Ground curriculum in real life. The everyday holds keys to knowledge.
The more real-life context and relevance a lesson has for the student, the more powerful, says UBC science educator Samson Nashon.
Nashon, associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the Faculty of Education, has found contextual learning to be transformative in his studies with high school students in B.C., Japan and East Africa.
“We don’t learn in a social vacuum,” says Nashon, a former high school teacher of mathematics and physics. “We construct new knowledge based on what we already know and experience. Kids will better understand universal principles if they can relate it to what’s around them.”
Take, for example, the physics of gravity. In the early 2000s, Nashon and Education Assoc. Prof. David Anderson worked with B.C. high school teachers to renew physics curriculum. One of their results is an annual contest held since 2003 where the best and brightest physics students vie for a spot at the PNE’s Playland in Vancouver. Contestants analyze the “g-forces” of rides like the roller coaster or “Hellevator,” where riders are shot up a 202-foot vertical tower at 75 kilometres per hour and then free fall back to earth.
These types of hands-on learning activities and critical thinking skills are increasingly the norm for successful teaching and learning, says Nashon. So is the principle of metacognition, he adds, which means thinking about thinking.
Nashon explains that metacognition is the opposite of rote learning since the goal is keen self awareness and the confidence to explore. “Students are empowered to monitor, acknowledge what works and what doesn’t, and to direct their learning process so they can succeed.”
In a recent study, Nashon assessed how contextual learning and metacognition principles increased the aptitude and enjoyment of high school students in Western Kenya. Students reported greater understanding of science when illustrated by activities in Kenya’s rapidly evolving small-scale manufacturing and technology sector.
“Historically,” says Nashon, “science education was very much about handing the student a package of information. And sometimes that information didn’t always translate to a non-Western or post-colonial context.”
To see science in action, the Grade 11 Kenyan students visited workshops such as those producing charcoal-burning stoves. About the size of a large soup pot, these stoves are used in most homes.
“Everyone is very familiar with the need to find the most efficient stove,” says Nashon.
The students’ assignment: explain the stove’s design and construction, why the inside of metal stove is lined with a coating of clay and the outside is painted black.
“They get to unravel the science embedded in their experience and draw on science to ask questions that could advance the design.”
In his teachers’ training classes at UBC, Nashon likes to get his students honing their metacognition chops with a simple object lesson. The students—who all hold undergraduate or graduate science degrees—must predict which can of pop will sink to the bottom of a bowl filled with water: the diet Coke or Classic Coke? It’s the Classic Coke that sinks.
Steeped in scientific procedure, the students realize that it has to do with density difference between sugar and artificial sweetener. But once in a while a student will say it’s due to the calories.
“Well, calories are a thermal unit, not a measurement of mass,” says Nashon. “That’s why this exercise is helpful. It gets them thinking about how they’ll convey and bridge knowledge once they’re in the classroom.”