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Guide to Contextual Learning Projects

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What mix of formal and informal learning will your project provide?

Students need both formal and informal learning experiences for healthy intellectual development.

Informal learning experiences form a context that supports brain development and language acquisition, as well as forming a context for understanding science, literature, history, math, and other subjects. For example, students who spend time playing with building sets, gears, wheels, levers and pulleys have a better foundation for understanding engineering and physics concepts. Students who have spent time hiking, gardening or exploring the shore of a lake, river or ocean have a better foundation for learning biology. Students who have participated in local community action projects have a better foundation for studying history and civics.

Informal learning also supports personal development, in areas like health and nutrition, social development, physical fitness, and development of hobbies, interests and long-term career goals.

Formal instruction prepares students for making the most of their experiences and builds on these experiences. For example, formal study of math provides the tools and approaches needed for analyzing information and solving problems. Formal study of biology enables students to understand, analyze and organize the things they observe in informal observation and field studies. Formal study of history and government gives students a context for understanding the information they gather when working on local history and community service projects.

As you think about creating a balance between formal and informal learning, you will think first, of course, about your setting. The approach to learning will be different in an academic classroom, an art class, a web design class, a health or consumer science class, an after-school enrichment program, a summer program, a youth employment program or other setting.

Consider the expectations that you, your students, their parents and your school leadership have about what type of activities and what type of learning to expect in different settings. It is important to be respectful of the need for a balance between formal instruction and informal learning. Students and parents will be most enthusiastic about informal learning if it is clearly viewed as complementing and not competing with formal instruction.

As you browse the projects in the Contextual Learning Portal, you will see many examples of how formal and informal learning are complementary. For example, the hands-on components of a project may be complemented by writing activities, vocabulary lessons, reading, web-based research, lectures about a topic, surveys, data analysis, or other formal learning approaches. Some projects pair formal and informal components based on the same theme, such the informal learning experience of building a garden, paired with formal lessons about food systems, economics, geography, or even topics like gardens in medieval history or literature. Each activity could stand alone, but the pairing of activities provides an interesting connection that students will enjoy.