Contextualised teaching and learning is the practice that answers the three most common student questions:

‘Why are we doing this?’

‘When will I use this?’

‘Is it in the exam?’

In other words – ‘why is this relevant to me?’

Defining relevancy and contextual teaching and learning

Where science education is concerned, relevance has four distinct aspects for students:

  1. Personal relevance – how does this relate to me?
  2. Professional relevance – will this help me in my future jobs or career?
  3. Social relevance – how does this relate to current social ideas?
  4. Personal + Social relevance – will this help me become a better citizen?

(Van Aalsvoort, 2004)

How can you home in on these four aspects of relevancy in the lessons? When teaching weather patterns, you might explain that learning about weather can perhaps help them plan their weekends, or start their path to meteorology, or inform them of global warming changes. You may even be able to encourage social responsibility around issues to do with climate change. However, research has shown that it is hands-on, concrete learning that will be a reinforcement of relevancy.

In the report The Effect of Contextualisation, authors Mazzeo, Rab & Alssid stress the importance of ‘concrete applications’:

“[Contextual teaching and learning are] a diverse family of instructional strategies designed to more seamlessly link the learning of foundational skills and academic or occupational content by focusing teaching and learning squarely on concrete applications in a specific context that is of interest to the student”

By addressing relevancy – ‘this is why it relates to you’ – and then providing contextual learning ‘this is how you do it’ – you can create a meaningful learning experience for your students.

Making the science relevant

Applying the four aspects of relevance to the science topic at hand means answering a few questions:

Personal:

  • Does this relate to students’ dreams or aspirations?
  • Does it refer to any recent or unique experiences?
  • Is it applicable to any students’ sport, hobby or interests?

Professional:

  • Does this topic help students understand any specific roles?
  • Does it involve learning skills that can be used for work?
  • Can it help future-proof career paths?
  • Does it help students understand how to discover and apply best practice methods?

Social:

  • Does it infer or is it related to pop-culture?
  • Does it reference a newsworthy event?
  • Can it be applied to a specific clique or subculture?
  • Is it globally relevant?

Personal + social:

  • Is the topic political, or involved in political discussion?
  • Will this topic have an impact in civil life?
  • Can this topic help students understand their place in the world?

Where to bring relevancy into your science lesson plans

Relevancy should be established early so students are engaged from the get-go, so this works particularly well with the 5E Instructional Model, a learning method that has shaped science learning around the world for over thirty years.

The first step in the 5E Instructional Model is Engagement—to capture student interest and ask them to connect their prior knowledge of the topic.

How to introduce relevancy

Depending on your creative abilities, engagement might be the easiest or hardest part of tying the topic to relevancy.

A two-step approach I’d recommend to engaging and hooking students is:

  1. Ask a question: Start by asking an interesting question about the subject that would spark curiosity. For example, if you are teaching about weather patterns, the question may be something “debatable,” such as: Is global warming real?
  1. Use visuals: A picture speaks a thousand words and often students engage immediately with visuals. News footage, videos (documentaries), virtual reality and photos are all great stimuli to get students thinking about the science topic in the real-world context. Having a toolbox of appropriate, engaging science articles and visuals will help engage your students with authentic resources.

Contextualising lessons

You’ve introduced your hook; relevancy, so now it’s time to get hands-on to show how it can be effective in the real world.

Here’s our team’s favourite ways to contextualise science lesson:

Pop-culture Context:

When learning about atoms, superheroes like the Avengers have a few science tricks up their sleeve. It turns out that besting a supervillain requires knowing a few laws of chemistry and physics. Take for example, Tony Stark aka Iron Man, and the changes to the chemistry of his suit. Iron Man’s initial suit is made of iron (too heavy) and he smashes the nuclei of atoms to create a whole new type of atom that makes the suit lightweight and heat proof. Creating new elements in something scientists are doing today and the future possible applications for this makes it super relevant to life as we know it.

World-to-self Context:

Frame the science using a world-to-self context. For example, when discussing climate patterns throughout the world, ask concrete questions: How does a drought in some ‘other place’ relate to me? Bring home the effects of drought through articles and videos that show that many towns and cities just like theirs do not have access to clean water. Frame lessons about the effect of drought directly to the country you are in. Take it to a concrete step and have students research, learn how to build and test their own water filtration systems. Ask students to develop their findings and how they can apply it on bigger a scale to counteract the effects of drought.

Project-Based Context:

Can robots really take the place of humans? How is Artificial Intelligence used? Is there already a cure for cancer? Creating a space in your teaching for project-based lessons that allows students to create a project that first researches and then tries to find solution to a problem, are sure-fire ways to get students on their own path and passion for STEM. Make sure you have factual and current STEM resources and lesson plans to help guide authenticity in students’ projects.

Experiments with Context

Frame suitable experiments with a context approach rather than only a concept approach: How does this experiment matter, or would it matter, in the real world?

For example, when teaching chemical reactions to younger learners, write prompts that give an engaging angle to the experiment: You and your friend are marooned on a desert island. You have just been out fishing and caught some fish for dinner. And you found the last coconut. You would like some salt to put on your fish and dehydrate the coconut to conserve it. How are you going to do it? Then, have students research how salt can be both crystallized and water dehydrated.

Relevancy and context matter

Scientific literacy’s importance has never been greater, and as we continue develop dependency on science and technology for our safety, comforts and survival, it’s up to us to make sure our kids are tomorrow’s critical thinkers and scientists.

Stay relevant and give context to the events that matter through STEMScopes Science – activate your free trial below!

Sources

Logical Positivism as a Tool to Analyse the Problem of Chemistry’s Lack of Relevance in Secondary School Chemical Education, Van Aalsvoort, Joke, International Journal of Science Education, v26 n9 p1151-1168 Jul 2004

Facilitating Student Learning Through Contextualization: A Review of Evidence,Perin, Dolores.Community College Review; Raleigh Vol. 39, Iss. 3,  (Jul 2011): 268-295

Centre for Development of Teaching and Learning – Contextualised Teaching Towards Active Learning

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