the classroom. And most students learn much more efficiently when they are allowed to work cooperatively with other students in groups or teams.
Contextualized learning is a proven concept that incorporates much of the most recent research in cognitive science. It is also a reaction to the essentially behaviorist theories that have dominated American education for many decades. The contextual approach recognizes that learning is a complex and multifaceted process that goes far beyond drill-oriented, stimulus-and-response methodologies.
According to contextual learning theory, learning occurs only when students (learners) process new information or knowledge in such a way that it makes sense to them in their own frames of reference (their own inner worlds of memory, experience, and response). This approach to learning and teaching assumes that the mind naturally seeks meaning in context, that is, in relation to the person's current environment, and that it does so by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful.
Building upon this understanding, contextual learning theory focuses on the multiple aspects of any learning environment, whether a classroom, a laboratory, a computer lab, a worksite, or a wheat field. It encourages educators to choose and/or design learning environments that incorporate as many different forms of experience as possible (social, cultural, physical, and psychological) in working toward the desired learning outcomes.
In such an environment, students discover meaningful relationships between abstract ideas and practical applications in the context of the real world; concepts are internalized through the process of discovering, reinforcing, and relating. For example, a physics class studying thermal conductivity might measure how the quality and amount of building insulation material affect the amount of energy required to keep the building heated or cooled. Or a biology or chemistry class might learn basic scientific concepts by studying the spread of AIDS or the ways in which farmers suffer from and contribute to environmental degradation.