(This is the first post in a two-part series)
The new “question-of-the-week” is:
What is “transfer of learning” and what can teachers do to increase the odds of it happening with their students?
Transfer of learning, also know as learning transfer, is arugably the primary purpose of teaching. We want our students to be able to apply what they learn in our classes to all other aspects of their lives.
But it isn’t easy....
Today, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, Adeyemi Stembridge, Todd Finley, Kenneth Baum, and David Krulwich share their ideas on the topic. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Nancy and Adeyemi on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.
Before we get to the responses by today’s guests, I’d like to share four related resources of my own:
The Real Stuff Of Schooling: How To Teach Students To Apply Knowledge appeared in The Washington Post, and is an excerpt from one of my books.
The Best Resources For Learning About The Concept Of “Transfer” and The Best Movie Scenes, Stories & Quotations About “Transfer Of Learning” are two collections I’ve developed.
And last, but not least, is this video Education Week and I recently created:
Response From Douglas Fisher & Nancy Frey
Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High School. They are the authors of numerous books, including Rigorous Reading (Corwin, 2013):
John Hattie, author of “Visible Learning” and co-author of “Visible Learning For Literacy,” defined learning as the process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations. (2014 Vernon Wall Lecture)
Clearly, learning is a process and one that should result in students’ ability to apply what they have learned in unfamiliar situations. We believe that learning follows a spiral as students move from surface understanding of a skill or concept toward an ever-deepening exploration of what lies beneath. Over time, and with practice, students should be able to use the skills, concepts, and knowlege they have gained in new ways. As Wiggins and McTighe (2011) note, “The ability to transfer is arguably the long-term aim of all education. You truly understand and excel when you can take what you have learned in one way or context and use it in another, on your own” (p. 14).
We’re not saying that transfer is easy. In fact, we think that transfer is one of our collective dirty little secrets. We all say that we want it, but aren’t really sure how to accomplish it. In fact, the American Psychologial Association (2015) notes that “student transfer or generalization of their knowledge and skills is not spontaneous or automatic” (p. 10). How then does it happen?
The simple answer is that with appropriate instruction about how to relate and extend ideas, students will deepen their understanding and with tasks that require them to apply that knowledge they will develop the ability to transfer. Of course, there is a much longer answer that involves establishing transfer goals and then aligning instruction to reach those goals.
For example, a kindergarten teacher in San Diego worked with her team and they agreed that one of the transfer goals that they had for students was to “recognize that some books contain accurate information.” Imagine how many lessons and experiences students needed to have to reach that goal! Establishing transfer goals across units allows teachers to determine what it is that students should be able to do long-term, and then ask themselves if their lessons provide students sufficient practice to ensure that they are developing the necessary thinking required.
An even longer answer includes a discussion about the value of surface and deep learning to develop students’ habits. Returning to the Kindergarten transfer goal, imagine how many surface skills and strategies students need to reach this target. They’ll need to recognize markers for works of fiction, analyze authors’ purposes, understand the concept of accuracy, and so on. They will also need to develop some deeper learning skills, including discussion and questioning techniques, as well as strategic, metacognitive thinking so that they can reflect on their own understanding. And remember, they’re only 5 years old.
In sum, transfer is our collective goal. We don’t strive to produce students who are teacher-dependent, but rather students who can take the knowledge and skills they have developed and apply that to a wide range of problems and situations. To our thinking, that’s how we produce innovators, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others who can solve a wide range of problems, some of which we haven’t even created yet.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011). The understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Response From Adeyemi Stembridge
Adeyemi Stembridge, PhD, provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. Follow him on Twitter at @DrYemiS:
When planning with transfer of learning in mind, there is one enormously, consequential question teachers are wise to consider—and that is, What do I want my students to feel? What students understand deeply enough to apply in a range of contexts is always that which has been embedded in a rich, emotional narrative. Neither learning nor recall happens in a purely rational domain, and emotions are, in essence, the mechanisms that steer cognition, anchor students’ understanding of complex content, and direct further reason-based application of those understandings.
Students’ capacity for transfer is a function of instruction that engineers emotional experiences to frame what might otherwise remain abstract concepts, ideas, or skills. The successful design of learning experiences that leverage emotion to support transfer hinges on the teacher’s substantive understanding of the concepts that underlie their instructional conten, or what Wiggins and McTighe call the Enduring Understandings.
I think of Enduring Understandings as the sense of meaning, once identified by learners, that forever changes their relationship with a concept. In practical terms, metaphors are especially powerful teaching tools to elicit emotion in facilitating Enduring Understandings and transfer. By metaphors, I am referring to the intentional embedding of symbolism—including both language-based and nonlinguistic/experiential representations of abstract ideas—into the teaching and learning schema.
I was recently able to observe a 5th grade Geometry lesson in which the teacher designed a metaphorical experience which was intended to promote her students’ strategic and adaptive mathematical thinking. She recognized that her students’ willingness and ability to engage in rigorous thinking depended on their conceptual fluency with Geometry. Specifically, she needed her students to understand that multiple categories can be correctly used to describe shapes though this challenged many of their theretofore rigid understandings of mathematics.
She began the lesson with an activity intended to create an experiential metaphor through which students would be able to channel deeper understandings of Geometry (and other content areas, as well). In a four-corners activity, the students answered a series of questions in which they had to choose a preference: (For example, “If you could have ONE superpower, what would it be? Is your favorite school subject Reading, Math, Science, or Art?” Etc.)
Students were led through a series of absolute choices in which only one category could apply before being confronted with a final question (“Do you like to eat Spaghetti, Pizza, Burritos, or Hamburgers?”) which by design evoked feelings of tension for having to choose only one category when several could apply. With this freshly engineered emotional experience, students were then guided into a group activity in which they debated how to categorize various shapes.
There were, of course, multiple correct responses (e.g. a square can be both a polygon and a quadrilateral), but the essential learning required that students had a meaningful encounter with the metaphor of their own capacity for multiple-categorization. The metaphor, in this case, was an experience: shapes can fit into multiple categories just like kids enjoy eating multiple types of delicious food! This understanding extended such that students sought to apply it in other content areas too.
Students engage as much more powerful abstract thinkers when they’re provided opportunities to apply symbolic meaning to the qualities and characteristics of people, places, and all sorts of entities. Metaphors, carefully aligned with targets for essential understandings, enlist emotion and increase the likelihood that students’ intellectual activity will be a function of reasoning rather than mere recitation so that pathways emerge to transfer understandings from one domain into another.
Response From Todd Finley
Todd Finley, PhD, is a blogger and assistant editor at Edutopia, co-author of Rethinking Classroom Design for Rowman & Littlefield, and a tenured professor at East Carolina University. His education blog is Todd’s Brain and you can follow him on Twitter at @finleyt:
If my education professors ever brought up transfer—how learning in one context enhances a related performance in another context—when I was an undergraduate, I must have missed that class. This oversight contributed to my biggest misunderstanding as an intern. To me, instruction meant filling up class time with activities and academic stuff on various topics. Understanding transfer of learning would have improved my Jedi-instructional powers.
There are two fundamental types of transfer:
Near transfer is “transfer between very similar but not identical contexts.” An example is learning to drive a Toyota stick shift and then later driving a Honda stick shift. To teach near transfer, provide lots of practice until students can perform the skill without much thought. This is called low road transfer.
Far transfer means “applying learning to situations that are quite dissimilar to the original learning.” An example is learning to write a persuasive essay on gun control and then giving a persuasive PowerPoint presentation on the benefits of solar power. To teach far transfer, use high road transfer: have students deliberately analyze strategies and carefully apply them in different contexts.
Transfer of learning is often not established in conventional educational practices. Therefore, active learning and metacognitive strategies are recommended. Additionally, Larry Ferlazzo describes several exceptional ways to enable transfer: maximize the initial learning experience, activate prior knowledge, engage in deliberate practice, explain something in your own words, participate in simulations and group learning, and use analogies and metaphor.
There are a number of practices that will enhance or undermine transfer. Some are summarized below:
Transfer of Learning Do’s:
Maintain relevancy - Continuously ask yourself, “How can I make the skill I’m teaching valuable later in real world contexts?”
Provide adequate time for reflection - Have students plan 40 second speeches that summarize content and identify why it’s important, then have them present the speeches in small teams.
Encourage students to use spaced practice - Kids will remember information longer if they study in short sessions distributed over time. Learning all at once, called massed practice, is not as effective.
Engage students in focused problem-solving - Ask cooperative groups to generate a list of solutions to a content-related problem. Have them select the best 5 solutions and then put these into labeled categories.
- Ask students to generate examples of a concept - Research demonstrates that participants recall 36% more concepts when using self-generated cues.
Transfer of Learning Don’ts
Only teach to the test - Too much test prep thwarts transfer, asserted brain expert Mel Levine. The proof: when the tested content remains the same and the examination format changes, students’ scores crash. Besides, real life isn’t wrapped in a bubble answer sheet.
Unshackle your instruction from the tyranny of coverage - Don’t rush through topics and skills during class. People need about 20 hours to learn new skills and about 10 years of deliberate practice to master them according to Josh Kaufman, author of The First 20 Hours.
- When students are confused, don’t keep going - Ask students to complete “muddy cards” at the end of the lesson where they identify what is the least clear point. Then you can reteach the confusing parts the next day. If it wasn’t caught, it wasn’t taught.
Helping transfer of learning occur in the lives of children is why we became teachers. So it is worth fostering an environment where learned skills can be applied, reflected upon, and celebrated.
Response From Kenneth Baum & David Krulwich
Kenneth Baum and David Krulwich are, respectively, the former and current principals of the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, a public school in the Bronx, New York serving grades 6 through 12. They are co-authors of the new book, The Artisan Teaching Model for Instructional Leadership (ASCD 2016):
We hear it all the time. Frustrated teachers will say:
“I taught my kids how to add fractions during the fractions unit, but now we’re doing algebra and they can’t solve an equation with fractions!” “The English teacher taught my students how to write paragraphs with supporting details--but they can’t write anything in my science class!”
Why is it so difficult for students to “transfer their learning” from one context to another, or from one classroom to another? We suggest that educators need to take responsibility for this problem--it’s not the kids, it’s our curriculum.
Think about it: In real life (jobs, hobbies, home life), we don’t divide our work into separate subject-area disciplines and work on them one at a time. We don’t go to an English room to read a cookbook, and then, when a bell rings, walk to a math room to calculate how many cups of sugar we need for the recipe. A banker doesn’t spend 45 minutes calculating the interest rates for an investment, and then 45 minutes in a different room writing a report for the client. Engineers don’t spend three days measuring triangles, followed by three days using the Pythagorean Theorem.
But that’s often what we make our students do.
If we want our students to be able to use skills interchangeably within and across disciplines, we need to build opportunities for them to do so in school. We need to make it explicit and give students time to reflect on their learning.
Consider the week of adding fractions, which typically includes a few lessons teaching the concept, a few days practicing a skill, and a few lessons where students solve “word problems.” All week, students add fractions, until the final step is to do a few problems about cookie recipes or eating pizzas. But at the end of the week, why would we expect students to know how to transfer their learning across disciplines or use their knowledge in a new context six months later? We didn’t teach them how to do that.
If we want students to be able to transfer their learning, we need to assign open-ended projects in math classes that include a wide range of mathematical skills in a single task, so our kids have an opportunity to consider which skills are needed—and to use them together in new contexts. We need to stop teaching a week of measuring, a week of ratios, and a week of proportions. Instead, we need to give students a map of the United States and ask them to plan a trip across the country and figure out how long it will take and how much gas they will need, and then to write an itinerary describing their trip.
If we want students to be able to read and write in science classes, we need to merge the skills we are teaching in science and English class. Assign readings in English class related to science topics, and then discuss with our students the same reading strategies we use to read fiction. Assign progressively more rigorous writing assignments as a part of our science labs, and explicitly teach students to use the same writing process that they use in their English classroom. Ask the science teacher to write lessons using the same annotation strategies students use in their English classes. And most important, let’s design activities and tasks in all subjects that use a wide range of skills developed over various units and in various classrooms. If we want students to be able to transfer their learning, let’s make them do it.
Thanks to Doug, Nancy, Yemi, Todd, Kenneth and David for their contributions!
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