Contextual Teaching and Learning
Reese, Susan, Techniques
This is the second installment of our series on Richard Lynch's New Directions for High School Career and Technical Education in the 21St Century.
The research on different ways of learning explored in this issue of Techniques was also used by Richard Lynch in his yearlong assignment to the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. That assignment resulted in his paper, New Directions for High School Career and Technical Education in the 21 st Century.
According to Lynch, 20 years of research on student learning, motivation and achievement confirm the importance of contextual teaching and learning, so that students will understand the meaning of their experiences and thus the meaning of their educations. Much of this research also validates the applied, student-engaged, hands-on instructional approaches that have historically been used by career and technical educators.
Defining the Context
Contextual teaching is defined by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education (Howey, 1998) as teaching that enables learning in which students employ their academic understandings and abilities in a variety of in- and outof-school contexts to solve simulated or real-world problems, both alone and with others. Using contextual teaching strategies, teachers help students make connections with their roles and responsibilities as family members, citizens, students and workers. Contextual learning is characterized as problem based, self-regulated, occurring in a variety of contexts, including the community and work sites, involving teams of learning groups, and responsive to a host of diverse learners' needs and interests.
Lynch says that this definition of contextual teaching and learning describes the existing practices of many effective teachers, but he also cautions, "far too many teachers continue to use very traditional, talk-and-chalk methods." In fact, the new knowledge about intelligence, brain development, cognition and learning-and the ways in which this relates to student motivation and achievement-pose serious challenges to the way the vast majority of students are still being taught.
Contemporary research studied by Lynch puts student cognition and learning into a relatively new theory of contextual teaching and learning. This new theory says that cognition today is:
* situated in certain physical and social contexts (how a person learns a particular set of knowledge and skills, and the situation in which he or she learns them, are a fundamental part of what is learned and how that person will transfer the knowledge);
* social, in that interactions with other people are major determinants of what is learned and how that learning takes place; and
* distributed over the individual, other people, and symbolic and physical environments.
Seeing the Relevance
As we learn more about how students think and learn, we also need an ongoing study of ways to motivate them to continue to learn, because lifelong learning will be even more important in a continually evolving technological society. To keep students learning, we must draw from their interests and personal experiences and demonstrate the connections between what they need to learn and how that learning will be used in the real world.
Lynch finds that, to most high school students, the traditional teaching methods involving lecturing, lecturing with overhead or chalkboard, and working or reading at one's desk are boring. As a result, these disengaged students not only do not learn well, but they also have difficulty retaining, and subsequently applying, what they learned in both the short and long term. …