We need to talk about ‘transfer’

I am a history teacher but am I fulfilling my role as a teacher if children walk out of my lessons simply knowing more history than when they walked in? Should my goals be broader? The influential educationalist Guy Claxton denies that my goals should centre on teaching history at all:

‘Knowing the Kings and Queens of England…are not top priority life skills. Their claim for inclusion in the core curriculum rests on the extent to which they provide engaging and effective ‘exercise machines’ for stretching and strengthening generalizable habits of mind’

In education today it is rare that the content taught is justified as worth knowing just for its own sake (although I have tried). As Claxton illustrates, it is so often a ‘means to an end’.

  • Learn history to develop analytical skills
  • Learn maths to improve problem solving skills
  • Play sports to learn to work as a team
  • Do brain training programmes to improve your memory
  • Use playdough in Reception to improve writing muscles
  • Set story writing to make children more creative
  • Learn chess to improve critical thinking skills

In each case we are making an enormous leap. How do we KNOW that the skill or trait acquired in one area will ‘transfer’ to other areas; that it will generalise? I might encourage my daughters to show ‘love’ towards each other but it would be farcical to presume this would help them ‘love’ studying geography at school.

My gut feeling is that playing sport is a ‘good thing’. However, I’m often astonished to hear of the skills displayed by a child on the sports pitch that I see no sign of in the classroom. Ability to work as part of a team learnt in sport does not seem to mean children will play their part in class group work. Maybe some skills and traits just need time to sink in. When my son was three his nursery started teaching the class half an hour of yoga a week because apparently yoga improves concentration. No one seemed to question the likelihood of such a brief exposure being efficacious, let alone whether transfer to other contexts was ever likely.

Once we accept the very obvious point that there are limits on how far a skill or trait we teach will actually ‘transfer’ between contexts we must concede that we can’t just presume such transfer will happen.

Even when the two contexts are close such as applying your knowledge of essay writing in one subject to another we still see transfer problems. I asked my year 13 class the other day whether what they had learnt about essay writing in English helped them write history essays. No, they replied, the two essay types are just SO different. I was at the time attempting to show them that the structure of their two history coursework essays was basically the same. They struggled to see even that similarity which was so glaringly obvious to me.

It is clearly incorrect to state that skills or traits don’t ever transfer to different contexts. However, they don’t necessarily transfer as READILY as we like to presume and it depends on:

  • Whether the skill/trait means the same thing in different contexts. I might use the word ‘analysis’ to describe what I do in essay writing and chess but maybe the similarity is only word deep.
  • How CLOSE or similar the two contexts are. For example I presume an accomplished horse rider might use their skills to learn bareback riding quite quickly, to ride a camel quicker than the average but might not be much quicker to learn to ride a surf board!

There is excellent and enormously extensive research on transfer. Take critical thinking, we know that beyond similar or analogous circumstances reasoning principles are not transferred. We also know that you need expertise to recognise the similar features of superficially different problems which explains the inability of my class to recognise the similarity of essay structures. There is a superb summary of the research here that is very well worth a read.

Despite there being such useful research and the obviousness of fact that transfer can’t be presumed when do you EVER hear a discussion of the likelihood of transferability when debating the worth of an educational initiative? We must stop presuming that just because we teach something in one context our pupils will apply it in another. If we don’t want to simply waste valuable teaching time we just must start talking about transfer. We must question whether it is likely. We must discuss what we can do to make it more possible.

We really, really need to start talking about transfer.


3 thoughts on “We need to talk about ‘transfer’

  1. In their work on Understanding by Design, the recently deceased Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, advocate that “transfer” is an essential strand in curriculum design. Their work is seminal in the field and a must read for all educators.

    The UK education system lacks genuine academic rigour as it is possible for students to attain straight A*’s at A Level without ever transferring their knowledge, skills and understandings from one domain to another. Even the IB falls short with regard to transfer in that despite the “glue” of Theory of Knowledge and CAS, subjects are still not as stand-alone entities. Even at University students usually study a “subject” and rarely have an opportunity to apply their understandings and skills to another academic discipline.

    In order for students to develop genuine critical thinking skills it is essential that they are not taught “subjects” in the same traditional compartmentalized manner as has existed since Victorian times. Grant Wiggins often wrote of “authentic education” and argued that the cornerstones of curriculum design are “understanding by design” and “transfer of learning.” The UK education system can learn enormously from the work of Wiggins and McTighe.

    Grant Wiggins died in May 2015 and is a great loss to the world of education.

    1. The problem with this view is that it seems to bypass the way ‘transfer’ happens. You need detailed expertise in a domain (narrow subject area) to think critically or appreciate the underlying similarity of superficially different problems. Your solution would be counterproductive.

      1. I am merely para-phrasing the work of Wiggins and McTighe. However, I do agree with their argument and would suggest that it feasible to apply scientific knowledge and understanding to the social sciences or utilize concepts learned in Mathematics to deepen scientific understandings. If you haven’t read much of Wiggins and McTighe’s research I suggest you dig a little deeper. Their work underpins curriculum design in many US schools and is widely accepted as credible. Take a look!

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