Contextual Education

3. Contextual Education
That we are all connected to each other and to this universe is not some metaphysical idea, it is a truth of life. Every particle in the universe is connected to every other particle. Each galaxy is connected to all the other galaxies. All living systems on earth are part of a web of relationships. Symbiotic relationships begin at the microorganism level onwards. Plants and animals engage with each other, and their environment. Humans influence and are influenced by their environment. The power of the internet comes from its web of connections. Alienation, for anything, anyone, is a theoretical impossibility. Therefore, to understand any part, we also need to understand the whole and the relationship of the part to the whole. In other words, we understand anything when we see it in a context.

Poetry and art can be appreciated better if one knows the period when it was created. Literature can be understood to a greater depth when the environment in which the author wrote is known. Understanding population explosion requires a knowledge of the economic realities and religious sentiments of communities. Pollution can be checked when we understand all about industrialization. Fundamentalism can be tackled only when its root causes, such as illiteracy, unemployment, poverty and marginalization, are addressed. Even a bodily ailment can be treated more effectively when instead of treating the diseases, the whole person is treated. Nothing exists in isolation. Everything needs to be seen in a context.

In the same way, our education acquires meaning and comes to life when we make it contextual.

Contextual education is a method of teaching and learning, based on a constructivist theory, where information is presented in a way that students are able to construct meaning based on their own experiences. Everything is studied within the physical, social, cultural, political, economic and personal circumstances characterizing real life situations, the subjective mental and emotional processes that prompt human action, and the creative role of individuals in the collective social process. Students are able to process new information or knowledge with reference to their memory, experience and to knowledge already acquired. The opinions and perspectives of students are valued, and so are the student’s life context and prior knowledge. Along with teaching the subject, there is a constant emphasis on establishing relationships—between the subject and all other subjects, between the data and the circumstances in which it was generated, between the lesson and the learner, between knowledge and life.

The concept of contextual education is not new or uncommon. Maths problems such as “There are two apples and three oranges, how many fruits are there in all?” and “A tree is 17 feet from the wall, and forms an angle of 45° from it. What is the height of the tree?” are common in school. But in higher education, teaching becomes more abstract and detached from the student’s context, and with increasing specialization, becomes divorced from all other academic disciplines. Some institutions attempt to contextualize education through teamwork, discussions, peer learning, project-based learning, internship and service learning. However, contextualizing education is not systematized in the curriculum, and remains highly dependent on the creativity and innovation of the individual teachers and institutions. An organized, collective effort to add context to the information imparted is needed. This way, we can put the petals back together so the flower comes to view.

4. Support for Contextual Education
Contextual Education parallels nature. All universe is contained in a web of relationships, its very meaning is derived from these relationships. Robinson Crusoes do not exist in nature. After twenty four years, even they need a Friday. Individuals are the content, our relationships with each other are the context: It is the context that gives meaning to the individual existence. Similarly in education, no subject or topic can in isolation provide any meaningful knowledge. Meaning emerges from the relationship between the content and its context. The context gives meaning to content. The broader the context within which the learner makes connections, the more meaning the content, the text book, the lesson holds. Physicists and biologists have discovered that the three principles of interdependence, differentiation and self-organization infuse everything in the universe. Contextual education that is also based on these three principles, therefore corresponds to the way the universe works, and is the most natural way for anyone to learn.

Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl said that ‘Man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life’. Contextual education answers an innate longing for meaning that is characteristic to all humans. It also satisfies the brain’s habit of connecting new information with existing knowledge. The brain naturally seeks meaning in context by searching for relationships that make sense and appear useful. Neuroscientists show that making connections is a natural human activity. The brain tries to give new information significance by connecting it with existing knowledge and skills. When we are asked to do something we have not done before, we immediately try to recall whether we have done anything similar before. Much as a child who is learning to read, reads the word ‘dome’ that he sees for the first time based on his knowledge of the familiar word ‘home’, or the student tries to understand the flow of electricity with the flow of water, the brain tries to connect to the new task with the task it already recognizes.

Einstein used this principle when he explained his Theory of Relativity humorously, ‘Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.’ Analogy bridges the gap between the familiar and the new. It personalizes learning and lets students learn intuitively. Comparing sound waves to ripples in water, aerodynamics of a plane to the shape of a bird, earth to a magnet, animal or plant cell to a city, DNA to a blueprint—analogy teaches effectively because it builds on the existing foundation, so the resulting building is stronger.

The brain’s connection with the environment shapes its physical structure, its neurons connect in different patterns in response to stimuli from outside. To help the brain become more powerful requires that it make connections, so it can weave patterns that generate its own sense of meaning. The more connections the neurons make, the more the brain is stimulated. When these connections are used more often, they become stronger. On the other hand, if these pathways are not used, they eventually disappear. So making different kinds of connections and strengthening them increase the learner’s chances of learning more and better.

Studies show that memory is best when we process an item deeply, rather than simply superficially. Learning and remembering are maximum when we relate the things we are trying to learn to each other, and see what common features they share, and how they differ. When we group them into categories and find links among them, our learning is more efficient. The essential principle is that education is at its best when it is progressive, building up on the basis of old knowledge.

Instead of accentuating the dualism between thought and action, contextual education unites concept and practice. When the parts are united, the resulting whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Teachers are discovering that most students’ interest and achievement in math, science and language improve dramatically when they are helped to make connections between new knowledge and old experience and knowledge. Their engagement in work, motivation and comprehension increases when they are taught why they are learning what they are learning, and how the lessons can be used in real-world contexts. It eliminates the question, ‘Why am I learning this stuff?’. It helps the discouraged and disillusioned student who is accustomed to fail, as well as the eager student who earns ‘A’s.

Currently, most of our courses teach concepts and theories, but not the way these relate to the workplace, society and our lives. That is left out of the syllabus, for the students to figure out on their own, outside the classroom or once out of school. Its consequences are seen in the workplace as skills shortage.

According to the UNESCO Background paper prepared for the Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2012, CEOs from around the world consider unemployability or the skills gap as one of their top five pressing concerns.* Not only are skills in short supply, but there is a skills mismatch among fresh graduates. They lack the skills to fill a position, due to a misalignment of the education system to the needs of the labour market. The Harvard Business Review article ‘Employers Aren’t Just Whining – the “Skills Gap” Is Real’ shows that the skills gap cannot be dismissed as ‘employer whining’ anymore. It quotes the Manpower Group ‘Talent Shortage Survey’ that found that 35% of 38,000 employers in 42 countries reported difficulty filling jobs due to lack of available talent in 2013.

In fact, top companies in the technology industry like Google do not care about hiring top college graduates. Google’s head of People Operations, Laszlo Bock, says that graduates of top schools lack ‘intellectual humility’, a quality without which one is unable to learn, and which is essential in the work place. Google receives 2 million job applications every year, and Bock who has seen some 25,000 resumes says that college grades predict performance for the first two years of a career, but after that, do not matter. Leadership skills, sense of responsibility, problem solving ability, focus and persistence are important, what is least important is expertise! Google’s newly appointed CEO, Sundar Pichai, is said to be a natural diplomat. He avoids making enemies, and is responsible for maintaining smooth ties with partners. He is known to navigate internal politics in such a way as to make his team succeed while inflicting the least possible damage on others. There isn’t a single person at Google who doesn’t like him. Computer science courses do not teach good manners and behavior, but Pichai has obviously learnt that they are needed, to rise all the way to the top. How many of our students are taught that ‘humility’ is essential to get an ace job? Or to get into a much envied company, what is needed is a sense of responsibility, not high grades? Our universities are producing graduates who are not only not ready for the workplace, but have a totally different impression of what is needed to succeed. There is huge gap, the skills gap as the employers see it, between the competitive, knowledgeable graduate available and the responsible, humble, team worker needed. Contextual education helps bridge this gap.

5. Teaching a Subject Contextually, with Reference to all Other Subjects
So how can the context be added to content? One way of doing it is to teach and learn a subject, not in isolation from all other subjects, but with reference to them. Take history. Names, places and dates are an essential feature of history education. The names are mostly the names of kings, queens, and leaders of countries or mass movements. The places and dates are details related to their life and work. In that way, history often tends to be the study of 0.001% of humanity, in chronological order. We begin at the beginning, with the stone age, bronze age, iron age, and then move to the ancient civilizations—Mesopotamian, Indian, Egyptian, Chinese, Greek, Roman. The Middle Ages, Reformation, Renaissance, Age of Discovery, Colonization, World Wars—history is thus a line connecting the major events that have occurred, a uni-dimensional study of the what, when, where and how. In order to make the study of history contextual, it could be related to all other subjects and made multi-dimensional.

The student of history can be taught why the cavemen made those paintings, some of which have survived to this day. What did they paint? How is art important? Inherently, are we all artists, although science and technology rule the fort today? Cave paintings are predominantly on animal and hunting themes. What was painted in India, China, Rome? Has art always reflected our chief preoccupations? What was the impact of Renaissance on art? What are we painting today, and what does it tell about us? How much did religion influence art, positively, negatively? How lucrative was art as a profession? What was the social position of artists? How did different art forms evolve? In this way, art can be taught, through history.

Not only art. Were the crude figures that the caveman made on the walls an attempt to express himself? How did writing evolve from art? When did writing become the predominant way of expression? How and where did the various forms—sonnets, ballads, drama, novel—evolve? Do writings reflect the sentiments of the period? What do the writings of Socrates and Plato show about the Greeks? What was written during the dark ages? What is the power in books that some people regarded them as a threat and ordered book burnings at different times? How does literature show the changing attitudes towards slavery, colonization, rights of women, segregation? Did books shape the course of history, or at least influence it? What was the effect of the printing press on books and knowledge? How has digitization impacted writing? This is a study of literature, branching from history.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1495, how did it alter the course of history? How have inventions, beginning from the wheel, shaped history? In the absence of instant communication or fast travel, how did news of discoveries spread? With mobile phones and social networking today, can we expect more and powerful Arab Springs? How did science clear itself of superstition and misinformation? When, how did Science part ways with religion? Why did some rulers patronize science, while others stymied its development? Which places and peoples were advanced in their knowledge of science? Did the Age of Discovery provide an impetus to the maritime industry, or did increasing knowledge of sea travel and ship building along with inventions such as the chronometer and sextant result in exploration? How did science play a role in the industrial revolution? How have new inventions and theories been received? Is there any difference between the attitude of scientists to a radically new idea in the 18th century and today? Is science responsible to society? Should scientists be morally responsible? Why did the American physicist and the father of the atomic bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, oppose the hydrogen bomb? Why was he accused of being a communist and tried by the US government? Is there a parallel between that and treatment meted out to Galileo by the Catholic Church when he supported the Heliocentric theory? Heliocentric theory is easy to comprehend in principle, but the social and psychological process Copernicus went through in contemplating and pronouncing heretical ideas in the face of the entrenched knowledge of the times, is as relevant today as it was during his own lifetime. Is any of this of relevance to students of science today? Why did Sir Joseph Rotblat leave the Manhattan Project on the grounds of conscience? Science, studied from a historical perspective, is as equally informative as the scientific principles themselves.

Resistance to change and new ideas is a common phenomenon. The French Revolution was due to the French aristocrats’ inability to give up their privileges and accommodate the aspirations of the rest of society. But when both France and England had monarchs and an aristocracy, why was there no English revolution? How has society changed since the time of the hunter-gatherer, in what ways is it essentially the same? How have the different components of society organized themselves? How has human psychology evolved with evolution of society? How did so many thinkers and writers develop in Greece? Why were Roman sports so violent? How did the concept of universal human rights develop? How did industrialization and urbanization affect the family, values and living standards? What was the impact of women’s liberation and civil rights movements? What were the lessons not learnt from World War I that resulted in World War II? What were the lessons learnt from World War II that have resulted in elimination of large scale warfare in Europe? How can this be emulated in the rest of the world? How has immigration homogenized populations? Instead of history being the study of a miniscule part of the population, it can be a study of the entire society. Sociology can be a part of study of history.

How did law come to be? What were the early governments like? How did different politi­cal systems develop? When was monarchy overthrown in most places, why and how does it still survive in some? What gave and in some regions, continues to give religious groups the power to govern? What circumstances create dictators? Is the European Union a predecessor to a World Government? What gave rise to Communism? Did anyone win the Cold War? That will be studying politics from a historical perspective.

Gorbachev was instrumental in winning the Cold War. Extensive studies have covered the process of Soviet liberalization that culminated in the break-up of the USSR and the end of the East-West confrontation. But how many history books answer, or even ask the question, why did Gorbachev do it? He stood to lose from dissolving his own post, which he willingly did. What went into moulding his personality? How are leaders created? Lincoln had in his cabinet his bitter critics. Was it shrewd political stratagem or profound wisdom? When Churchill said, ‘We will not surrender’ in the face of a better manned German air force, what was he thinking? What inspired Mahatma Gandhi to call on all Indians to make salt, in defiance of the British salt monopoly? Did he believe Indians could gain independence by making their own salt? Biography and the psychology of individual leaders can be a part of study of history.

How has the environment been affected through history? Which animals have become extinct, and why? Which are endangered, and how can they be saved? What have been our past superstitions, have we overcome them today, or replaced them with new ones? Do we see patterns in our history, and use them to anticipate the future? There is no limit to contextualizing education, by teaching a single subject in the context of many others.

* See UNESCO Report Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2012
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