This post originally appeared on Corwin Connect.

Welp. We’re still here, in this not-so-fun space of teaching during a pandemic. Can a simple shift in mindset offer much-needed energy and impact on student learning? So glad you asked. Turns out, yes!  

The challenge we face as teachers is to reorient our classrooms so that transfer is the heart of all we do. Surprisingly, this shift is not that hard to make. We don’t have to throw out our current curriculum to make it happen. In fact, once we start recognizing the deeper patterns of our lessons, we’re better able to plan and implement exciting, valuable lessons for students and feel more energized and less burnt out. A welcome breath of fresh air during these trying times.  

Imagine the world we could create for a moment: What if we look for the deeper structural patterns of how the world is organized — and train our students to do the same? If we continue to view our learning targets as isolated bits of information, we are missing out on the most powerful way to update our teaching. 

We all want our students to use their learning beyond the immediate lesson. We hope that studying the water cycle will help students care for the environment, that studying government will help them take part in civic life, that studying proportions will help them double a recipe when the time comes. In short, we all want students to transfer their learning to the real world. 

We all want students to transfer their learning to the real world.

Yet, students struggle mightily when asked to apply Monday’s math lesson to the word problems on Friday’s test. Why is transfer so difficult? 

The problem lies in the fact that we too often fail to point student attention to the deeper, transferable patterns of the world. We run through lists of standards or chapters in a textbook, covering required content in a vacuum and rarely ask students to draw out lessons that can be transferred to and from other aspects of their lives. We plan engaging activities to keep their attention but rarely plan ways for students to use their learning to impact the real world. Therefore, most kids have learned that school learning stays at school. 

But we can harness students’ lived experiences, whether they are at home or in the classroom, by helping them to see beyond the superficial features of a situation. 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 likely have experience with concepts such as fairness, injustice, courage, belonging, social pressures, culture, and racism. They also likely understand the value of concepts such as setting, character development, word choice, and suspense when thinking about their favorite songs, music videos, movies, and tv shows.  

Strategy #1: Identify Organizing Concepts   

The first step is for us to see the organizing concepts of our lessons. Then, we can use those concepts to bring students in and connect to their lives. If you need to see examples of organizing concepts in the different subject areas, check out the chart below and these concept samples.   

Sample Topics  Potential Organizing Concepts 
Skip Counting  Strategy, number sense, order, quantity, pattern  
Basketball Invasion, spacing, communication, tactics, sportsmanship, form 
Action songs, nursery rhymes Rhyme, rhythm, meter, structure, message, purpose, audience 
I Believe I Can Belief, potential, diversity, love, identity, shape, space, symbols, mood, structure, color 
Senses Perception, limitations, response, survival, nervous system, pathway, stimulus 
Machines Enhancement, simple, complex, work, resources, solutions, intelligence, efficiency, creativity, innovation, force, artificial, movement 
Capitals  Location, place, power, authority, federalism, territories  
Ancient Greece Civilization, resources, systems, governance, social structures  

Strategy #2: Teach Students How to Recognize the Critical Attributes of Concepts  

Next, we identify the critical attributes of those concepts and teach how to recognize those attributes using inductive reasoning, usually via a concept attainment or a concept sort. Below is an example of a concept attainment, make your own with this template

We can consolidate their learning by asking them to explain their understanding of the concepts in their own words, and identifying additional examples and non-examples, honing their abilities to perceive the critical attributes across situations.  We can mobilize intriguing videosimagesnews stories, students’ lived experiencesand more by asking them to recognize the concepts at play in each of these situations.  

Strategy #3: Pose Conceptual Relationship Questions  

Once students have acquired understanding of single concepts, we can help them to connect these concepts in relationships, which truly reveals the deeper structural patterns of the world. As teachers, we often assume that our students are able to see how each element of our curriculum relates to the others.  

We assume that as they learn they develop frameworks of knowledge in their minds. This often occurs because a teacher’s expertise in any given subject area creates blind spots, meaning we see the content so clearly and understand it so deeply that we forget how that content might appear to our students (Wiggins and McTighe, 2005).  

We gaze into the night sky and immediately see constellations that give shape and meaning to each star—we see ursa major and Orion’s belt—whereas our students gaze upon the same stars as random points of light. Forgetting what it is like to not see the connections, teachers teach each star—each standard or topic or bit of information—and assume that kids are creating the right constellations in their minds. Then, when kids struggle with transfer, they wonder what went wrong (Perkins and Salomon, 1992). 

To overcome the expert blind spot and truly teach for transfer, we must teach our students to look for and recognize the deeper conceptual structure in any situation. We make visible the relationships between the concepts in each field and teach students to intentionally draw upon these patterns and structures when interpreting new phenomena. If we do this, we can increase students’ ability to remember information, apply skills, and transfer their learning flexibly and creatively to solve problems in the real world.  

These questions stems are powerful ways to point student attention to the structural patterns of the world. View more examples here.  

  • What is the  connection between _________ (concept) and ____________ (concept)?
  • How does ___________ (concept) impact/affect/influence __________ (concept)?
  • What effect do ____________ and ____________ have on ___________?

Strategy #4: Ask Students to Create a Visual Concept Map  

We can use concept mapping strategies that ensure that students attain the constellations as well as the stars, and that they can create and apply new patterns when they look out upon an unfamiliar quadrant of the sky. See an example below from a student’s work on the science of happiness and click here for a template you can use with your students.  

Student work submitted by Max Fox, a Learning That Transfers Endorsed Educator 

If we want students to be able to transfer their knowledge to new situations, we must be intentional about how they acquire and store knowledge in their brains in the first place. We help students understand the most important organizing concepts in each discipline and ensure that they use these concepts to categorize key details of their learning. Then, we help them connect those concepts in relationship, to reveal the deeper structure of how the world works. Finally, we present new and interesting situations where students use those patterns to unlock these new scenarios. Try it out and watch the engagement and depth of understanding soar!  

For more next-day strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo.