Contextual Learning in Adult Education
Practice Application Brief 12
by Susan Imel
This project has been funded at least in part with Federal funds from the U.S. Department of Education under Contract No. ED-99-CO-0013. The content of this publication does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Education nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government. ERIC/ACVE publications may be freely reproduced.
"Educators of adults have long recognized that relating instructional content to the specific contexts of learnersí lives and interests increases motivation to learn" (Dirkx and Prenger 1997, p. 2). By integrating academic content with situations or issues that are meaningful to students, instructors can help adults acquire skills more rapidly than through approaches that focus only on subjects (ibid.). This type of learning, frequently called contextual learning, incorporates recent research in cognitive science and recognizes that learning is a complex process that involves much more than behaviorist approaches emphasizing drill and practice ("What Is Contextual Learning" 2000). The idea of embedding instruction in contexts that are familiar to adult learners has been embraced by adult educators. Recent research (e.g., Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999; Sandlin 2000), however, has suggested that adult educators may need to take a more critical approach to using contextual learning. This Brief examines the use of contextual learning in adult education. Following an overview of contextual learning, it reviews some recent research and writing on contextual learning in adult education and concludes with some recommendations for practice.
Contextual Learning: What Is It?
Contextual learning is rooted in a constructivist approach to teaching and learning (Brown 1998; Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999). According to constructivist learning theory, individuals learn by constructing meaning through interacting with and interpreting their environments (Brown 1998). The meaning of what individuals learn is coupled with their life experiences and contexts; it is constructed by the learners, not by the teachers; and learning is anchored in the context of real-life situations and problems (ibid.; Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999). Constructivism challenges the technical-rational approach to education by redefining the relationship between the knower and what is known, including what is most worth knowing and who decides (Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999).
Current perspectives on what it means for learning to be contextualized include the following (Borko and Putnam 1998; Putnam and Borko 2000):
Drawing on its roots in constructivist learning theory as well as theories of cognition and learning, contextual learning has the following characteristics (Clifford and Wilson 2000):
Adult Education Perspectives on Contextual Learning
Because constructivist learning theory maintains that learning is a process of constructing meaning from experience, it is congruent with much of adult learning including self-direction, transformative learning, and situated cognition (Merriam and Caffarella 1999). It also connects directly to beliefs about the central role of experience in adult learning in which experience is viewed "as both a resource and a stimulus for learning" (ibid., p. 263). Contextualizing learning by providing instruction directly related to the life experiences or functional contexts of adult learners (Sandlin 2000) grows out of this constructivist approach to learning.
Although contextual approaches can be found throughout adult learning settings, they have been particularly popular in adult literacy, welfare-to-work, workplace education, and family literacy programs. In these settings, learner contexts are used to integrate academic content with the life experiences of learners (Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999). Two recent studies (Dirkx, Amey, and Haston 1999; Sandlin 2000) suggest that adult educators need to take a more critical approach to this use of contextual learning.
Sandlin (2000) studied consumer education materials used in adult literacy classrooms and Dirkx, Amey, and Haston (1999) interviewed "underprepared adults" enrolled in developmental education at a large, Midwestern community college. Both studies found that the practice of contextual learning tended to reflect technical-rational interpretations of knowledge and that the contexts selected reflected teachersí, policymakersí, or curriculum developersí ideas of how the knowledge would be used and applied within that context. In Sandlinís study, for example, most of the topics covered were technical skills, a focus that "reveals that the texts view literacy as a skill or task and thus take a particular political stance toward the creation of knowledge and the position of the learner-mainly that knowledge creation lies outside of the learner and that learners must passively react to rather than change social situations" (p. 294).
Dirkx, Amey, and Hastonís (1999) interviews led them to similar conclusions about how contexualized learning was employed. Students reported that teachers used contexts to illustrate how academic concepts could be applied but "the emphasisBremains not on learners constructing their own meaning but on developing accurate representations of the meaning intended through the text" (p. 100).
Sandlinís (2000) examination of the consumer education texts used in adult literacy classes revealed two additional problems with contextual learning. First, the texts displayed a deficit perspective toward the students. The lessons assumed the students had little or no experience with the skills being taught and that, without proper guidance, they would continue ineffective consumer behavior. Second, the lessons in the texts ignored the realities of the larger social, political, and economic systems that formed the contexts of the lives of the learners and perpetuated myths such as "consuming is natural and good" (p. 300), everyone has fair and equal access to financial services, and financial institutions are benevolent.
The studies cited suggest that, when using contextual learning, adult educators need to examine how it is being implemented and whose aims are being served. Although the students involved in the studies represent only one segment of adult learners, similar situations may arise across the spectrum of adult education programs when using contextual learning.
Contextual Learning in Practice
When using contextual learning in adult education, consider the following recommendations for practice:
Contextual learning is an approach that incorporates many of the beliefs about how adults learn. Like any other approach to learning, however, it should be examined critically for its appropriateness and effectiveness in the particular learning situation.
Borko, H., and Putnam, R. T. "The Role of Context in Teacher Learning and Teacher Education." In Contextual Teaching and Learning: Preparing Teachers to Enhance Student Success in and Beyond School. Information Series No. 376. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education for Training and Employment, College of Education, The Ohio State University, and Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Teaching and Teacher Education, American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, 1998. (ED 429 263)
Brown, B. L. Applying Constructivism in Vocational and Career Education. Information Series No. 378. Columbus: ERIC Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, Center on Education and Training for Employment, College of Education, The Ohio State University, 1998. (ED 428 298) http://cete.org/acve/majorpubs.asp
Clifford, M., and Wilson, M. "Contextual Teaching, Professional Learning, and Student Experiences: Lessons Learned from Implementation." Educational Brief no. 2. Madison: Center on Education and Work, University of Wisconsin-Madison, December 2000.
Dirkx, J. M.; Amey, M.; and Haston, L. "Context in the Contextualized Curriculum: Adult Life Worlds as Unitary or Multiplistic?" In Proceedings of the 18th Annual Midwest Research to Practice Conference in Adult, Continuing, and Community Education, edited by A. Austin, G. E. Nynes, and R. T. Miller, pp. 79-84. St. Louis: University of Missouri at St. Louis, 1999. (ED 447 269)
Dirkx, J. M., and Prenger, S. M. A Guide for Planning and Implementing Instruction for Adults: A Theme-Based Approach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
Merriam, S. B., and Caffarella, R. S. Learning in Adulthood: A Comprehensive Guide. 2d ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Putnam, R. T., and Borko, H. "What Do New Views of Knowledge and Thinking Have to Say about Research on Teacher Learning?" Educational Researcher 29, no. 1 (January-February 2000): 4-15.
Sandlin, J. A. "The Politics of Consumer Education Materials Used in Adult Literacy Classrooms." Adult Education Quarterly 50, no. 4 (August 2000): 289-307.
"What Is Contextual Learning?" Waco, TX: Center for Occupational Research and Development, 2000. http://www.cord.org/Lev2.cfm/56