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Putting it into context.

In the world of career and technical education, contextual teaching and learning (CTL) is a much-discussed concept for integrating real-world experience and academics. It's a model that for some reflects what is a commonsense notion: that students learn better when they are taught knowledge within the context of actual experience, rather than abstractly.

And studies have shown that it can be highly successful. Many students are more motivated, have higher retention of information and are overall more successful when teachers employee CTL strategies. As a result, teachers are increasingly incorporating CTL into their curriculum.

But what happens when the idea of contextual learning meets the reality of a classroom? How do today's teachers--who often face the increasing pressure of high-stakes testing and large, diverse classes--make contextual learning into a practical reality? This is what researchers at the University of Georgia's College of Education spent five years studying.

In 1998, the University of Georgia (UGA) received funding from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a "model of excellence for contextual teaching and learning in preservice teacher education." The resulting model included both new courses and a revamping of existing ones.

In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education extended its support of UGA with the goal of learning how new teachers have applied CTL strategies in their classrooms. The research included eight case studies as well as a cross-case analysis and other research methods.

The Success

The research revealed what many CTE educators have been arguing for years: there are significant benefits to using contextual teaching in the classroom.

The most significant, according to researchers, is that students simply learn more when teachers incorporate contextual strategies. Students in the observed classes performed successfully on "authentic" forms of assessment, in which students demonstrate what they've learned within a real-world context, as well as traditional ones.

The students also felt that they personally achieved more in the CTL classes. According to Richard Lynch, a professor of occupational studies at the university and the project's principal investigator, "Ninety-four percent of the students said that they learned a lot more in CTL-strategy classes than in other traditional courses in that same subject area."

The obvious reason for that success is that students are learning the material within a concrete, memorable context.

"Research shows that students tend to learn the subject matter much more deeply and recall it better, because it's been put in context in a far more pronounced way," says Lynch.

Another important reason, according to the researchers, is that students are more highly motivated in the CTL classes. Students who may complain that school "doesn't matter" respond well to CTL strategies. Once they can see the real-world relevance of what they're learning, they become more interested and motivated.

Shana Katz, a family and consumer sciences teacher at Riverwood High School in Atlanta and a case-study participant, experiences this in her classroom. The questions Katz always hears are: "Why do I need to know this? When am I going to use this?" So, she explains, you have to relate the learning to real-world applications.

This is why UGA incorporates community work experiences into its teacher training program.

For one of her two internships, Katz worked in the test kitchen at Southern Living and Cooking Light magazines. There, she met a variety of people in the food industry, and what she learned from them she later applied in her classroom.

Most of her students think that becoming a chef is the only real career possibility in the food industry, says Katz. "But I worked with food stylists, photographers, recipe editors and others in the industry. And I bring that experience to my classroom and show them that there are so many careers and things that they can do."

CTL strategies can be especially engaging for those students who dismiss school as "boring." While it takes a great deal of creativity on the part of the teacher, a very innovative CTL activity will help students learn and remember difficult material.

Tasha Fields, who taught life sciences at South Hall Middle School in Gainesville, Ga., during the year in which she participated in the study, came up with an especially original activity to help her students learn about dissection techniques and parts of the body.

For the activity, Fields, who is now teaching high school, provides students with "murdered" dill pickles on which they must perform autopsies. Students have to dissect the pickles, determine the cause of death (Fields has inserted BBs for "shot victims" or has sliced up pickles that have been "stabbed"), fill out full autopsy reports, sew the pickles back up, and present them for burial with full eulogy.

"They really like to do the mass burial thing for some reason," jokes Fields.

But the project is more than just amusing for the students, who have to apply what they've already learned in the class. "It's a neat way for them to use their knowledge about the body cavity and the torso and what organs are in there," says Fields. "I have students draw two or three organs that they should 'see.' Of course, in real life, they're just seeds inside a pickle, so they have to use their imaginations and remember what organs go where."

It's not only a creative review, but it also prepares students for what they'll learn later when they dissect fetal pigs.

"I don't want to just hand them a pig and let them cut away--they'll learn nothing from it," she says. "But, by that point, we've already covered the human body; the pickles are getting them set up for the pig."

CTL can also be a highly effective means of accommodating students' different learning styles. Fields explains: "It makes my job easier, because I can come up with various methods of teaching something. I don't have to pick one thing ... I can try using a hands-on technique or collaborative pairs. It opens up my options as to how I'm going to present the material to them."

This is especially important, she points out, because addressing learning styles has become a part of educational requirements.

Researchers also found that CTL proved particularly valuable for minority students. "The minority students really got engaged," says Lynch. "They liked doing projects that related to their culture and the context in which their world existed, whether it was school, home, community or church."

At South Hall, Fields taught a very diverse group of students. "We had students from Mexico and South America, some from Vietnam and other areas of the world," she recalls. "When we talked about plants or the human impact on the environment, they could share experiences from their home countries. It gets everyone interested with what's going on in the world, and the students can identify with what's going on."

As part of a unit on plants and flowers, Fields had her middle school students plan and plot a garden.

"We picked a spot behind our classroom and looked at the amount of sunlight it got, explains Fields. "I gave them different vegetables, and they had to determine the best spots and where to plant them for optimal growth so they got the best sun and water."

The project was very engaging for many of Fields' students. Her class included many students from South America whose families grow their own vegetables or work on farms. The project also spoke to those students who came from the very rural parts of the county.

Katz also finds that her students' diversity contributes to the CTL activities. "My students come from so many different backgrounds and cultures," she explains, "and that's something we can really use when we're talking about food, family and traditions."

For one project during a cooking unit, Katz has students give cooking demonstrations based on their native foods. Activities like this are particularly useful for the large number of ESOL students in Katz's classes.

"If I give them questions and ask them to write answers, they're not necessarily going to be able to do it," says Katz. "But when they can demonstrate what they've learned, whether it's through a poster, presentation or a cooking lab, they're very good at it."

The Challenges

While contextual teaching may intuitively make sense, it is not how teachers have traditionally been taught to educate their students. Along with integrating new strategies into their curricula, teachers often need new equipment, new skills, and sometimes even a new attitude.

The challenges that come along with contextual teaching can vary greatly depending on the school but also on the subject matter. Subjects in the career and technical fields lend themselves easily to CTL, but other teachers may have to really wrack their brains for creative lesson plans.

Teachers in the sciences have an easier time incorporating CTL strategies, according to Fields, because "we have so many more opportunities to tie it in with the real world."

On the other hand, math teachers in the study faced some difficulty. They had to address a great deal of resistance from students when it came to the particularly difficult material, because it was so theoretical. So those teachers were constantly looking for material that would illustrate the importance of those lessons, recalls Lynch.

"Some of them did it with news sources like magazines and newspapers; others would go out and spend time in industry," he says. "I remember one woman who had to learn how to keep statistics in football."

Teachers in the case studies also had to deal with a state curriculum that did not always allow time for projects, lab work, experiments and other CTL activities. Some teachers feared not getting to cover all of the material or not devoting enough time to preparation for high-stakes testing, says Lynch.

"But because they believed in CTL," he adds, "they did a good job with it when they could do it."

The limited resources available at some schools also restrict the types of activities that teachers can offer. In order to help her high school students understand calories and using energy, Fields has them burn peanuts and other foods. Unfortunately, she couldn't do this activity when teaching middle school, because they had no gas available for setting up a Bunsen burner.

The novice teachers also had to face some skepticism on the part of students who were not used to the CTL techniques. Sometimes the transition from a traditional classroom to one that involves a lot of CTL can be a shock for students.

One novice technology teacher had a class in which some of the students had become overly accustomed to the expectations of their previous class. The students were, at first, very uncomfortable when they had to assume more responsibility in directing their own learning. But because they found the new learning relevant and interesting, they quickly came around.

Not all seasoned teachers were entirely receptive to the techniques used by the novice teachers either. One novice teacher found this to be a hindrance, since she had to coordinate her curriculum with others in her department.

Some teachers may be wary of employing CTL strategies, because they necessitate a lot of classroom management. Students participating in CTL activities are often moving around the room or talking, so the teacher needs to continually monitor and make sure that they are all on task.

"When you think of a loud, noisy classroom, you don't think students are learning anything," says Katz. "But that's what a CTL classroom sometimes looks and sounds like. It looks like chaos, but it's more of a controlled chaos."

The Implementation

While the teachers did encounter criticism from some of their colleagues, others expressed a great deal of interest in CTL. They approached the novice teachers looking to learn more about CTL and to get ideas for using it in their own classrooms.

If you're a teacher today, chances are that you are using some CTL techniques in your classroom--even if the term is new to you. But what if you are interested in contextualizing your lessons further?

Ideally, you should seek some kind of professional development. (For those looking to dive in immediately, see the sidebar, "Tips for Contextualized Teaching.")

Some students learn best through CTL approaches, says Lynch, and "they really need more hands-on, real-world experience."

Evidence shows, according to Lynch, "that for those kids who learn best that way, teachers really need training in how to do it."

"Typically, teachers come from that small group who went right into college, majored in the arts and sciences and got teaching certificates," he points out. "Their world did not necessarily have room in it for all the types of learners found in public schools."

Career and technical education embraces all types of students--from the most gifted to those with special needs--and contextual teaching is one of the most powerful tools used in the career tech classroom. But teachers of other subjects are increasingly recognizing its value, and programs such as the one at UGA are helping to promote the practice.

Tips for Contextualized Teaching,

For those motivated and creative teachers ready to dive into CTL on their own, here are some tips from those involved in the UGA project.

* Learn to become a collector. Even if material applies to a past unit, save it for next year.

* Train yourself to be inquisitive; ask questions. An integral part of CTL is teaching students to be their own guides in learning.

* Put yourself in your student's shoes. When planning lessons, imagine if you were a student, then ask what approach would most speak to you.

* Look for commercially prepared materials that support the CTL approach. More and more publishing companies are producing such materials.

* Get out into the real world. Learn to draw on experiences and suggestions from those in the community, industry and government, who can often offer great suggestions. The media also offer great examples to illustrate real-world contexts to your students.

* Be open minded. To a teacher inexperienced with CTL, it All take some time to adjust to the increased activity or noise level that comes along with some projects.

* Work together. Some of the best CTL activities are interdisciplinary, so get together with your colleagues to brainstorm and coordinate projects.

* Take chances. Part of teaching is trial and error.
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Author:Predmore, Sarah R.
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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