Context-Based Learning: The Secret Ingredient To All Successful Courses

Context-Based Learning: The Secret Ingredient To All Successful Courses
Summary: Do you know what ingredient helps you design great courses? And why, surprisingly, we usually reserve it only for courses where the cost of failure is high? Well, let's apply the ingredient of context to all learning, because the cost of failure is high for everyone – all time is precious. Here is what you need to know about context-based learning.

Why Context-Based Learning Is The Secret To Successful Courses 

In this article I discussed the first problem with traditional content-centered courses:

The fact that most information presented as the central element (and single benefit of participation) in these courses, is now freely available online.

So, do you remember how I defined the educator’s new role now, in the internet age? Again, the educator’s new role is... to help learners make connections between concepts, and relate them to their own experiences, and the real world. Enter, context-based learning.
In this article we’re going to touch on why making these connections, not just memorizing facts and concepts, is absolutely vital for the learner.

So, what is the second problem with content-centered courses?

Simply put: They fail.

Context-Based Learning And Competence 

Research has shown learners do not become competent from content-centered courses.

It’s important to note that when I say "competent" here, I mean much more than just becoming comfortable with the foundational knowledge of a subject, or the ability to recall basic facts.

My definition of acquiring competence in a subject would be a learning process that not only helps learners remember specific information, but also helps them apply this information in their lives using creative, practical, or critical thinking.

Using this definition, even a history course that was content-centered, would fail to develop competence, if all the learners could do at the end was to recite a bunch of dates and names from memory. An example of true competence here would be the ability to draw larger meaning from the events of the past - in order to make sense of what’s happening today.

It’s this competence, applied to any subject, that will truly serve your learners.

Passively absorbing content is not how people acquire skills -it’s not even a very effective way to become well informed about something- and simply remembering facts isn’t proof of wisdom or mastery.

Why? Because there’s no context. No connection to the real world.

Just ask Siri

Take the lack of math skills in the United States for example.

Math education has become a serious issue recently, with students in the US lagging behind those from many other countries and continuing to struggle... Why?

Well, math is taught with little or no context in the U.S.

Learners, from grade 1 to 12, spend years staring at math formulas without ever knowing how these formulas apply to the real world. How they are central to disciplines like programming, architecture, engineering, and other fields.

Adult realizing math is useful on the job.

The context of Math -the when, where, and why to use these formulas-  is something which is finally revealed to us adults. This is like studying music theory for 12 years and then sitting down at the piano for your first lesson!

Hardly the most efficient way to learn, don’t you think?

Paul Lockhart, author of A Mathematician's Lament: How School Cheats Us Out of Our Most Fascinating and Imaginative Art Form, said this:

Paul Lockhart from A Mathematician's Lament

We all know that math is far from useless. But math is still a mystery to millions of people because of how it was taught.

Or perhaps we should say because of how it wasn’t taught. Before we go on, if you haven't seen the TED Talk by Dan Meyer Math Class Needs A Makeover (and haven't fallen in love with Math all over again) then do it before you read on.

So… how can we avoid this pitfall in our courses?

By designing and running courses where your learners get prompted to apply your content to real-world situations, or at least situations that simulate the real world.

If you help your learners see the real world relevance of your content, you set them up for overall success in the course.

Providing context will spark a natural curiosity in people.

Illusion of learning.

They’ll quickly recognize the material as valuable. As a result, they’ll work harder to master it.

They’ll be engaged.

To provide this context, you will need to develop courses that are not just a means of getting information, but are learning environments.

Let me explain:

A learning environment is a place where learners can explore and relate information to context - think of this as a busy little hive of curiosity!

Imagine you were trying to teach someone how to repair a car.

What do you think would be better, giving them a repair manual to memorize front-to-back? Or giving them the manual, a garage full of busted vehicles, and a toolbox?

Of course, the garage would work better. That’s a learning environment.

It may seem like an obvious example, and not every subject is as "hands on" as auto repair, but there are always ways to provide context, and too many courses leave this critical element out.

Context, where does it add value.

So how do we  intentionally build these learning environments into our courses?

How do we move  from a passive learning experience to a more collaborative and active experience - where your learners can reflect on ways to integrate your content into their lives, and even practice doing it during the course?

But for now, I want you to consider this example to see just how vital context can be:

A couple of years ago now, my brother Oskar became a firefighter.

Now I’m super proud of him… but I have to say, what was fascinating to me was hearing about his training.

Firefighter training is intense. It took up a year of Oskar’s life, challenging his body and mind.

And what I’m about to say shouldn’t surprise you: Most of my brother's time learning was of the "experience" kind. In his case, experiencing what it actually feels like to be a firefighter...

Feeling the real heat of the fire.

...He’d put out fires, go on calls, lift heavy loads, run up flights of stairs… all the while using the manuals and directions he was provided to supplement those activities.

By learning this way, integrating the learning into real life, was for his own safety and the safety of the people he’d be working with.

"Context" wasn’t just important, it was actually life or death.

Now imagine, if all my brother had to do -to become a firefighter- was simply to recall information!

What would happen if people only had to memorize for a quiz to become a firefighter?

If that was the case, our perception of our own community safety would be completely different, don’t you think?

Now, of course, we expect the fire department to blend real-world experience with their classroom instruction. You can’t learn the intensity of a fire from watching a YouTube video. Firefighters, police officers, pilots, and doctors all learn through practical, hands-on application. When the stakes, are high, context matters.

But here’s my point: Context should matter all the time.

As educators, you and I both know, there’s no such thing as “low stakes”… in learning. Somehow, many of us believe that if no one is going to get physically hurt in the process, or no expensive equipment is going to be damaged, then the cost of failure is low.

But is that really true?

If the cost of failure in our courses is low, then these courses, or we educators aren’t worth much are we?!

Just think: If a company, school, or government institution didn’t really care about the outcome of a course, they probably wouldn’t waste resources creating it in the first place.

As an example to show you that the stakes are always high, here’s a decidedly non-life-or-death course subject: Customer service.

Imagine your company has developed a course to train 30 new employees in customer service techniques. Think of just how many customers those 30 might deal with in the next year. In the next 5 years. It could be a very large number. Now if your course fails to give these employees real competence in dealing with customers effectively, imagine the impact this could have on your business. It may, in fact, be life-or-death. Life or death for your company!

The point is:

Results matter. I believe you either want a learner to learn something, or you don’t. You either think it’s important, or you don’t. And if what you’re trying to teach them doesn’t seem important… well, then you better change your course fast.

But if your course material is important enough for your learners to gain competence in it, then...

You must provide or help your learners develop their own context!


Some additional resources to check out:

Sugata Mitra’s SOLE Toolkit (PDF Download)

Factors That Influence Skill Decay and Retention: A Quantitative Review and Analysis (PDF download)

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