Volume:6, Issue: 2

Sep. 1, 2014

Higher Education: Realizing the Learner’s Needs for Engaging the ‘Environmental’ Factors in Class to Succeed in the “Outside World”
Roden, William J. [about]

KEY WORDS: classroom ecology, pedagogy, learning environment, students with academic challenges, contextual learning, ‘superunknowns’, language acquisition.

ABSTRACT: This paper demonstrates the exploitation of flexibility and freedom in the classroom. Current remedies assume that ready transference of new approaches and their resources can be obtained through inductive reasoning and that someone else’s “best practices” could work here. Not so.

This article does not repeat current educational criticisms of pedagogy, but rather offers a new perspective in understanding what students are not learning and why. The numerous on campus sections of remedial courses in the US speak to this mounting problem. A new definition of the learning environment must go far beyond the student’s natural classroom surroundings. Solutions for actualizing academic success are presented employing contextualized learning.


At first, Leo Tolstoy and John Dewey may seem like strange companions on a journey to find the best approach to identify effective ways to teach students. One, a successful 19th century fiction writer in Russia; the other a contemporary, a sociologist in the United States.

Tolstoy had just achieved a monumental career as a novelist. He had the big estate, was turning his avocational attention to how he could improve the lot of the peasant. Dewey was working in his own fields of sociology and philosophy trying to find engaging ways to educate students than what was practiced.

Both men abhorred rote memorization, grammar and learning tables, etc., just because that was what a prescribed curriculum deemed important. Tolstoy’s The ABC’s of Learning, presented approaches far more individualized and entertaining to the student. Dewey also focused his attention upon the student-centered model. Both seemed to believe an effective education system could be obtained through a more democratic process. (Simmons, 1968)

What might succeed in a society as a form of government, a democratic approach, left much to be desired in the classroom. In the late twentieth century, this egalitarian concept oftentimes resulted in an unfocused, laissez faire or chaotic assortment of teaching and learning styles with little success or accountability.

Tolstoy visited countries to view their schools and their operation. What he saw he characterized as rote memorization, whippings, and a military-like approach to what should occur in the classroom. He believed he knew what Russian students (read peasants) would appreciate and wanted to learn.

In the United States, Dewey’s vision extolling freedom, individualized and supportive cohort learning experiences and the like are still demonstrated in the classroom. Be it a school, college or university, the teaching and learning process still adheres to this resultantly unbridled approach.

A “democratic” approach has taken on new meaning in the 21st century. Now it embraces technology, in the US, nationalized Common Core subject requirements, concern for diversity, equity, remediation, and creates drop out students with their massive student loans at the expense of the taxpayer. Cultural sensitivity seems to overcome the need for further in-depth analysis of course content or close reading.

The inclusive, democratic commitment to serving all students who come continues. Despite their academic, social and physical limitations, all come to college with the expectation that they can acquire the skills and knowledge to ultimately establish a career of their choice in any field.

Given how Education as a discipline is currently presented, it cannot consistently provide a clear set of cogent theories or algorithms from which to structure an effective and consistent teaching and learning environment, classroom practitioners and commercial course designers create their own agendas without much attention to those factors affecting student success in their “environment.”

Today, perhaps a publisher’s representative at a conference presentation is advising conferees on textbook or e-book selections and making presumably future content delivery decisions with the seemingly laudable goal of individualizing effective delivery of instruction.

Tolstoy’s idealism was a step in the direction of academic flexibility as he encouraged flexible attendance, studying subjects with which students wanted to engage, eliminating mere repetition of historic facts and the like. He personally wanted to prepare students to be able to enjoy their lot in life, not employ an education to reach higher for more than they could realistically obtain.

Dewey believed students were individuals who should have freedom to explore and to think critically. Though he abhorred the label, “vocational training,” he found that lifelong learning would lead to career changes, to intellectual growth.

Freedom to learn and to fail, either in society or in class

Both men believed practical experience was more important than theoretical knowledge. They recognized not all boats rise to the same level when the tide changes. While they may have acknowledged this truism, they did not identify ways this thinking would translate to higher education or develop in different venues.

For example, with Dewey’s establishment of the Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, it recruited upper income children from the suburbs. As with Montessori or parochial schools in general, an educator can have more success with a socioeconomic homogeneous group of students than a heterogeneous one.

As a result, these models disregard the plethora of learning disabilities, cultural gaps, and dysfunctional social backgrounds of public school students. Teachers and professors are ill equipped to address the individual learning needs of all students. One look no further than the rampant drop out rates or withdrawal from basic skills and first year courses in college. The current higher education practice of extending the number of years to complete a bachelor’s degree does little to address the many who struggle with basic skills that remain lost.

Unfortunately, educational leaders have over-subscribed to the presumed need for flexibility and individualization of the student’s education. There are now cohorts or groups studying together. While the comradeship and working in teams are applauded, weak members are carried along so the group succeeds as a team. Others who were ill prepared for college are slotted into remedial courses for no credit and barred from taking real college courses. Directed to semesters of remediation, students dropping out in the US have little to show for their efforts but unpaid student loans.

The individual professor does have some tools, however, to use to reach many of these students in need.

Students with academic challenges

Here faculty can inject contextual learning from either the student’s career path or the “real world.” While the “English for Special Purposes” concept is not new, apparently the making of “remedial” and relevant studies survivable to students is.

Exercises practicing mathematics, any kind of formula in the arts or sciences can be reflected in the vocabulary, the necessary calculations expected in their anticipated world of work. Professional contexts students can relate to will keep them in their seats far longer than abstract web-based exercises and readings from politically correct authors about their individual “journey.”

With the scientific, technological, engineering, and mechanics emphasis at our major universities, contextual learning is all the more critical. Academic content in courses around these “hands-on” courses can be every bit as rigorous as the traditional STEM-based courses currently offered. That is the beauty of contextual learning.

It requires fostering a social learning environment but one that works with real problems or challenges within a real world situation. Setting up such learning environments requires much effort to insure required content-based course learning objectives are realized using this approach.

Students can augment curricular materials with those they have created themselves. An individual professor's research topics can be embedded into the classroom experience (Nygaard and Andersen, 2004) so students can see formerly abstract concepts adhere to actual problems she may be working on within her discipline. 

Critical thinking and abstract concepts become concretized and real time results from solving a problem contextually are readily apparent. Now abstract notions of what is critical thinking are effaced and replaced with the student’s practical understanding or mastery of a particular skill or content area in her or his own work or research environment.

Developing writing and speaking skills across the curricula

Regardless of the class: accounting, mathematics, biology, and other “non-writing” type of courses, relevant written exercises, and assignments can be created. Having an accounting student stand up in front of the class to present an accounting problem and its solution affords the instructor a chance to evaluate oral presentation communication skills as well—important for anyone attempting to climb the management ladder.

Written assignments in every class should be marked for content accuracy, of course, but also for grammar, mechanics, and spelling. This cross-curricular approach can run throughout even the most technical or analytical material. A concerted faculty effort is needed and no one should be immune from grading the mechanics and coherence of a piece of writing because “I don’t get paid to teach writing.” It needs to be part of every faculty member’s responsibility. The old law school maxim that all writing concerns are to be taken down the hall to the Legal Writing (or the English) department should be merely an artifact from a bygone era.

Disregard the “right” approach to pedagogy

The traditional, yes, even the didactic lecturer can be as engaging as the group discussion leader. Attempting to garner the individual learning styles of all students is a herculean task but can be addressed through 360-degree contextual learning supports as outlined above.

For example, how an accountant looks at a R&D scenario is different from that of the researcher. Only an accountant knows how best to present the fiduciary details in a proposal or memorandum to reflect her perspective. This can be a written account or oral presentation.

A researcher armed with a microscope needs to be sensitive to the scientific or technical intricacies not only of other like-minded members of the audience, but of how these might be perceived by the accountants, the engineers, the CEO, and even board members. Only through vetting simulations of presentations, requiring critiques of written reports, can the instructor help the student from any discipline begin to grasp the need for effective communication written or otherwise across others.

Putting it all in the right context

Professor Ralf St. Clair opined in an article, “Similarity and Superunknowns: An Essay on the Challenges of Educational Research,” for the Harvard Educational Review found relying upon induction to prove or support successful transference of a practice or concept, is an unwieldy approach to effective teaching and learning practices. He points to “superunknowns” existing in any context as skewing the success factors affecting any new proposition in an attempt to apply it in another setting.

Instructors have close hand experience with such a phenomena when they try to introduce software, introduce new modules or learning tools in their own unique academic environment. Their own students’ cognitive abilities are different, the external environment is changed, the timeframes, the budget, the list of superunknowns are limitless.

While in a book, at a conference, or in one particular context, a concept was clear, expecting that same reaction to a new audience in a different setting is oftentimes disappointing.

A new ecology in the classroom

The effect of these superunknowns upon the environment can be recognized in a global setting. Historically researchers such as sociologists, economists, anthropologists focused on one or two forces: the wealthy, the poor; black, white, either applying a unitary or typically a binary approach, the aboriginal versus the outside observer.

A new perspective on ecology encompasses what the French philosopher Felix Guattari and others defined as “Ecosophy,” (2014). Here one looks at the entire range of one’s environmental factors: human, non-human, spatial, political, and more. This approach crosses all boundaries.

For example, in analyzing the Brazilian sociologist Paulo Freire’s work in Brazil regarding one economic study, Guattari opined Freire looked only at two classes: the peasant and the upper class. Guattari finds this to be but two of many parts of the “assemblage.” What about the tension between the rural areas and the urbanized ones of Sao Paolo? The power interests in Brazil’s iron ore, petroleum, sugar, and coffee exports? How do they affect food production? The “situated inflection” as it related to the global discourse on entitlement and job creation. (2014)

This type of critical thinking should be potentially present in the classroom and thus an ecosophic perspective must address various factors for any pedagogy to succeed.

St. Clair finds in his research that these superunknowns can serve as “empirical heuristics” that can lead one to unique applications students can make as they work with the instructor regardless of the initial inability to transfer the knowledge or the skill announced by some general law or hypothesis. Guattari  notes that recognizing this “rhizomatic” phenomena or randomness to a situation trumps presumed hierarchical results (2014). For example, blame it all on capitalist interests. Instead, a broader, comprehensive definition of the ecology of the classroom can embrace processes, machines, people, biological, material, sociological, and ideological factors at play.

Such realizations can only be obtained by contextual learning in an environment experienced “out there.” That is, only by relating classroom subjects, analysis, and discussion to the professional or demands of business and industry, can seemingly abstract concepts be acknowledged or mastered by the student. Out there can also include applying what is found in yet another fertile field, the latest research a professor may be working on to her class assignments. “Static” textbooks take second place in such an environment.

What does this mean for higher education and the professor?

The uniqueness of the instructor’s environment must be recognized: the learning skills of her students, the cultural mores of the students, and the applicability of heretofore-academic content to the outside world.

Faculty can create assignments that employ the vocabulary of the profession, that apply calculations from Calculus, Algebra, or analyze literary metaphors, to situations students work with or recognize. Content is tied to what the student or ultimately the graduate will need to succeed in their careers or at a minimum to the depth of their higher-level critical thinking. Analysis of the Guattarian assemblages would identify intellectual, professional, and other unaddressed components of the environment in a particular scenario that need to be addressed. This methodology is in contrast to a traditional constructivist one where the learner applies limited, internal experiences to the real world, rather than explore her environment with a broader and more in-depth perspective.

Allowing the professor to be this facilitator for learning gives birth to an active, engaged, learner. The large numbers of college classes in remediation could be displaced with contextual analysis and “language acquisition” of one’s discipline. The use of technology would reflect the skills students may use later, but no longer would a curriculum be anchored to a publisher’s choice of textbooks or necessarily constrained by rigid core curricular requirements. Dynamic adaptability of course materials must supersede textbook availability.  

Tolstoy and Dewey’s hope for more freedom and flexibility in the classroom may be realized, but now will be circumscribed by the knowledge, skills, and professional demands of the world. A professor’s creative experimentation supersedes the need for a traditional search for the “truth.”


  1. Simmons, Ernest J. (1968). Introduction to Tolstoy’s Writings. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  2. St. Clair, Ralf. (Winter, 2005) “Similarity and Superunknowns: An Essay on the Challenges of Educational Research,” Harvard Educational Review, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.
  3. Greenhalgh-Spencer, Heather. (2014) “Guattari’s Ecosophy and Implications for Pedagogy,” Journal of Philosophy of Education, Vol. 48, No. 2, pp. 322-328. UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  4. Nygaard, Claus and Andersen, Ib. (2004) “Contextual Learning in Higher Education,” Educational Innovation in Economics and Business. Copenhagen Business School, Denmark, NY: Springer Publications.
  5. Active Resource: Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD), Waco, Texas, www.cord.org. [Provides contextual learning resources and support staff].


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