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Contextual Teaching and Learning: A Primer for Effective Instruction

reviewed by Rebecca Goldstein - 2004

coverTitle: Contextual Teaching and Learning: A Primer for Effective Instruction
Author(s): Susan Sears
Publisher: Phi Delta Kappa Educational Foundation, Bloomington
ISBN: 0873678419 , Pages: 82, Year: 2002
Search for book at Amazon.com

As a teacher educator, I am forever in the quest of finding texts that my students will find useful as they struggle to understand the complex underpinnings of theory and practice.  As a researcher, I am further intrigued by the many ways that people conduct educational research about teacher preparation and present those findings. Thus when Contextual Teaching and Learning: A Primer for Effective Instruction by Susan Sears came across my desk, I was interested in it both as a teacher and researcher of teachers and teaching.


Contextual Teaching and Learning: A Primer for Effective Instruction is a text designed to provide students, “teachers, and teacher educators an opportunity to see how contextual teaching and learning (CTL) can change classrooms and teacher education programs” (p. 3).  Evolving out of a series of projects funded by the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U.S. Department of Education,


Contextual teaching and learning is a conception of teaching and learning that helps teachers relate subject matter content to real world situations, motivates students to make connections between knowledge and its applications to their lives as family members, citizens, and workers and engage in the hard work that learning requires (Contextual teaching and learning, 2000 cited in Berns and Erickson, 2001, p. 2).


Quite literally, CTL addresses how teachers might contextualize teaching and learning opportunities by relating them to real life experiences.  The text tells the story of a fictional student teacher who is completing his professional semester in a teacher preparation program and public school that both employ CTL as their conceptual framework. In addition, Sears provides two additional fictional case studies—one about a college of education and one about a professional development school partnership—that highlight the practices of as well as illustrate the advantages and challenges of implementing CTL.


In truth, Contextual Teaching and Learning is a succinct summary of a teaching process that holds at its core four essential assumptions:


1.     Teaching and learning are interactional processes.

2.     Individual learners must decide to learn and to engage in the attentional, intellectual, and emotional processes needed to do so.

3.     Teaching isn’t happening if learning is not occurring.

4.     Learning is a developmental process that takes place throughout life (Sears, 2002, p. 2).


At face value, Sears’s text presents a perspective based in common sense regarding how to engage students in a learning process that relates to real-life experience, while fostering student responsibility and activity as part of learning. In this sense, it can trace its roots back to constructivist perspectives in education (e.g., Dewey, 1900). Indeed, as Johnson (2001) notes, contextual teaching and learning not only has its roots in brain-based learning, it also elaborates upon on a method of teaching and learning based on the things that good teachers intuitively do in their classrooms. Students learn best when they can learn in real life situations and apply that same learning to their everyday lives. However, therein lies the first of many concerns with this text. While Sears references the importance of real-world learning and the need to utilize diversity in the classroom, doing so is presented more as a means to an end, that is, engaging students in the learning process rather than a serious matter of curriculum development or relationship building. Thus, constructivist teaching and diversity are important only because they can be useful learning tools, not necessarily because they represent the realities of daily life. The danger in this is that it runs the risk of failing to address the ways in which difference plays out within a classroom context.


Perhaps more perplexing is the author’s choice to use fictional characters and case studies. In doing so, Sears has been able to present an idealized version of how teaching, learning, instruction, and school reform occur. For a novice or naïve reader, this text implies that if one were to employ the methods discussed, learning would most surely occur. In addition, the text implies that engaging in school reform is also easier when one employs CTL.  Sears references Fullan (1993) and his discussion of the need for both top-down and bottom-up simultaneous reform, and in fact points to a number of change inhibitors that would prevent a shift in practice to CTL. Lack of experience, lack of funding, lack of rewards or incentives, and lack of time are among Sears’s top concerns. These are valid issues that slow down and inhibit the reform process. However, there are a number of issues that Sears never addresses, including the effects of the local and national political climate (in the school and beyond), the general lack of respect for teachers and education, and the current back-to-basics and standardized testing movement supported by current federal legislation (e.g., No Child Left Behind, Office of Legislation and Policy Analysis, 2003). Sears has failed to consider how education as an institution is clearly shaped by outside factors and how these outside factors affect how and if change occurs.


In addition, Sears presents the case studies as non-problematic and apolitical. There has been extensive discussion regarding the difficulties of school reform including much of Fullan’s work (e.g., Fullan, 1993). Still others like Fink (2000), and Hong, (1996) have pointed to the many complex issues that stand in the way of school reform, including what Tye (2000) refers to as the deep structures of schooling, e.g., each society’s “set of assumptions about what schools are for and how education should be properly conducted” (Tye, 2000, p. 13). Contextual teaching and learning also points to a potential shift in the deep structure of schooling in that CTL is an instructional program that has evolved out of the school-to-work movement that hopes to better prepare students for “the new economy” (Berns and Erickson, 2001, p. 1). While one might argue that shifts in the deep structures of schooling are crucial if we are to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population, the fictional case studies, particularly the one regarding the professional development school (PDS) collaborative, leave much unsaid. Developing the conditions for the growth of PDS partnerships requires an incredible commitment in resources, time, and consensus on the part of those involved (Darling-Hammond, 1994; Petrie, 1995). Sears’s fictional treatment of this complex dynamic (while not the immediate subject of the text) decontextualizes the environment in that would ultimately shape the implementation of CTL. This in and of itself could be perceived as potentially dangerous because of its ideological implications.  Sears presents CTL as what is best for students. At the same time, many others view CTL as what is best for the new economy, the job market, and the workforce. While their needs may be similar, to imply that students, the economy, and employers want (or deserve) the same things fails to acknowledge that students’ needs may be fundamentally different from the rest of society’s needs.


In sum, Contextual Teaching and Learning, by Susan Sears, is a useful book for any teacher educator who wants a basic text that illustrates brain-based learning and constructivist approaches to the teaching and learning process, provided it is used in conjunction with other educational texts. However, for educational researchers, it is a problematic text that oversimplifies the wide-reaching and complex issues related to teaching, learning, and school reform. Ultimately, in her presentation of the fictional student teacher and case studies, Sears’s oversimplification of learning to teach, university program reform and professional development schools may be misleading for students who are unfamiliar with the politics behind teaching, learning, and change.



Berns, R.G. and Erickson, P.M. (2001).  Contextual Teaching and Learning: Preparing students for the new economy.  The highlight zone: Research @ Work, number 5. [online]. Available:   http://www.nccte.org/publications/infosynthesis/highlightzone/highlight05/index.asp


Darling-Hammond, L. (Ed.). (1994). Professional development schools: Schools for developing a profession. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.


Dewey, J. (1900). The school and society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


Fink, D. (2000). Good schools/real schools: Why school reform doesn’t last.  New York: Teachers College Press.


Fullan, M.  (1993).  Change forces: Probing the depths of educational reform.  New York, NY: Falmer Press.


Hong, L.K. (1996). Surviving school reform: A year in the life of one school. New York: Teachers College Press.


Johnson, E.B. (2001).  Contextual teaching and learning: What it is and why it is here to stay. Corwin Press.


Office of Legislation Policy and Analysis (2003). The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001  P.L. 107-110 (H.R. 1). The Office of Legislation Policy and Analysis Legislative Updates.  [online].  Available:  http://olpa.od.nih.gov/legislation/107/session2/3nochild.asp


Petrie, H.G. (Ed.). (1995). Professionalization, partnership, and power: Building professional development schools. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.


Tye, B.B. (2000). Hard truths: Uncovering the deep structure of schooling. New York: Teachers College Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 106 Number 2, 2004, p. 397-400
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 11206, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:21:56 PM

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About the Author
  • Rebecca Goldstein
    Montclair State University
    E-mail Author
    REBECCA A. GOLDSTEIN is an assistant professor in the College of Education & Human Services, Department of Curriculum and Teaching, at Montclair State University, Upper Montclair, NJ. Dr. Goldstein’s research interests include student and teacher identity construction in diverse learning contexts, issues of democracy and social justice in urban schools, and urban school reform and teacher preparation. Her most recent article, “Discourse production, normativity, and hegemony in an urban history classroom,” was published in Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education. She is also editor of the book, Useful Theory: Making Critical Education Practical, to be published by Peter Lang.
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