May 13, 2023

The battle between conceptual and contextual learning

High-quality and enduring conceptual learning cannot happen unless aided by contextual learning activities.

Humans have waged some pointless battles for ages and, often, the trigger comes from a lack of adequate understanding of the matter and flawed judgement of the motives of the supposed adversary. One such battle fought only with sharp opinions and thoughts, is between academia and industry about the relative importance of conceptual learning and contextual learning.

Prima facie, a debate on such a topic sounds legitimate; however, what makes it futile is the inability to see the strong complementary nature of both types of learning. Unfortunately, the arguments with the highest decibel levels are frequently given by a few in the industry who refuse to see beyond their immediate business interests and by some in the academia who wish to hold onto the status quo.

The two sides

Often, industry reports about the lack of employability of graduates make the headlines of news publications and talent acquisition executives and even business leaders talk about their struggles to find the right talent. Some demand skilled talent in a specific technology, some seek legions of people for high-in-demand job roles, and others ask for fungible and agile talent that can be deployed for fast-changing business and technology contexts. The struggle is so acute that few large employers have even pitched their tents inside many higher education campuses, while some others offer an online layer of skill-based training to students who are still pursuing their formal education at various institutions. A few employers also express their lack of confidence in the education imparted in institutions and cite the lack of industry relevance of the curriculum and the inability of the graduates to apply their learning in real-life business environments and job role contexts. They are also critical of the formal education system for its emphasis on the transmission of theoretical knowledge and less focus on the application of knowledge at the workplace.

Many in academia justify the imparting of theoretical knowledge as essential to build a strong conceptual foundation and cannot be compromised by imparting training for narrowly defined job roles. According to them, only a strong conceptual foundation will enable students to survive successive waves of new technologies and adapt rapidly to changes. Also, by building conceptual knowledge across several disciplines, the ability to draw insights from multiple fields to build solutions would be higher as complex real-life contexts are rarely compartmentalised into narrow areas or disciplines.

Possession of skills is sometimes said to be like holding the currency with monetary value. The ability to do a task or solve a problem that is valued by the market not only helps people earn their bread and butter but several other rich toppings as well, especially if the skills they possess are in high demand and in short supply. However, often, people and employers gravitate towards some new job roles or career tracks on the basis of market hype about associated rewards or due to actual growing business demands.

Complementary roles

While it is okay to prepare people for in-demand job roles, it is unwise to believe that by just learning to operate a new tool or equipment, or learning a new software or programming language alone, they can build an enduring career in a rewarding field. For instance, it is very hard to thrive in a Data Science career without an adequate foundation in Maths or Statistics. Similarly, it is vital to have a strong foundation in algorithms and data structures to have an enduring software development career. High-demand spaces such as Electric Vehicles, Cybersecurity, Artificial Intelligence, and Green Energy require a strong conceptual foundation in many subjects.

“Nothing is as good as it seems, and nothing is as bad as it seems. Somewhere in between lies reality.” This quote, often attributed to Lou Holtz, can help stakeholders in the industry as well as academia when they debate conceptual and contextual learning. In reality, conceptual learning and contextual learning are not as segregated as they are made out to be. High-quality and enduring conceptual learning cannot happen unless aided by contextual learning activities. But theoretical knowledge transmission cannot be termed as conceptual learning unless a learner is able to see and experience the theory in action in a variety of contexts.

Institutions focussing on building strong conceptual foundations across multiple disciplines have a worthy purpose; however, they need to imaginatively integrate adequate contextual learning opportunities to achieve their purpose holistically. Also, the industry’s obsession with first-job skills, tools and technologies that are the flavour of the season, or imparting skills to accomplish a narrowly defined in-demand task will only help it address the talent needs of its immediate context or requirements.

It is not uncommon to see business leaders lament their workforce’s limited ability to quickly adapt to new contexts and technologies. In the absence of a strong conceptual foundation across multiple disciplines, it will always be immensely difficult to adapt to waves of technological changes, shifting customer needs, and the frequent emergence of new problems. Learning in narrowly defined contexts will stall the creation of a truly productive, innovative, agile, and fungible workforce.

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