CfEM blog: What is Contextualisation?

Blog by Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

The first theme considered for the Centres for Excellence in Maths programme was contextualisation (Theme 3). This is defined as being engagement with mathematical ideas and structures in real-world situations. This is seen as supporting learning itself as well as preparing students to apply their maths effectively and successfully in daily life, workplace settings and broader social, economic, political and environmental activity.

Contextualisation can motivate students by highlighting the practical relevance and usefulness of the maths they are using, and it can support students in forming a relationship with mathematics based on its use-value and not simply the exchange value of their maths qualification.

Contextualisation is not a simple process; in an educational setting it is the object of study whereas in the workplace it is a tool to support successful outcomes. Good contextualisation approaches require a detailed understanding of both the mathematical content and the real-world situation. In practice, the use of contexts can actually add more complexity to a problem by requiring more literacy, comprehension and interpretation skills, and students may need to be explicitly taught how to engage with contextualised problems.

In planning our use of contexts, we need to ask:

  • What are the most effective contexts and how can they be used to best effect?
  • How does the use of contexts affect mathematical learning?
  • In any particular task, are we choosing to foreground the maths or the context?
  • Which strategies best support students’ comprehension and interpretation skills for dealing with contextualised mathematical problems?

Doing this well requires will require us to:

  • Be clear about the types and uses of contexts and what makes an effective use of context.
  • Understand how to structure and sequence learning to enhance mathematical understanding and to use maths as a mediating tool to engage with real-world contexts.
  • Develop specific strategies to support students’ comprehension, interpretation and metacognitive skills to help them solve contextual problems.

This very short summary was adapted from a briefing by Professor Geoff Wake of the University of Nottingham. His paper on “Making sense of and with mathematics: the interface between academic mathematics and mathematics in practice” can be found in Educational Studies in Mathematics, 86, No. 2 (2014): 271–290.

You may also find it useful to consult the MEI checklist of questions to consider when developing contextualised resources.

Further information on the Centres for Excellence in Maths programme and it’s key themes can be found on the Education and Training Foundation website.

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