Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

Summary: Functional Context Theory is a cognitive learning theory that was developed specifically for educating adults in businesses and the military.

Originator: Thomas Sticht

Keywords: Job task analysis, knowledge base, literacy, learning strategies, instructional strategies

Functional Context Theory (Sticht)

There are various styles of learning requiring educators to learn about their students so that they can choose the most appropriate learning theory upon which to develop their instructional strategies. The functional context theory is considered a cognitive learning theory. The theory is based on the premise that students learn best when instruction is based on prior knowledge base, making use of long-term memory[1]. Instructional strategies must be developed that require students to make use of their language and problem solving skills[2].

Although the functional content theory is a cognitive theory, it is in direct opposition to other major components of cognitive theories that hold the premise that learning occurs in stages and is totally separate and apart from any environmental influence.

Sticht stresses that learning has everything to do with a person’s environmental influences. Instead of developing in life’s predetermined stages, instructional strategies must be developed that are based on their relevance to the students and their own personal experiences[2]. Importantly, according to Sticht’s functional context theory, learning is accomplished through the context of the students’ activity, giving them the ability to transfer their classroom learning successfully to their daily work tasks.

Using this theory, educators combine literacy and other of the most basic skills, such as reading, in order to incorporate them with content learning. In 1975, Thomas Sticht developed this theory strictly for the education of adults[3]. His learning theory was tested in the development of a functional content course for enlisted Navy personnel. The goal of the program was to improve reading and math skills as pertaining to their specific job duties A job task analysis was conducted in order to find out exactly what level of reading and math skills soldiers needed to successfully complete their job tasks.

The results of the program enabled the development of technical manuals and instructional materials that the Navy could use to train their enlisted personnel. The purpose of the functional content theory of learning is to ensure that all instruction is based on a prior knowledge base, making instruction inclusive of knowledge and skills that students can actually apply successfully in the work place.

A very important component of the function content theory is literacy. The purpose is to improve adult literacy through the improvement of content, helping students use and improve their problem solving and critical thinking skills. Assessments are designed that are valid to the learning material, requiring context and content that will supply specific measurements directly related to the learning materials.

The assessment of learning success using the function content theory is not to be based on grades, but rather, on the specific content learning and, distinguishing between academic learning and function learning.

Sticht has used his functional content theory to develop instructional material for the health care industry, as well as a very diverse variety of jobs where specific content related learning is necessary. Programs have and instructional materials have been developed for office workers and mechanics. There are really too many fields to list.

The premise is that adults are not going to be interested in spending time learning something that is not relative to their work. By the time one adulthood is reached, people tend to know exactly what they want and they require context specific training.

The function content theory is coupled with the importance of adult literacy[4]. Reading and math literacy are important tenets of learning and job success. Without good literacy skills that are related to an individual’s work task, success cannot be expected.

Function content goes hand in hand with situated learning theory, which also is based on the premise that learning is best accomplished when it is based on the student’s previous knowledge and current situation. Academic learning involves the learning of facts needed for school success, but functional learning involves learning reading and math skills directly related to a real world job situation.

As early as 1861, teachers were working on developing experience specific instruction for freed slaves after the civil war. They strove to develop content learning that was based on the previous lives of the freedmen in order to help them learn, adding new knowledge to their previous knowledge base. Instead of beginning the education of the freemen at the level at which a child begins education, the materials were developed based on the current living environment of the freed slaves.

Adults must not be educated like school children are educated, rather, their education must be developed based on current life situations. World War II soldiers were educated through the use of materials that related to current job tasks. The basic principles of the theory first came to light during his time period in America’s history.

Although Sticht’s functional content theory is in opposition to other cognitive theories it is widely used for adult literacy education, preparing students for real world jobs. The use of function content has spread widely throughout adult literacy and vocational programs, preparing adults for real world job situations to enable them to be successful at their chosen vocation.

Thomas Sticht’s extensive research into those principles used to train WWII soldiers has made a he impact on adult education. The impact on instructional strategies now used in adult vocational and literacy education. The Functional Literacy Program used the principles that underlie the basic tenets of the cognitive sciences.

The immense impact Sticht’s research has had on adult education has created a ripple effect throughout adult educational programs, making teaching and learning more successful and effective.


  1. Sticht, T. G. (1987). Functional Context Education. Workshop Resource Notebook.
  2. Sticht, T. (2000). Functional Context Education: Making Learning Relevant.
  3. Sticht, T. G. (1975). Reading for Working: A Functional Literacy Anthology.
  4. Sticht, T. G. (1988). Adult literacy education. Review of research in education,15, 59-96.