JITE v36n3 - From the Editor - Contextual Learning

Volume 36, Number 3
Spring 1999

From the Editor: Contextual Learning

This issue brings us four new articles dealing with a wide range of topics. Kraska analyzes the success of military personnel with respect to completing college degrees; Friedenberg studies reasons for dropping out of school among Hispanic Americans; Kupritz looks at preferred work space for older workers; and Burr explains and evaluates a contextual learning project accomplished by adult students in a community college, a very mixed bag of topics.

It is the notion of contextual learning that I wish to discuss. Burr's article is a good example of how students can be involved in real problems and Kupritz's article has a lot to say about a kind of context which could be used for student projects at any level of education. These two articles have turned my attention to a topic that I think is important and that I believe is getting renewed attention in educational literature.

Contextual learning seems to be one of the current ways of referring to what has historically been known as reconceptualist curriculum promoted by Dewey, Kilpatrick, and other progressive educators in the early part of this century. It is somehow fitting to me that we should be ending the century with a similar theme. Essentially, the progressive educators were calling for a connection between real life and the schools by involving students in school and community based projects in order to address the goals of the curriculum. As a result of this effort to engage students in the business of life, the schools were left with some lasting legacies such as student councils, field trips, and student theatrical productions as a means of bringing to life the routine of drill and practice which can be led either by teachers, workbooks, or computers.

However, only a handful of teachers have managed to break through a contrived approach to reconceptualist curriculum and really involve students in real life problems. Some of the better examples that I have heard are: encouraging elementary school children to organize and become political in order to stop the tuna fishing companies from drift net fishing; helping senior high school students to conduct energy audits on school buildings, reporting the results and ways of saving money to the school district; and Burr's class activity of having community college students redesigning the business area of a town. These are examples of contextual learning that involve students in the community and in the life they are creating for themselves and their neighbors. There is no better way to demonstrate the responsibility we all have for our technological choices and actions.

Community based problems which address a need felt by more than the teacher or curriculum guide authors, perhaps, even felt by the students, should be a more promising way of engaging all students in learning. Using community problems goes beyond what can be identified in a textbook, or a technology education module, or in a contrived competitive event such as racing model cars, with respect to involving students in their own learning. Students are already involved in the community and the school; to combine these two, often separate entities, for the purpose of taking on and solving a problem which benefits the goals of both organizations, can improve student interest in their own education.

A nice feature to contextual learning is that it can be used at any level of schooling and at any level of experience. While students will need to have the requisite knowledge, skills, and attitudes in order to analyze and solve contextual problems, that does not mean that they need to have years of drill and practice prior to being given the opportunity to work on problems. Skilled teachers can use the teachable moments that occur during contextual learning projects in order to instruct individuals and groups about knowledge and skills which are needed in order to address the problem. What better intrinsic motivation for learning could there be? Perhaps, by using more contextual learning in schools, we would begin to increase student interest in school and to lessen the number of students dropping out of school.

Identifying contexts for learning should be an easy task. One just has to look around one's school, neighborhood, and community in order to begin to see all kinds of projects which need to be done and are wanting the human resources to do them. By the time an entire class of students is involved in identifying community needs, there should be no lack of contextual problems. Burr has provided one contextual problem and Kupritz presents us with another problem, work space design, which can engage the interest of all levels of industrial education students. The possibilities for good contextual learning are only limited by our own lack of insight and ability to seek to improve ourselves and our surroundings.


Tracy Gilmore