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Contextualizing Adult Education: Learning from Six Decades of Experience and Research

ProLiteracy has created a series of research briefs on adult literacy and education. Written by scholars who have demonstrated expertise on specific topics, ProLiteracy Research Briefs were developed to help adult literacy practitioners understand ideas that have emerged from research.

“Contextualizing Adult Education: Learning from Six Decades of Experience and Research” was authored by Paul Jurmo, Independent Consultant, Basic Skills for Development and Judy Mortrude, Senior Technical Advisor, World Education, Inc. All briefs are edited by Alisa Belzer of Rutgers University. An excerpt of the research brief is highlighted below.

With roots extending back to at least the 1960s, the “contextualized” approach to adult basic skills education seeks to make learning relevant to and integrated with academic topics and/or real-world interests of learners. This approach also encourages practitioners to integrate (i.e., coordinate, combine, interweave, blend) instruction with other supports such as job training and placement or health services which they or other stakeholders provide. Diverse contextualized basic education models have been developed for children, youth, and adults, in formal and non-formal education settings, and inside and outside the United States. While recent contextualized programs in the U.S. have focused heavily on helping learners advance in careers and education, contextualized education can also focus on health, civic engagement, and other societal goals and areas of specific interest to learners.

Examples of Contextualization

In what were then called “developing” countries, contextualized adult literacy programs were developed in the 1960s through 1980s that taught reading and other basic skills needed for work, community development, and public health (Anzalone & McLaughlin, 1983; United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, 1976). Some countries incorporated literacy education into efforts to transform socio-political systems from colonialism to more egalitarian and democratic societies. These “education for liberation” efforts often used a dialogical, problem-posing approach in which learners collaboratively analyzed social and other problems and planned actions to address them (Prieto, 1981; Freire, 1970). In some cases, these international initiatives informed and inspired adult basic skills work in the U.S.

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