Contextual Education

8. Educating the Part in the Context of the Whole
When the President of a country is faced with the largest crisis ever in the nation’s economic and banking history, what does he depend on? The opinion of the economists? The advice from the bank presidents? His cabinet colleagues? Does he bank on the economic theories propounded by the elite universities in the country? This is the dilemma Franklin D Roosevelt faced, in 1933. The US banking crisis led to the closure of more than 6000 banks. There was a sense of panic among the people. They began to withdraw their deposits from the remaining banks, which led to an escalation of the crisis. The President put his finger on the issue when he declared on public radio that there is nothing to fear except fear itself. He rejected the monetary principles he had learned in Economics at Harvard and appealed directly to the emotions of the American people. He addressed them on radio and asked them to reject the sense of panic that was destroying the financial system, to exhibit courage and trust in themselves, and pride in their nation, and leave their money in the banks. His appeal halted the panic and paved the way for legislation that ensured the stability of the system for the following seven decades.

Economics touches people’s lives directly, but the study of the subject rarely brings out the human and social dimensions. Similarly, industrialization detached from ecology, financial systems divorced from the real economy, and science devoid of moral accountability result in problems. Education of each part must be in the context of the whole. Roosevelt intuitively knew the link between economics and the aspirations and feelings of people. He knew the power of communication, of appealing to the emotions. Banks or the economy do not operate in isolation, they need to be seen in the context of the people. This linking, this kind of seeing the part in the context of the whole, must be integral to education of the future.

Winston Churchill intuitively knew the context when, at the height of World War II, he told his country and the world, ‘We shall never surrender’. During the Battle of Britain, the Germans expected Britain to surrender in 6 weeks. But after 3 months, the Germans gave up, though they heavily outnumbered Britain in both aircraft and experienced pilots. They were training four times as many pilots every month as Britain. The advantage seemed to be with Hitler, but he had not taken into account the enormous psychological determination of Britain and the intuitive knowledge of her leader. In one of his most famous addresses to the nation, Churchill rallied the English to make unheard of sacrifices and unrelenting effort to defend their freedom. He spoke out of the deepest conviction and courage of his heart. He was not going to surrender, and he appealed to the depths of the English people. During air raids, he would stand outside on the roof top, shaking his fists at the bombers. His courage, patriotism, sense of honor and self-sacrifice resonated with all the English people. They backed him totally. In one of his other war speeches, he said ‘I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat’. What more can a leader offer, and every one of his countrymen was willing to follow him and offer the same. These statements of Churchill had all his emotions, sentiments and beliefs behind them, and struck a chord with all his people. Against all odds the underequipped and undermanned British air force was victorious in the skies over Britain. In the face of such resistance, Hitler had no choice but to give up. Churchill knew that more than the planes, pilots, armaments and war infrastructure, it was the soldiers’ determination backed by the countrymen’s support that would win the war.

Whether in war or in peace, knowing the whole context helps one get the right perspective to address the issue. Contextual education helps students get this perspective. There are a number of initiatives many schools and colleges take in this regard. The concept of service learning that some universities offer is one attempt, the trans-disciplinarity that Finland has introduced in its curriculum is another.

Service-learning is an educational approach that combines book learning with real world work. Students are given an opportunity to apply their classroom learning to support or enhance the community as part of their course. Many organizations and universities have incorporated service-learning into the curriculum, to address the contextual, motivational, and multi-disciplinary team needs. Purdue University’s Engineering Projects in Community Service program requires its students to form multi-disciplinary groups to meet community needs. Penn State University has a program entitled ‘Humanitarian Engineering’, in which the emphasis is on relationship building. Long-term collaborative partnerships are formed with local communities so that the outreach programs at the university reach the community.

California-based UnCollege, founded by a young man put off by the disconnect between theory and real world applications, Dale Stephens, offers the ‘gap year program’. It is an experiential learning program where students are provided with the resources and relevant contacts to equip themselves for an entrepreneurial career. The London-based IF Project aims to provide free, university level humanities education to youth. University professors and subject experts volunteer to teach, universities and other institutions make available their premises and other resources. The project coordinators also leverage the public lectures, concerts, exhibitions scheduled in London, and use museums, galleries and public spaces as venues for classes. The entire city of London is converted into a large, open air classroom.

Contextualization has been introduced in a more formal, structured way by the government of Finland. Finland has an efficient and equitable education system. The youth are regarded as one of the country’s most precious resources. The schools and colleges foster the individual potential of every child. Apart from academics, students are taught handcrafts, cooking, sports, creative pursuits, community skills, developing a good image, and sensitivity to others.

The country has consistently ranked among the top in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a standardized test given to 15-year olds in 65 nations. In 2013, OECD tested adults from 24 countries in a survey called the PIAAC (Programme for International Assessment of Adult Competencies). Literacy, numeracy and problem solving skills were measured for 16-65 year olds. Finland was either at or near the top on all measures. Instead of following the principle of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, Finland has introduced a revolutionary change in its education system.

Subject-specific subjects have been replaced by broad topics. Instead of an hour of History, an hour of Maths and so on, upper schools in the country teach ‘European Union’, in which students will study the subject from the perspective of history, politics, geography, languages, sociology, business, etc. ‘Climate Change’ will study weather, environment, living sciences, industry, and economy. Teachers lecturing to rows of students is giving place to small groups of students studying together. This ‘phenomenon’ teaching is benefitting students, according to early data. Student performance has improved in this already excellent educational system.

9. Conclusion
The power of abstraction reduces life knowledge to objective principles. Abstraction may be intelligible to the intellect, but is incomprehensible to the imagination, creativity, emotional intelligence all of which is so important to the full development of personality. In the education of the future, the gap between abstract concept and social relevance must be bridged. Education becomes contextualized when studied within the physical, social and cultural circumstances characterizing real life situations. So, creating the relevant context, education comes to life. It transforms education from a two dimensional image into a three dimensional holograph.

Not every academic discipline lends itself to contextualization, but we can explore how much can be done. The arts and humanities are easier to contextualize, but it may be more difficult with the sciences. When we need experts in every field, would knowledge of other fields help or distract? Does contextualization stand in the way of specialization? These are questions that need to be explored in the education of the future.

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