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REACTing to Learn

CORD advocates a constructivist approach to teaching that incorporates what we call the REACT strategy — five essential learner engagement strategies: Relating, Experiencing, Applying, Cooperating, and Transferring. In light of learning research these strategies seem “natural,” but as instructors we cannot take for granted that learners are aware of the strategies that will help them learn, retain, and apply information. We should create learning experiences that use the REACT strategies (below) and also take the time to inform learners about why we have selected instructional methods that require their active participation. Furthermore, we should not be surprised if learners need to be taught how to carefully observe and record data, for example, or how to communicate effectively as part of a group. The REACT strategies are designed to help learners build new skills and knowledge regardless of their starting point.

RELATING: Learning in the context of life experience, or relating, is the kind of contextual learning that typically occurs with very young children. As children grow older, however, providing this meaningful context for learning becomes more difficult. The curriculum that attempts to place learning in the context of life experiences must, first, call the student's attention to everyday sights, events, and conditions. It must then relate those everyday situations to new information to be absorbed or a problem to be solved.

EXPERIENCING: Experiencing—learning in the context of exploration, discovery, and invention—is the heart of contextual learning. However motivated or tuned-in students may become as a result of other instructional strategies such as video, narrative, or text-based activities, these remain relatively passive forms of learning. And learning appears to "take" far more quickly when students are able to manipulate equipment and materials and to do other forms of active research.

APPLYING: Applying concepts and information in a useful context often projects students into an imagined future (a possible career) or into an unfamiliar location (a workplace). In contextual learning courses, applications are often based on occupational activities. This happens most commonly through text, video, labs, and activities. Although, in many schools, these contextual learning experiences will be followed up with firsthand experiences such as plant tours, mentoring arrangements, and internships.

COOPERATING: Cooperating—learning in the context of sharing, responding, and communicating with other learners—is a primary instructional strategy in contextual teaching. The experience of cooperating not only helps the majority of students learn the material, it also is consistent with the real-world focus of contextual teaching. Employers espouse that employees who can communicate effectively, who share information freely, and who can work comfortably in a team setting are highly valued in the workplace. We have ample reason, therefore, to encourage students to develop these cooperative skills while they are still in the classroom.

The laboratory, one of the primary instructional methods in contextual courses, is essentially cooperative. Typically, students work with partners to do the laboratory exercises; in some cases, they work in groups of three or four. Completing the lab successfully requires delegation, observation, suggestion, and discussion. In many labs, the quality of the data collected by the team as a whole is dependent on the individual performance of each member of the team.

Students also must cooperate to complete small-group activities. Partnering can be a particularly effective strategy for encouraging students to cooperate.

TRANSFERRING: Learning in the context of existing knowledge, or transferring, uses and builds upon what the student already knows. Such an approach is similar to relating, in that it calls upon the familiar. Most traditionally taught high school students, however, rarely have the luxury of avoiding new learning situations; they are confronted with them every day. We can help them retain their sense of dignity and develop confidence if we make a point of building new learning experiences on what they already know.