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What is Contextual Teaching?

K.C. Bruning
K.C. Bruning

Contextual teaching is a method by which students are given a hands-on opportunity to learn how concepts introduced in class apply to the outside world. It is a way for teachers to increase student engagement with, and retention and understanding of, the curriculum in addition to teaching skills in such a way that they are easily transferable to a professional environment. This theory affects the teacher's choice of presentation style, environment, and assessment.

The method of contextual teaching is based on six major principles. One of the most important is that students pursue problem-based learning, so that the concepts taught can be applied practically, rather than presented as abstract ideas. The method includes both self-regulated study and work in groups, so that students can learn to become both self-reliant and team players. Students are taught concepts in the most authentic setting available so that skills can be applied to the complexities of the real world. The method also takes into consideration the ethnic background and histories of the students in order to enrich and broaden the learning process.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Problem-based learning with the contextual teaching method can be approached with a real issue or one simulated in the classroom. The problem can be the overarching issue for an entire curriculum, or a smaller issue that must be addressed over the course of an assignment. Picking an issue in the community, particularly one that has meaning to the students, can help to foster students' understanding of the methods used to solve the problem. It can also encourage the students to become more engaged in the problem-solving process.

Contextual teaching requires students to work both alone and in groups. When the students are engaged in self-regulated learning, they acquire the skills necessary to make individual decisions without the influence of others. It is also important for students to work in groups — both with each other and in the community — in order to learn how to absorb new concepts, present personal ideas, and accommodate the contrasting views of others.

By presenting problems in multiple contexts and assessing them in ways that approximate real-world responses to problem-solving, contextual teaching gives students a taste of the variety of situations and responses to expect in their work. Students learn to be adaptable and flexible when they solve similar problems in a variety of situations and settings. When the results of their work are evaluated with professional standards, they acquire a deeper understanding of what skills will be required to succeed in their profession.

Accommodating and embracing the diversity of the students is another way the contextual method increases student engagement and real world understanding of the curriculum. By applying concepts to their own experiences and world views, students can envision and anticipate their own needs and responses in the workplace. They can also acquire an understanding and appreciation of other cultures and learn to incorporate those differences into their professional mindset.

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