Full On Contextual Learning

Learning is personal. Making learning relevant to learners involves sharing a rationale and purpose that learners understand. When we know why we are doing something, we can value it, connect it to other aspects of our lives and engage with it on a personal level. When we practice a skill, we need to know how it fits into the bigger picture of our lives, when we might need to use it and how it will help us. More valuable than that is the ability of contextual learning to connect with a wider social context.


Learning opportunities must make these links explicit and clear. They must be designed around and for individual learners whilst still referencing the bigger picture of subject/ knowledge expertise.

Here’s an example of the type of contextual learning that I’m currently writing about…

I often use the archaeological method as a questioning technique. It draws out deep thinking and enhances individual enquiry skills when learners are presented with an object or a ‘curiosity’. My own inspiration for using this method as an approach to questioning came from learning about a powerful contextual learning project conducted with a group of teenage mums who were being supported to re-engage with their education. 


The students were asked to bring in objects of their own choosing to their lesson and be prepared to explain why they had chosen their particular object. In the lesson, the teacher skillfully established a safe community of enquiry, using creative check-in questions and spending time with the group to consider what a ‘quality enquiry’ would look, sound and feel like.  Following this, the students dutifully placed their personally selected objects on the table.


One by one, each member of the group explained what their object was and why it was meaningful to them. The safe learning that had been established in the room allowed this to be a deeply revelatory session which in turn served to strengthen the learning community. After the individual revelations, the students were asked to come up with some questions for each others’  objects. They wrote on post-it notes and placed their questions next to each of the objects. The students then went back to their own object to consider the questions that had been posed. This became the first piece of research for their personal enquiry projects. From this point in, the students were given a timeframe of one week to design their enquiry projects and develop the project brief for themselves that they would work to over the following few lessons.


From one personal object, through a safe collaborative social learning activity and into a self-designed enquiry project, the students produced remarkable and, without exception, very personal and moving research projects by the end of the agreed timeline. 

From the personal to the social and back to the personal. This is how I am trying to define contextual learning. I’m not sure if I’m there with it yet, but it is definitely taking shape. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts, comments or links that might help to develop this concept.


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