Rock Climbing & Math

Brown (1989) writes of the importance of gaining knowledge while being situated in an event, where the actual knowledge is being used and applied in a meaningful way. “[T]he activity in which knowledge is developed…is not separable from or ancillary to learning and cognition. Situations might be said to co-produce knowledge through activity” (Brown, 1989). Situated learning events, such as hands-on apprenticeships, or

 vocational experiences, bring the learner into an environment where they can learn by doing; the assessment is in how well it is done. For example, there is a substantial amount of math involved for rock climbers in planning to scale a cliff: in rope length, tension strength,fall factor, slope, angles, and speed. How quickly they climb to the top is a contextualized assessment of applied math knowledge. Kids in school, however, get this word problem:

A rock climber needs to climb a 400 ft wall. He climbs at 10 ft/min. After climbing for 1 minute, he rests for 1 minute. Problem is each time he is resting for 1 minute he slips and lose or goes down 2 ft. How long will it take for him to climb the 400 ft wall ([sic],, n.d.).

Assessment of how a student answers this type of question is decontextualized, because they are not in the situation to actually apply the math as they learn it, therefore it has less meaning. The only situated learning here is learning how to be a student, or learning how to test.

Of course, there are some situations that are impossible to experience: walking on the surface of mars, or interacting with individual water molecules–unless you have a Magic School Bus. Many schoolteachers are adept at remedying this via problem-based learning strategies (Chang, 1995, Hmelo-Silver, 2004), or goal-based scenarios (CGTV, 1997, Schank, 1999), but the assessment of what is actually learned is decontextualized by default. For example, the goal-based scenario, Microscopic Wonderland (Champ, n.d.),succeeds in providing a simulated microscopic environment where students are virtually situated on a terrain of bread, a dog’s back, or a kitchen counter. By controlling variables,students grow forests of mold, combat fleas, or ride on the back of a drosophila. What is learned, however,  when applied to real-world situations, is out of context with the game itself. The assessment of learning in this simulation or any other is decontextualized, by default.

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