Contextual Learning

One of my profs and I occasionally chat about his curriculum. This was his first year teaching at IU East and he’s still fine-tuning his style. The main roadblock he runs into, and I can totally understand, is that a lot of his students have a very nonchalant, sometimes completely ambivalent, attitude towards the course material.

One thing I suggested, for when he teaches Organic Chemistry next year, is to draw in real-world examples to help illustrate and provide context for the material. I call this “contextual learning” (there may be a more official title for it, but I wasn’t an education major, so I’m just going to call it that).

Granted, my opinions on the effectiveness of this method are completely anecdotal and some from personal experience, but they just seem to make sense. Take them or leave them; but I’m just putting them out there.

A little background:

Earlier this year I read a book entitled “Napoleon’s Buttons: 17 molecules that changed history.” The book discusses 17 molecules, and their derivatives, (i.e. Cellulose, Alkaloids, Nitros, Isoprene, Salts, Oleic Acid, etc.) in the context of the impact they had on history. It’s a really cool book, and is written in a way that is accessible to all audiences.

What I enjoyed the most about this book was that there is a lot of lateral learning — the authors not only discuss the molecular structure and subtle differences among molecular cousins, but also the historical context and impact: why were these molecules so important?

When I think about the material contained within the book, the multi-faceted context creates a network of inter-supporting facts and concepts: the historical elements are tied to the science, and vice versa. History, innately possessing sequence, also self-assists in recall, as our brains can natively construct a sequence of events if we can remember a couple of them to begin with.

Other books that I’ve read: “A short history of nearly everything”, “The Carbon Age”, and “Freakonomics” all share this similar quality — they teach somewhat complex ideas, but apply them directly to some sort of narrative framework that helps to keep the ideas from being lost in the mental abyss.

Some textbooks do this. My Calculus textbook would often start each chapter with some kind of real-world application of the methods / formulae introduced in that chapter. My Cell Biology textbook would have multi-page digressions that showed examples of that chapter’s material, providing some practical ties for the theoretical discussion.

I’ve noticed that when I’m learning, if I don’t understand where I’m being led, I often don’t know what to listen for, and my mental model has to do a lot of back-tracking once I realize “oh, THAT’S how they all come together” (I call this “bottom-up” learning). The problem with this approach is that until I’m able to make some kind of connection between the material and what I already know, I’m completely lost at sea — I need some sort of anchor to provide context for the subject matter.

On the other hand, and this happens a lot when I’m hacking code, there is “top-down” learning. This frequently happens when I’m writing a program — I write up until I encounter something I don’t know how to do, then go learn how to do it; Sometimes this involves several layers of “learning how to do it”, as I drill-down through to the fundamentals of a concept and find where it intersects with my current knowledgeset. My initial goals provide the general context, and when I connect it to what I already know, it closes the loop. The main problem with this approach is that it often creates sparse trees / webs of knowledges, rather than a solid foundation of fundamentals.

The former, done right, is the long haul way of learning — if I really want to know something inside out, I usually have to take this approach. The latter is a much faster way of learning, and the way I typically approach things. (it’s the “ahh, forget the instruction manual, let’s just open the box and plug it in and figure it out on the fly,” method).

So am I alone in this regard? Are you a bottom-up or top-down learner?