What is contextual learning and teaching in physics? [back]

Henry Yam
Department of Physics, The Chinese University of Hong Kong



Different countries and different researchers and educators have different definitions of contextual teaching and learning. The author of this article is in no way claiming that the material presented here is a complete picture of the very broad topic of contextual teaching and learning approach. What we are trying to do is to give reader a general overview of the opinions and some of the consensus among different definitions.

Context-based Learning of Science in the UK

Context-based learning of science in the UK is often mentioned with the phrase the Salters' approach. This is due to the successful development of chemistry teaching materials, by the Salters' Institute for Industrial Chemistry, which embodies many of the concepts of context-based learning. According to Campbell et al. (1994), the view of the Salter's approach may be generalized as: "The most important single factor influencing learning is the active engagement of the learner with the material. Obtain this - and teach by whatever methods retain this engagement."


During the late seventies and the early eighties, reports and discussion documents of the UK government advocated the need for "broad and balanced science for all". This climate stimulated change and development of the curriculum of science education in the UK. The issues needed to be addressed includes the following:

According to Campbell et al., the fundamental design criterion in mind, the ideas and concepts selected, should enhance learners' appreciation of how the subject "contributes to their lives or the lives of others around the world; or helps them to acquire a better understanding of the natural environment" (Campbell et al. 1994). Campbell et al. also define in operational terms what the course should be:

  1. "Units of the course should start with aspects of the students lives, which they have experienced either personally or via the media, and should introduce ideas and concepts only as they are needed."
  2. "The course should include a wide range of activities in which students can actively engage." (Campbell et al. 1994).

The aim of doing this is also mentioned: "... to set the science in context, was not seen solely as a means of motivating more students to study science. It also express a desire to provide students with a more authentic picture of science, and of its role in people's lives, and to encourage them to connect science learning with the rest of their lives." (Campbell et al. 1994).

Lubben et al. observed that contextualized lessons allowed students

  1. "to work on personally useful applications of science
  2. to own the lesson activities by contributing their expertise and knowledge
  3. to discuss contentious issues." (Lubben et al. 1996)

Whitelegg and Parry (1999), when describing context in context-based learning mentioned: "At its broadest, it means the social and cultural environment in which the student, teacher and institution are situated. íK A narrower view of context might focus on an application of a physics theory for the purposes of illumination and reinforcement. In this sense, by selecting an application of a principle, almost all teaching is context-based íK However, part of the practice of science is to test predictions against events in the real world. Students need a resource of real world to hand, if a meaningful classroom discussion is to take place."

Context-based learning has a meaning of putting forward real world contentious or controversial issues, often social issues, for students to discuss. It also has a meaning of including in the curriculum or lessons social or civic education. "Use of contexts may also be a way of increasing social awareness. íK We can enhance learning of physics while enhancing environmental awareness by choosing a context for learning that meets society's as well as students' needs." (Whitelegg and Parry 1999).

So from the ideas of these researchers and educators we can draw the conclusion: context-based learning approach obtains active engagement of the learner with the material. The material in broadest terms can be social and cultural; in less general terms, the material could be applications of the theory of the particular subject that the student can relate to, contribute to, or that is personally useful to the student.

Contextual teaching and learning in the US

During the eighties in the US, the concern of lowering high school achievements, the lack of standard on student performance and the inadequate connection between high school education and work started efforts to encourage educational reform to facilitate students' transition from school to the world of work and real life. As the reform developed, the US society started to ask the following questions:

To answer these questions and address other concerns of education, one direction government-funded research came up with is what is termed contextual teaching and learning.

Contextual teaching and learning, in the US, "is a conception of teaching and learning that helps teachers relate subject matter content to real world situations and motivates students to make connections between knowledge and its applications to their lives as family members, citizens, students, and workers."

"Contextual teaching and learning strategies:

The above definition of Contextual Teaching and Learning is developed by The Ohio State University College of Education and Bowling Green State University through funding support from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Vocational and Adult Education and the National School to Work Office.

In other words, the contextual approach in the U.S. stresses connecting learning with the real world. Students are to make connections between knowledge and applications themselves as family members, citizens, and workers etc instead of just students. In this way, students' ability to apply the knowledge learned would not just stay inside the school, a learning environment, but goes out to society, family or workplace, an applying environment, an environment where problems need to be solved. When learners considers themselves as students, their interest, their focus is on how to take exams and do well in exams. But if they consider themselves as a family member, the focus of learning will be different. Here, let me use a person learning a CPR course as an example. If that person has a father with a heart problem and is at risk of having sudden heart attacks and the learner has the awareness to consider himself as a member of his family, then, when the person is learning the CPR course, the learner's attention will be towards how to help his father during a possible heart attack with the CPR techniques. His attention will be on how to help a real person, his father, 180 lbs in weight, 45 years old and not just on how to manipulate a rubber doll so as to pass the exam and get the CPR certificate. The learner will be thinking about perfecting his techniques when performing on a real person, on how to move the victim to a suitable place to administer CPR, how far to tilt the head, how hard to press at the sternum so as not to break any ribs, how to react if something unexpected happen etc. A contextual CPR course will be one that connects the learning with the lives of the learners, let the learners make the connection that the CPR they are practicing is on a real person, could be their family member, the surrounding is a real place, could be their home. What is learned will stay with the student much longer, the impact of the subject material on the learner will be much stronger. The learning will be much more focused, will be much more helpful to the student. The student will really care; will really want to be good at what is learned. This learning process will be much more active and self-motivated in the students' part.

Thus the U.S. approach also stresses the active participation of students. As the past and future of each student and the need of family, workplace and society for each student are different, students' active participation and control of their learning is very important. In order to obtain this active participation and control, students are taught to direct their own learning, motivated to make connections between knowledge and applications themselves and encouraged to learn in interdependent groups and from each other. This is why the motivation and ability for students to monitor, assess and direct accordingly their own learning is also stressed. Students are viewed as learners and teachers as learning facilitators, with the students being the more active party.

Context is something outside the classroom environment, maybe from the family, from society, from the workplace. In order to cover different possibilities, the variety of context is stressed. This is the motivation to develop teaching contexts, where the subject matters teachers want students to learn is brought out through the context, the real life environment, the environment of the family, society and workplace. As the contextual approach stress student directing the learning, it is of extreme importance that they are interested in the things to be learned, teachers like them to learn, e.g. physics. So the US way stress anchoring students' life into the context of the subjects, students' general life as well as particular and diverse life-contexts which may even be the life-contexts of a particular ethnic group or especially for female students. This is how US contextual approach addresses the question of the mission of school in a democracy.

Authentic Assessment

The assessment stressed in the U.S. approach to contextual teaching and learning is authentic assessment. "An assessment is authentic when it involves students in tasks that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful. Such assessments look and feel like learning activities, not traditional tests. They involve higher-order thinking skills and the coordination of a broad range of knowledge. They communicate to students what it means to do their work well by making explicit the standards by which that work will be judged." (Hart, 1994)

According to Elaine B. Johnson, Ph.D., "Generally educators recognize four kinds of authentic assessment; portfolios, performance, projects, and extended written responses." (Elaine B. Johnson, Ph.D., 2002).

The tasks students are asked to perform in an authentic assessment is worthwhile and broad in range of the required knowledge and skills. The objectives of the assessment, what it means to do well in the assessment and the result of the assessment are clear to the assessor as well as the students so the students can identify what skills, knowledge etc they have or do not have and what needed to be acquired in order to accomplish or do well in certain tasks. One way to achieve this is by making use of rubrics that tell students what the criteria the assessor will assess the students' performance on and what score will be awarded for a certain level of performance in each criterion.

Thus authentic assessment other than allowing the assessor to assess the students also let students to assess themselves and is a way to teach students to monitor and direct their own learning, so students who are behind knows that they are behind and on which areas, helping them to self-regulate their learning, benefiting students broadly, students with different areas and levels of abilities.


Trying to draw a conclusion on what contextual teaching and learning approach means is difficult if not impossible, but the consensus seems to be that contextual teaching and learning approach is an attempt to make the delivery of education to be more natural, natural to how the brain of the students learn and work in real life by letting students actively participate. And the education itself to be more real, more connected to real life, life real to the students' experiences and life real to the students' future; to be broader, broadly beneficial to all students, including those traditionally considered smart and those traditionally considered not smart, by letting students communicate and work together and learn what others are good at; and to be of higher order, including training on problem solving, decision making, creative and critical thinking.

Contextual teaching and learning is not put forward to exclude other approaches of teaching and learning. Some educators believed that as contextual teaching and learning is to make connections between school and real life, it includes students doing social services in the community, students starting their own business inside the school and internships and apprenticeships for students in workplaces. The issues of time, space, resource and suitability needed to be addressed when the above approach to connect school and real life is chosen.

Most educators when discussing authentic assessment agree the creation of an authentic assessment task requires procedures for designing the tasks. These may include creating the assessment topic and designing the rubrics. Time have to be taken out of class for presentations or performances if these tasks are chosen. If a group project is chosen, students need to be divided into groups with possibly different quality group members, and each student only takes part in one portion of the project. The issue of time consumption on the part of teachers and students and the issue of fairness may need to be addressed

It is not the position of this essay to advocate or criticize contextual approach to teaching and learning. The author is just trying to give an overview of the idea of contextual approach to teaching and learning to the readers and leave the discussions of the pros and cons, strength and weakness as well as the feasibility of CLT to the readers.


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Campbell, B., Lazonby, J., Nicholson, P., Ramsden, J. and Waddington, D. (1994) Science: the Salters' Approach íV a case study of the process of large-scale curriculum development, Science Education, 78 (5), 415-447, 1994

Elaine B. Johnson, Ph.D. (2002), Contextual Teaching and Learning: What is it and why is it here to stay. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press Inc. A Sage Publication Company

Hart, Diane (1994), Authentic Assessment: A Handbook for Educators. Menlo Park, California: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co.

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