Using context in science lessons

Learning requires motivation. Motivation requires a rationale. Why do we care? Why should we spend our time learning this? Luckily for science teachers there are some very tangible reasons as to why students would need or want to know science.

Why use context in science lessons?

For me, context provides the rationale for learning. It links the physical world to scientific ideas, in a similar way to practical work. This is important as it serves as a great starting point to introduce the learning in a way that (hopefully!) makes sense to students.

Picture Shows: Ed Stafford on Olorua Island in Fiji after spending 60 days alone on an uninhabited island

Ed Stafford on Olorua Island in Fiji after spending 60 days alone on an uninhabited island

An example of context in action

For example, you could have a lesson where students have to produce salt from an aqueous solution of NaCl. This problem could be set-up with a purely conventional theoretical background. Or, we could pose the problem in a more interesting way!

You are marooned on a desert island. You have just been out fishing and caught some tuna for dinner. You would like some salt to put on your fish. You are going to try and separate some salt from the sea water that surrounds your island. How are you going to do it?

This context provides a rationale as to why we should care about crystallisation and frames the problem in a way that students can conceptualise. It’s not a particularly genuine context but is an imaginative one, that generates much interest. The clarity of the problem also minimises teacher instruction as students quickly make sense of what they are being asked to do. The problem is now more concrete and accessible.

Benefits of context

  • It shows the relevance of what we are learning and therefore improves student attitudes
  • It provides a rationale to make the problem clear – this reduces the need for teacher instruction and supports students if they get stuck to be clear on the end goal e.g. make salt for dinner
  • It makes abstract ideas more concrete
  • It can spark curiosity
  • If a relevant context is used it personalises the science e.g. investigating air pollution in your local area

Too much of a good thing

Like salt, too much can be dangerous. If a lesson is dominated by an over- complicated context then students can become overwhelmed by the volume of information. This can distract from the scientific ideas that we are trying to convey.

Used springy though, context is a powerful tool to increase student motivation and support students to make meaning of the science. Give it a go!

Further reading

Bennett, J., Lubben, F. and Hogarth, S., 2007. Bringing science to life: A synthesis of the research evidence on the effects of context‐based and STS approaches to science teaching. Science Education, 91(3), pp.347-370.

  1. Clearly defined lesson objectives
  2. The Do Now
  3. Check prior knowledge
  4. Challenge your students
  5. Use context
  6. Use questioning to probe understanding
  7. Challenge all students appropriately 
  8. Use direct instruction to provide clear explanations
  9. Model abstract ideas in concrete ways
  10. Check for understanding – give and get feedback
  11. Troubleshooting  – why did it not work?!