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How Can Teachers Begin to Use Contextualized Learning?

Contextualized learning represents a marked departure from traditional didactic approaches to teaching. Consequently, reconstituting curricula to accommodate a contextualized approach presents most teachers and school leaders with a significant challenge.

Why? In short, many of the staples of secondary learning are altered or discarded in contextualized learning. Teachers who once knew the text inside out will need to become authorities in an entirely new way: They will need to become master practitioners among student apprentices. Students who needed only to study for tests will be faced with the prospect and excitement of solving unexpected problems. Predictable class hours will be replaced by meetings in which routines of practice are adapted to accomplish tasks.

It is clear, then, that teachers who want to use contextualized learning need tailored professional development opportunities. In an effort to supply such training, NCRVE researchers designed and pilot tested a six-week mini-sabbatical involving eight high school teachers in the summer of 1996 (Ramsey, Stasz, Ormseth, Eden, & Co, 1997; Stasz, 1997). The mini-sabbatical used the Classrooms That Work instructional model and was designed to meet four goals:

After training teachers to conduct a worksite observation, the researchers placed teachers in relevant workplaces for one week to observe how tasks and personnel were organized and managed. Teachers later drew from these observations insights into the culture of practice their class might adopt, the sort of tasks that might be selected for students, and the ways in which workplace skills affected productivity. An English teacher who observed work in the marketing department of a medical center reported the impact of his workplace observation in the following journal entry:

I saw a brainstorming session in which each person, knowing what they bring to the table, created a powerful example of people working together to solve a problem--to get out a simple message: the uniqueness of the cancer center... If I can create a curriculum with structures to allow students to bring to the table their experience and knowledge to work through a problem based on literature or media, it will feel great to transfer the creative chaos... to the classroom.

Next, teachers designed a week-long curriculum for contextualized learning projects that they "tested" on groups of eight to 10 students. Researchers found that the worksite observation, though brief, enabled teachers to improve their initial ideas for projects. For example, one CAD/technology teacher had initially intended to have his students build a popsicle stick bridge for their project. But after observing CAD operators in a metro transit authority work on actual designs, he decided to have them draw a plan for a bus parking lot on a real site and according to actual county specifications. This project supported many of the same skills as the popsicle stick bridge (e.g., teamwork, communication, and presentation) and technical skills (understanding spatial relationships, two-dimensional area planning), but it was no longer a mere exercise for students; besides being more "real" and more potentially useful, the task provided better opportunities for improvisational problem solving.

The worksite observations fostered other significant changes as well. Teachers displayed more sophistication integrating academic skills, generic skills, and specific competencies needed to carry out a project in their project-centered curricula. For instance, the following box describes a project where students need to make connections between school subjects and the unique demands of a particular task.

Instructional Design for a Contextualized Biology and Writing Task

Determine the suitability (e.g., physical, social, and technical) of the Metro Red Line for use by a person dependent on an oxygen support system.
Instructional Goals:
Generic: Generate and evaluate assets
Disposition: Persistence, ability to question authority
Domain skill: Human biology of oxygen use, transportation of elemental oxygen, research organization, research theory
Classroom Design:
Culture of practice: Students are consultants hired to lobby Los Angeles County Metro Transit Authority to accommodate dependent persons
Product: Presentation to the MTA board
Teacher role: Supervisor to the consultant
Team: Scientist, writer
Teaching Methods:
Coach, model research, reinforce continuum of expertise, exploratory learning
Alignment with Official Curriculum:
A team of teachers evaluates the students as a group according to a rubric designed to capture all its aspects, including the quality of information, the completeness and coherence of the argument, the research methods used, the delivery of the presentation, and the creativity, sophistication, and formal correctness of the presentation materials.

The pilot project's teaching phase also held many revelations for the teachers, even for ones with significant classroom experience. For the most part teachers had to recognize their reluctance to "let go" of teacher-centered instruction techniques. Fear of losing control was common. One life science teacher-trainer from a Math, Science, and Technology Magnet School explained:

Old habits are hard to break and it's very hard for me to turn over the control of the class to the class. But I also understand that if I want them to be responsible for their own learning, I have to turn over that responsibility.

Such a comment shows that teachers need to practice new instructional skills like modeling, scaffolding, and fading in a setting that is not as risky as their regular classrooms. If taking such a chance during a mini-sabbatical is difficult, trying out new methods during the regular school year is likely to be more so. Teachers found they needed to become reflective about trying new techniques and sticking with them for a long enough period to see that they could work. A math and computer science teacher from a transportation career academy explained in his journal, "I am continuing to keep a low profile and am encouraging [students] to take responsibility for their work. I think it has a motivating factor because they can take ownership of the project and not feel that they are doing something for the teacher."

The experience led an English teacher to recognize that her connections between task, teaching approach, and assessment needed to be precise in order to maintain the authenticity of the project. If these components do not match up clearly for the students, her stated goals will not seem honest to them. Contradictions between these elements could undermine an otherwise strong curriculum.

These responses suggest that professional development specifically focused on contextualized teaching and learning is crucial to helping teachers redesign their instructional efforts to support learning and teaching generic skills in addition to academic and technical ones. At the very least, teachers will gain from their exposure to actual workplaces and use that new knowledge to design classrooms. Teachers also require assistance developing new skills in planning, collaboration, reflective practice, curriculum development, and assessment. Not only are new skills required, old ones must be either integrated or unlearned to adopt a contextualized teaching approach.

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