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Lessons beyond textbooks

Natasha Hemdev Dec 20 2017, 21:04 IST
When students are immersed in contextual learning, they learn skills such as collaboration and critical thinking. DH PHOTO BY Srikanta Sharma R

When students are immersed in contextual learning, they learn skills such as collaboration and critical thinking. DH PHOTO BY Srikanta Sharma R

The children of today can expect to change jobs at least seven times over the course of their lives - and five of those jobs don't exist yet, according to a World Economic Forum article. How does one prepare for the volatility of such an uncertain future? What are the skills that one can impart to students to assure their employability?

The answer lies in not making students toil harder, but empower them to learn smarter. Teachers, students and parents must work together to identify the new skill sets needed, and the best way to acquire those skills. Authentic learning techniques such as contextual learning and project-based learning are essential to schools today.

Some schools are just starting to grapple with such challenges. While many schools continue to have a more traditional mindset towards imparting education, ignoring the changing nature of the demand in skill sets, other schools have recognised the urgency to adopt a transformational approach to education.

Empowering students

Contextual learning is one such approach that empowers students to take charge of their own learning. Personalised towards each student's strengths and weaknesses, contextual learning is a discovery-based learning programme guided by teachers. When students are immersed in contextual learning, they learn indispensable skills such as sustained inquiry, collaboration, critical thinking, adaptability and stronger interpersonal relationship skills.

How does one contextualise learning? One such technique is project-based learning. We want graduates to take initiative, exhibit leadership and take action. But a student does not suddenly exhibit such qualities when they are on the workforce. These skills are nurtured and honed over the course of their lives, and it is imperative for schools to lay the foundation for such skill sets at an early stage.

For instance, asking a classroom full of students to write more persuasively is unproductive. Project-based learning would mandate that a teacher create a situation, relevant to the students' experience, where they learn how to write more persuasively. For example, students can propose ideas to the school administration on how to redesign the school cafeteria. Such an activity would prompt the students to do authentic research and then write a persuasive speech.

Such project-based activities prompt students to engage in all the facets of what would be required when they would have to write a persuasive speech when they are working professionals. Such projects would from an early age convey to students that writing a speech is not just putting pen to paper in isolation but requires an understanding of all aspects of the matter. By replicating real-world situations and challenges, contextual learning and project-based learning empower students to develop a way of thinking which is crucial to education today.

Authentic learning

The role of the educator is to guide students in their learnings and not provide a generic blueprint to rote. Each student's way of learning is unique. Hence, facilitating students to do a project on their own enables them to make their own discoveries. This process, in turn, makes their learning authentic. The feedback that students receive in contextual learning or project-based learning is specific to their strengths and weaknesses. In addition to personalised learning, contextual learning is different from traditional curriculum because in addition to consuming information, contextual learning empowers students to create a knowledge database, that is creating solutions, frameworks or pathways to achieve the desired goals.

A constant criticism of the Indian education system is that it involves rote learning and a laser focus on marks. However, project-based learning shifts the focus from a linear obsession over grades to overall learning and experience. In addition, contextual learning also normalises application of classroom knowledge in the real world, something that is expected from students when they are older but not always taught in schools.

Hence, the process of contextual learning recognises that learning only takes place when we stop and reflect on our experiences, revisit our path based on any new information we receive to reach our goals, mirroring real-world scenarios. Only through the process of questioning, scrutinising and contemplating about our actions, decisions and experiences, do we really take charge of our learning and make any advancements. Only then a student's skillset becomes one with the real world, we grow into self-aware, understanding and compassionate human beings who are ready to tackle whatever circumstance that may arise.

In the real world, we are presented with a variety of challenges, questions and problems all the time. Teaching how to face such challenges on an individual level is not only an asset but a necessity for a student in our times.

(The author is with Canadian International School, Bengaluru)

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