This blog first appeared on Share My Lesson.

Bonus: If you’re interested in exploring this topic further, sign up for Julie Stern’s free webinar, Teaching Big Ideas for Real-World Transfer of Learning.

Educators today seem to be faced with a choice: continue teaching centuries-old ways of organizing the world through traditional disciplines such as mathematics and music or throw them out in favor of innovation and creativity in order to move into a 21st Century paradigm for teaching and learning.

This is a false choice. Here’s the important truth: innovation requires the creative transfer of the fundamental and powerful concepts of the traditional disciplines. We should put real-world challenges in front of students that require them to improvise based on what humanity has already discovered. Innovators stand on the shoulders of past scientists and mathematicians in order to innovate. They don’t invent without a deep understanding of how the world works.

What does the research say?

Innovation occurs when people creatively transfer what they learn to complex situations. It relies upon abstracting to a conceptual level in order to do it. Although innovation is a current buzz word, the imperative to design education in this way stands on a long history of research.

Academic standards attempt to articulate the knowledge and skills our students need as a foundation for an educated populace. This approach, however, typically lacks a focus on the organizing framework of that knowledge. It needs a conceptual skeleton to give it shape. Disconnected pieces of knowledge are not particularly useful in the era of innovation. Expertise requires that knowledge be organized in the brain in order to be employed to create something new.

In its landmark publication on learning, The National Research Council (Bransford, 2000) explains, “To develop competence in an area of inquiry, students must understand facts and ideas in the context of a conceptual framework” (p.12). This is what separates experts from novices. A beginner in any field has to work hard to memorize what seem like disparate pieces of information while an advanced practitioner stores knowledge in associated categories, something like a giant filing cabinet in the brain. Yet today’s standards and curricula are not typically organized in the context of a conceptual framework. And educators rarely make this organization explicit to students.

surface, deep, transfer

Most recently, the work of education researchers Fisher, Frey, and Hattie (2016) recognizes the importance of conceptual thinking in order to transfer learning to complex situations. “As students deepen their learning, we look for them to think in increasingly conceptual ways” (p.112). Hattie’s thorough meta-analysis demonstrates that organizing conceptual knowledge is a particularly powerful strategy with an enormous impact on student learning (Hattie, 2012).

What does transfer look like in the classroom?

Consider this sample assessment from a 6th grade social studies class. Students encountered this situation for the first time on their final exam. The image below demonstrates the shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia between 1989 and 2014. It was once the fourth largest lake on Earth and was essential for the livelihood of thousands of people. Soviet irrigation projects devastated the lake, inciting a migrant crisis as residents fled Uzbekistan in the hope of employment in Kazakhstan.

The Disappearance of the Aral Sea


Students were required to use their understanding of transferable concepts such as migration, hardship, resources and opportunity to unlock this new, complex situation. The topic of the unit was U.S. Westward Migration, but instead of remaining at the factual and topical level, the students used the facts of the unit to answer transferable, conceptual questions such as,

  • What is the relationship between migration, resources, and opportunity?
  • Does migration ever come with hardship?

By answering these conceptual questions as they studied U.S. Westward Migration, students were better prepared to unlock other situations involving migration such as the Aral Sea crisis.

Why does personalized learning make me nervous?

Too often rather than truly transforming education, schools make small changes that wrap-up old goals in new practices. For example, a lot of “innovative” schooling practices emphasize a personalized approach to learning where students move at their own pace, slowing down when they need more help or practice and speeding up when they are ready to move on, even if their peers are not. This is great practice. But I wonder: What good is personalized learning if the goals of the learning remain stuck in covering facts and skills without depth of understanding?

Teaching for big ideas raises both intellectual rigor and student motivation while also honoring the traditional disciplines and preparing students to tackle problems they’ve never seen before. That’s the power of Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, pioneered by H. Lynn Erickson. We need to transform the goals of teaching and learning (curriculum) and not simply change the delivery method (instruction).

When we organize our curriculum through fundamental and powerful concepts our students are able to transfer their understanding to new situations and apply it in unique ways. In this way they create something innovative and world-changing, becoming the next great innovators.


Article adapted from: Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary

A comparison of the Aral Sea in 1989 (left) and 2014 (right). Image by NASA, collage by Producercunningham (2014), Public Domain.

Bransford, J. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Fisher, D., Frey, N., & Hattie, J. (2016). Visible learning for literacy, grades K-12: Implementing the practices that work best to accelerate student learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.