“Transfer is our great and difficult mission because we need to put students in a position to learn far more, on their own, than they can ever learn from us” (Wiggins & McTighe, Understanding by Design)
If you’re looking for a rich, complex and thorough textbook (and I do, literally, mean textbook) on learning, you can’t do better than Jeanne Ellis Ormrod’s Human Learning. One of the more compelling chapters in the book is Chapter 14: Transfer and Problem Solving.
And directly connected to our focus on understanding are Ormrod’s insights on factors affecting transfer—the ability to use knowledge effectively or purposefully in a new or different context from that in which it was learned.
Ormrod identifies six principles that can help us (as parents and teachers) predict when transfer is most likely to occur for our children and students. My challenge to all of us is to engage in the daily discipline of seeking ways to apply these principles: from the classroom in school to the dining room table at home—and every context in between, at least every context in which our children may find themselves.
• Meaningful learning promotes better transfer than rote learning.
Our Gen Y children and students are doing everything they possibly can to get it through our heads that meaning is the coin of their realm. Ann Berthoff wrote about the power of meaning and the drive for meaning-making in human beings when she wrote about “animal symbolicum” in the 80’s (The Making of Meaning: Metaphors, Models and Maxims for Writing Teachers). Carol Dweck (“Brainology: Transforming Students’ Motivation to Learn”) and Dan Pink (A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the World) have with equal fervor written in their recent works about the centrality of meaning for learners. Ormrod draws on both cognitive science and neuroscience when she writes, “meaningfully learned information is more easily stored and retrieved than information learned at a rote level." Students must see the relevance—the connections to their own lives—of what they are being taught in order to understand it, literally to make sense of it. Part of the sense making involves engaging students in a multifaceted way, providing them with opportunities to explain, interpret, apply, and empathize—to employ Wiggins’ and McTighe’s six facets of understanding.
• The more thoroughly something is learned, the more likely it is to be transferred to a new situation.
Perhaps the most important and resonant statement Ormrod makes related to this point is this: “Acquiring knowledge and skills thoroughly takes time. . .Teachers who teach a few things in depth are more likely to promote transfer than those who teach many things quickly—the less is more principle.” Indeed. Point & click or scan & scroll does not equal learning. If we expect our students to apply their learning in new or novel situations, we must create the context for them to explore principles and big ideas deeply and in varied ways. Rapid-fire teach, test and move on to the next is NOT 21st century teaching--and does NOT enhance 21st century learning.
• The more similar two situations are, the more likely it is that what is learned in one situation will be applied to the other situation.
Again, the perspective of the learner is crucial here. Since transfer depends on the retrieval of relevant information at the appropriate time, the learner’s perception of similarity between the situations is vital. For us, as teachers and parents, to support this kind of retrieval, of course, we must have a clear window into the learner’s perceptions. The big question: How do we create windows into what our children are perceiving and how our children are making sense of that? Another way to put it: What roles are we asking our children to play in their own learning? And what roles are we playing? How do we equip our children to reveal what they know and understand? And what venues do we create for them to share their thinking, their knowledge, their questions and their understandings?
• Principles are more easily transferred than discrete facts.
Try this one on for size yourself, and see if it doesn’t fit. What do you find yourself more readily transferring: the names and locations of wide variety of names and locations of rivers, lakes, tributaries, creeks and the like or why various water features are located where they are?
• Numerous and varied examples and opportunities for practice increase the extent to which information and skills will be applied in new situations.
Two related points from Ormrod:  “Knowledge is often stored in association with the context in which it has been encountered. People who store a particular skill or piece of information in connection with one situation are likely to retrieve that knowledge—and thus may use it—when they encounter the same situation again.”  “People are most likely to transfer something they have encountered it in a wide variety of examples and practice situations. Learners instructed in this fashion store the material they are studying in association with multiple contexts; therefore, they are more likely to retrieve the information when they again find themselves in one of those contexts.”
• The probability of transfer decreases as the time interval between the original task and the transfer task increases.
Another way to put this is: Information that has been learned recently is more likely, and more able, to be retrieved than information acquired back in time. Remember the adage “Use it or lose it”? This principle reflects the learning theory behind that adage.
The fundamental notion of "use it or lose it," of using what we know, is central to the relevance of our work with students. The next entry in this series will explore understanding and transfer in the context of John Bransford's work on adaptive expertise.
25 minutes ago