Monthly Archives: May 2012

FAQ: What is “Contextualized Instruction”?


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It seems like contextualized instruction is getting a lot of attention lately, especially when the topic is basic skills instruction that helps adults along “career pathways”. Let’s take a closer look at this idea.

Q: So, what *is* Contextualized Instruction? And what would it look like in an Adult Education class?

A: In adult education, the term “Contextualized Instruction” describes a set of teaching, learning and assessment practices that:

  1.  are aimed directly at developing the skills and knowledge that adults need to deal with specific situations or perform specific tasks, and
  2. that they have identified as important and meaningful to themselves “right now” in their everyday lives.

In addition, rather than focus only on the possession of basic skills and knowledge, contextualized instruction focuses on the active application of those skills and that knowledge “in a context”. (And this context should be as “real-world” as is feasible.)
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Q: OK, this sounds familiar – is Contextualized Instruction a new idea?

A: No, in fact, it is not a new idea.

Early in the 1990’s, a report from the Secretary’s Commission on Acquiring Necessary Skills (SCANS)1 stated that acquiring job-related content and basic academic skills is not enough to prepare adults and youth to be effective on the job. Just as important, it said, are interpersonal, decision-making, and planning skills along with the knowledge of when and how to apply these skills within the context of the workplace. This same report indicated that teaching these skills would require instructional approaches that focus on cooperative learning, apprenticeship models, and teamwork.

The 1990’s also produced some sound research about the importance of teaching basic skills “in context”. This cognitive research (about how people learn and develop expertise) showed that knowledge learned only at the level of rote memorization rarely transfers from one context to another.2 With the way that most people’s brains work, it just isn’t effective to first teach skills and knowledge separated from their context, and then hope that learners will end up knowing how to transfer what they have learned to life outside the classroom. Instead, learning will transfer more effectively when learners:

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