The 6 questions most asked about Global Contexts

In some of the conversations I have with teachers from different schools, whether three-program schools or one-program schools, a frequent topic is that of contexts and how they are used in teaching and learning. 

Recently, I had an interesting discussion of the perceived importance of global contexts in learning. A colleague is putting together a primer for the place of contextual learning, and realised that there was a real gap in understanding of the role of global contexts in her school. One of the questions for example that comes up in conversation is, Is it [contextual learning] an ‘IB thing?’

Um, not really.

Contextual learning is mentioned in early research into the role of motivation in learning and as a part of constructivist learning. Those early studies mention that connecting learning to learners’ lives and interests increase motivation to learn (for example, Dirkx and Prenger, 1997).

In their Understanding by Design work, you may recall that Wiggins and McTighe highlight the big goal for inquiry: to allow for transfer, the ability to reproduce a skill or apply understanding gained in one context to a new situation.

The essential skill of transfer is one of the fruits of contextual learning, and perhaps if we think of the skill of transfer in the context of the changes that face our students, we might see how developing the capacity to learn in context is key to the futures students are rehearsing for, today.

A context for Contexts

We know that the exponential change that is a constant in our VUCA world is a factor that highlights the ways we design learning in our schools. A suggestion might be to take a look at one emerging global concern that isn’t really hypothetical: the impact of technology on future work.

Already we see that artificial intelligence has begun to change work

The Brookings Institute in Washington D.C published a report on how automation is affecting people and places. Below is a screenshot of part of the Brookings report, highlighting education, one that serves to upskill the people who are entering the world of work, is key to developing a workforce that can contribute in the new types of work that will evolve.

from Brookings Institute, a context for change in how we learn.

A BBC report citing the Office for National Statistics shares that “It’s not so much that robots are taking over, but that routine and repetitive tasks can be carried out more quickly and efficiently by an algorithm or a machine designed for one specific function.”

From the BBC report on changes in the workplace.

Christina Colclough, the director of UNI Global Union in her interview cautions, “Making sure that everybody can follow developments and have an opportunity to thrive in the labor market” is a key change in the way we prepare people for their futures.

The documentary adds that the teams working on algorithms to give us automation need to be “representative of humanity. If they are not representative of humanity how does this affect the types of systems that present equity to humanity?”

This one context of the future of work, a concern that touches the lives of children, adults who have children, parents of school children, students who are going to be entering university soon, universities offering courses of study, companies, and lots of other human industries and endeavours…concerns all of us.

It’s a context that might be worth thinking about, learning more of, proposing solutions, preparing for. And we can do these learning moves when we are able to make connections between our lives and this global problem.

The six questions

What is contextual learning?

Like me, did you ever learn grammar rules by doing exercises which had nothing to do with your life? That was not contextual learning (and I wonder how many of us remember those rules now). Contextual learning is not isolating topics or skills by themselves with no anchor to real life. Contextual learning is framing and connecting learning to real life situations. Using the example context of the changing world of work above, students might explore how things work  or how scientific and technological advances in society like AI impact society and the environment.

Contextual learning allows for real life scenarios to frame and inform the concepts and skills that students learn in a unit of inquiry.

What are contexts?

Contexts within the IB ecosystem are big ideas “situations” and “specific settings, events or circumstances” (From Principles into Practice, p. 59). They allow for concepts, such as sustainability, to be illustrated in real life situations. They are not the same as skills or attitudes.

The corrections above were made as a response to a Tweet by Pilar Q, a curriculum manager at the IBO, who sent me this Tweet:

I loved that Pilar corrected the poorly worded definition of global contexts in the MYP on Twitter so the PLN and many others who are wondering about contextual learning, can learn this clarification straight from someone in the IB.

What we learn from the correction is that in the IB ecosystem, contexts are distinguished from concepts because within the IB ecosystem, calling them macro-concepts might be confusing.

In other ecosystems such as the Common Ground Collaborative, contexts like the CGC human commonalities function as conceptual lenses. Concepts are abstract, transcend time, place and space and are universal. Rafael Angel Mendoza who is both an IB educator and trainer for concept-based learning, suggests that

How do I use them to learn?

Since contexts are macro concepts (although we do not call them that in the IB), they are usually chunked into smaller sub-ideas called explorations. These explorations focus student inquiries further and can also be a source of personalisation. If we start an inquiry into the world of work 10 years from now for example, suggestions for students to explore might be 

  • “human dignity” in an age of surveillance (Exploration from Global Context Identities and Relationships)
  • “institutions” and how they might change because of new industries that arise from automation (Exploration from Global Context Personal and cultural expression)
  • human creativity as a “commodity” (Exploration from Global Context Globalization and sustainability)

Because contexts allow for options to explore a unit’s concepts and content, they work two ways for the learner. First, contexts allow for learners to enter the real-life scenarios where ideas, content and skills can be applied. Second, those real-life scenarios link back to the student’s life, allowing them to ask and discover answers to questions like, How is this important to my life? What does this mean to me? 

How do they change a unit?

Contexts can change how a unit leads learning by design. In the examples of explorations above, one topic “Impact of automation on future work” supports exploration in three different frames: identities and relationships, personal and cultural expression, and globalisation and sustainability. A change in the contextual frame of a unit would create a shift in the content used to illustrate and enter the inquiry. 

When contexts change, it changes some of the ideas that students might interact with in the unit. If we paired the topic “Impact of automation on future work” with the global context “Scientific and technical innovation,” we might focus more on understanding big data and how its convergence with the actual technology has allowed for machine learning. If we look at that same topic framed by identities and relationships, we might also touch on how societies respond to major disruptions like changes that education has to make in order to address the new demands of the world of employment, and how this has looked like in the past and the present. It might also lead us to find out, What happens to people when their skill sets become obsolete in their area of the world?

What is their role in projects?

In the personal projects, one of the criteria strands requires that the student connect the personal project to a context. Although we know this is a requirement, it makes sense that there should be a context, whether the project is a MYP Year 5 independent inquiry or some other capstone project that a student undertakes in a non-MYP school.

A project, for example let’s take the project of two students who developed a project to address a need they found that real people had. The students used a real-life situation or a context to design their project for, and learned to create the product or outcome. Sounds like the personal project, and sounds like it had a global context.

So is this an ‘IB thing’?

Nope. The IB calls it Global Contexts, and other systems have called contexts Human Commonalities (Common Ground Collaborative), still others call it “authentic situations.”

What these very big ideas called contexts provide are ways for students to look at their learning from different perspectives. Learning then includes real life applications, touches real life connections, and approaches real life meaning.

There may be an idea that it’s ‘an IB thing’ because our programmes guarantee contextual learning. Here are some ways IB approaches do that:

  • it’s hard not to link a service learning project in the MYP or Diploma when students identify a need in a community
  • it’s embedded in the central idea of the PYP Unit of Inquiry and the MYP Statement of Inquiry, planned for in units
  • it’s addressed and assessed in the Personal Projects

How have you infused the understanding of global contexts in your community?


“AI Expert Says Automation Could Replace 40% of Jobs in 15 Years.” (2019, January 10). Retrieved June 2, 2019, from

International Baccalaureate (2014). Middle Years Programme: From principles into practice.

Muro, M., Maxim, R., Whiton, J., Muro, M., Maxim, R., & Whiton, J. (2019, January 24). “Automation and Artificial Intelligence: How machines are affecting people and places.” Retrieved June 2, 2019, from

Singapore American School. (2014, October 12). SAS Student Shorts: Zane & Jesse. Retrieved June 2, 2019, from

Featured Photo “iceberg” by James Ahlberg on Unsplash

Author: alavina

Cognitive CoachSM and professional development leader at large. Writer and editor at

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