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.)
Idea - lightbulbs old and new

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:

  1. … understand not only the facts but also the “big picture”—the underlying principles, patterns, and relationships…
  2. AND have procedural knowledge, such as an awareness of when and how to apply what has been learned.

Learners can only acquire this kind of understanding through the application of their knowledge in practice. It is this potential for “application in practice “ that makes contextualized instruction so effective; plus, a lot of important incidental learning can  take place when learners are encouraged to develop knowledge and skills within a social context.

EFF LogoQ: So what would this look like in my classroom? How would I do this while still using a standards-based approach, like EFF? 

A: For us, the answer to this is in found two parts – the EFF standards themselves, and the EFF approach to teaching and learning.

The Equipped for the Future Standards  are drawn from what 1,500 adult learners (nationwide) identified as important and meaningful things “adults need to know and be able to do” in their every day lives.  Through an intensive four year process, and in consultation with a wide range of stakeholders, EFF developed the 16 EFF Content Standards that define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers. [More about these three roles.]  The EFF standards themselves thus have a solid ‘contextualized’ foundation for adult education.3

In addition, the EFF approach to standards-based teaching and learning has always considered contextualized instruction to be a key component of quality instructionEFF encourages teachers to start their instructional planning with real-life contexts by asking their learners to think about what they need to know and be able to do within and across their key life roles, such as within the family, at work, and in the community. This way, teachers and learners together can select a learning task to work on and identify the knowledge and skills needed to successfully complete that task.

While they are engaged in instruction, learners can reflect on and monitor the cognitive and metacognitive skills they are using. Once the activity is completed, learners can be asked to think about what they have actually learned, and how what they have learned might transfer to other roles they play in life. For example, let’s say the learning activity focused on writing short, formal emails to a supervisor at work. Learners might be asked to brainstorm how what they have learned about this kind of writing could apply to sending notes to a child’s teacher or to some volunteer work they do in the community.  For a more in-depth example of an EFF contextualized (reading) lesson, visit the EFF Teaching/Learning Toolkit Example: Reading About Discipline.

Q: Wait, the students decide what I teach? That’s very different from how I thought standards-based teaching works!

A: While contextualized instruction that looks like this may not be “new,” it can require teachers to make a fundamental shift in their understanding of what it means to plan curricula and instruction.

Instead of mapping out all the knowledge and skills to be taught and making a lesson plan before discovering learners’ immediate needs, teachers begin with situations or tasks that learners say they need to address immediately in their daily lives, and then “back into” the knowledge, skills, and strategies required to perform those tasks.  And to promote transfer of the knowledge, skills and strategies, the process of curriculum development needs to shift as well. Instead of focusing on one skill in one discrete activity and then “moving on”, instruction in the same skills needs to be “cycled and recycled” across a series of real-life tasks.

Teacher planning for contextualized instruction, then, requires time, thought, flexibility and creativity. But we know that the research supports the value of the investment because contextualized instruction leads to better learning. And we have heard lots of EFF teacher experiences to affirm that the results are worth the time and effort that these teachers have taken to create learning experiences firmly embedded in the real lives and needs of their students.

If you have experiences you are willing to share with your peers about contextualized instruction – please let us know via e-mail or by commenting on this post.  We’d love to hear your views!

For more information about this FAQ topic, you may want to read: EFF Research Principle: A Contextualized Approach to Curriculum and Instruction by Marilyn K. Gillespie, EFF RESEARCH TO PRACTICE NOTE 3 (October 2002).

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Duren Thompson, EFFTIPS Technical Editor, Center for Literacy Studies

1Executive Summary – What Work  Requires of Schools: A SCANS Report for America 2000, The Secretary’s  Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, U.S. Department of Labor, June 1991.  http://wdr.doleta.gov/SCANS/whatwork/whatwork.pdf
Note: A concise summary of the full document can be found here: http://www.academicinnovations.com/report.html

2Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (Eds.), (1999). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309070368

3To learn more about how the EFF Framework and Standards were developed, try the Equipped for the Future Research Report Building the Framework, 1993 – 1997, by Juliet Merrifield, published by the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL) in March 2000.  You may want to start on page 13.

Posted on May 29, 2012, in FAQS, Quality Practices and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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