This blog is part one of our series on equity. It includes adapted excerpts from our new book, Learning that Transfers, publishing March 2021.

Transfer of learning entails applying our previous learning to new situations. Unfortunately, both children and adults are pretty bad at it. Transfer, especially when it comes to habitual decisions and ingrained beliefs, is very difficult to achieve.

As schools work to increase diversity, equity, and anti-racism initiatives, we worry that most of the effort might be fruitless if students and faculty are not able to transfer what they are learning into the everyday practices of their lives. We’ve seen students read books about systemic racism, and then turnaround and shout the n-word in the hallway. Our faculty can participate in an equity-focused webinar, and then continue to give harsher punishments to students of color. A focus on transfer can help.

Let’s begin with how attention to learning that transfers can increase equity directly with our students.

1. Harness students’ prior learning and experiences –

Because nearly all new learning requires some degree of transfer, usually by comparing our prior learning to new situations, we can more powerfully harness the existing knowledge and experiences all of our students bring to the classroom – by looking past the superficial features and into the deeper structures of every situation. When our students struggle to comprehend new situations, it is a good indication that they are stuck on the superficial features of the task.

For instance, students may struggle to understand complex texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird, because they are focused on the prose and the customs of the time period, which may seem foreign to them. But they more than likely have experience with concepts such as fairness, injustice, courage, belonging, social pressures, culture, and racism – all keys to understanding the novel. Our students also likely understand the value of concepts such as word choice, setting, character development, and suspense when thinking about their favorite songs, music videos, movies, tv series, and more. Concepts bring students into the learning task and help them more easily comprehend the unique details of the new situation.

Concepts are organizing ideas with distinct attributes that are shared across multiple examples. Put simply, they are words we use to organize and categorize our world. Think about concepts as mental file folders. They help our brains organize examples into meaningful groups based on shared attributes.

The beauty of concepts, as shown in the example of To Kill a Mockingbird, is that they point students and teachers alike to look past the superficial features of a situation and into the deeper structural features.

2. Move students toward expertise –

Concepts alone, though, do not suffice to create transfer of learning. The real driver of transfer is the ability to see the patterns of interaction among concepts within a discipline. For instance, a scientist must do more than simply recognize that a desert is an ecosystem. They need to use their understanding of how ecosystems are impacted by climate to predict how rising average temperatures might disturb life in the Sahara. The mental “file folders” — concepts like ecosystem and climate — need to be organized in relation to one another to create a conceptual framework in the expert’s mind (Donovan & Bransford, 2005).

Every field, hobby, or complex skill can be viewed through the learning transfer mental model comprised of fundamental elements, called concepts, and the predictable ways those elements interact. Concepts and their connections are a critical link between prior learning and new situations. Basketball players understand that the goal of offensive plays is to ensure at least one player is “open” (unguarded by an opponent) so they can take a shot. And, reciprocally, they understand that the goal of defense is to prevent the opponent from getting “open.” The fundamental concepts of offense, defense, and “openness” are connected in a web of interaction in players’ brains, which they use to adapt to new situations as a game plays out. If a play breaks down, players can use this understanding to improvise effectively.

Connecting concepts asks students to draw out the relationships among the conceptual folders they’ve been building in their brains. The result is a web of linkages between and among concepts. In the end, the step of connecting concepts in relationships is what allows students to use the concepts for more than just categorization of new information. See Figure 1 for the three simple steps we use to think about curriculum design.

Figure 1: The Learning Transfer Mental Model

The most straightforward way to help students construct these webs of meaning is to ask questions that prompt student attention to conceptual relationships. We can plug concepts into the following conceptual question stems to achieve that:

  • How are ___________ and __________ connected?  
  • What is the relationship between ___________ and ____________?  
  • How does ___________ impact/affect/influence ___________?  
  • What effect do ___________ and ___________ have on ___________?  
  • How do ___________ and ___________ interact?  
  • What is the role/purpose of ___________ in ___________?  

For example, disciplinary ideas in music involve the relationships between concepts such as tone, rhythm, harmony, and expression. By investigating questions about the relationships among these concepts such as, “What is the role of tone and rhythm in creating harmony and expression?” and “What happens to the musical expression when the rhythm changes?”, students are better able to analyze the impacts of new musical genres without explicit teacher instruction.  A student who understands these complex interactions can more easily select, edit, or even create an original score for a multimedia presentation that communicates a certain message. 

This music example illustrates a simple yet powerful method for designing learning that transfers. We can use a cycle with two main components as a broad way to think about curriculum design:

1)    Teachers pose abstract questions about how concepts relate in order to call attention to the deeper structures of a situation.

2)    Students explore a specific context – e.g. a mathematical problem, scientific experiment, historical moment, or passage of text – in which the concepts play a major role.

After students have a chance to explore a specific context and answer the conceptual question, the cycle should continue, allowing students to apply their understanding to increasingly dissimilar contexts. See Figure 2 for a visual of this cycle.

Figure 2: The Learning Transfer Cycle

Source: Stern, Ferraro, & Mohnkern, 2017

3. Improve students’ social-emotional learning –

Consider the example in Figure 3 from an elementary school social-emotional curriculum. Students are exploring the concepts of empathy and conflict. To begin, of course, teachers help students understand each concept on its own. They give students a quick definition of each concept and have students categorize a series of scenarios and images as representing either empathy or a lack of empathy. Students brainstorm as many types of conflict as they can and create a non-linguistic representation of what conflict means to them. These activities help direct students’ mental effort to the shared characteristics of empathy in new situations, which is essential for learning (McTighe & Willis, 2019).

Once students understand the meaning of each concept, the teacher poses a simple question about the relationship between them: How are empathy and conflict related? Then, students work through the learning transfer cycle to deepen their understanding of the concepts and understand how the concepts relate to each other.

Figure 3: Learning Transfer Cycle Example

How are empathy and conflict related?

Abstract conceptual questionContext for investigation
How can a lack of empathy lead to conflict?Students read a short story about a younger brother who always feels left out by his older siblings. Then they discuss the role a lack of empathy played in this sibling conflict.
How can conflict make it difficult to empathize with someone else?Students brainstorm instances in which they have had a conflict with someone else and write a journal entry about how the conflict made them feel. Then they discuss how the feelings associated with conflict – anger, frustration, resentment, sadness – can make it difficult to put yourself in another person’s shoes to practice empathy.
How can empathy help resolve a conflict?Students watch a video in which a girl overcomes a feeling of anger during a fight with her best friend by imaging things from her friend’s point of view.
How are empathy and conflict related?Students reflect on their learning through the previous three contexts and respond to the overall question of how empathy and conflict are related.

Notice that with each new book, video, or exercise, students are not only looking beyond the unfamiliar, superficial features to recognize the familiar, organizing concepts, they are using the unique features of the situation to explore the deeper patterns involved in the relationship between empathy and conflict in order to build a complex web of connections between the two ideas in their minds. This aids in both memory retention and in transfer of learning, as strong patterns in relationships allow predictions when confronting a new situation (McTighe & Willis, 2019).

The beauty of this cycle is that each new context also helps students strengthen their understanding of each concept individually. After investigating the relationship between empathy and conflict in these various iterations, students will have many examples of each concept in their respective mental file folders and can draw upon those examples when investigating the relationship between, say, conflict and peace, or empathy and resilience, down the road. And, just as important, each new context provides fertile ground to practice learning transfer.  

The cycle hints at our next blog post in this series focused on equity — one focused on adults and our beliefs. When we transfer, we must revisit our existing understanding and interrogate what we believe to be true. This means that we have to practice intellectual humility and admit when our prior understanding was partial or erroneous. Imagine a world where everyone practiced intellectual humility! We believe that the learning transfer mental model is a powerful force in our quest for more equitable schools and communities.