This post originally appeared on Corwin Connect.


Picture a fifth grader who has identified animals as one of her passions. She has chosen to work on the problem of endangered species and make recommendations for improving the situation. Monday morning starts off with a Skype conference call with an NGO in Brazil that will share some important information about deforestation of the Amazon.

After she finishes the call, the student and her team write down action steps and divide the tasks based on each member’s interest and expertise. They have two weeks until the next call and before then have two scheduled team meetings and a full-day lab session to work on this project with an expert and the teacher who is mentoring the group. This project is called the Innovation Challenge.

At the end of year, the student’s team will present its work to a group of experts who will evaluate their technical skills, application of conceptual understanding, ability to think critically, and collaboration skills. If the work measures up to the standards for a particular area, they’ll receive a badge denoting their skills in that area.

This student has been deepening her understanding of concepts such as ecosystems, cycles, reproduction, energy, change, organisms and habitats since Kindergarten. She started the school rainwater collection program in the second grade and has always had a passion for nature and living things. She spent last summer rebuilding and preserving habitats through a program at a National Park. She has already transferred her understanding of habitat loss to several situations as she analyzed the effect of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in third grade and the introduction of non-native species in the Everglades in fourth grade. She feels prepared for the Innovation Challenge as all of her learning experiences have led her to this level of thinking and application.


The student in this scenario was transferring her understanding from grade level to grade level and from context to context. It seems far off from our current reality, but it doesn’t need to be!

The key to understanding learning transfer is this: facts and topics do not transfer. By this I mean that facts and topics cannot be applied directly to a new situation. Whenever we try to apply our insights from one situation to another we are always abstracting to the conceptual level, generalizing from a specific instance to a broader rule, before our knowledge helps us unlock the new situation.

Most teaching focuses on the topic and factual levels of learning without intentionally teaching the underlying concepts. This dooms transfer from the start!

Author H. Lynn Erickson created a visual to help us see how knowledge is structured. Take a look at the examples below and think about how the conceptual relationships, called generalizations and principles, help students deepen their understanding and transfer it to other contexts. How different would school be if we intentionally tried to reach this level of learning?

Researcher John Hattie’s work supports the claim that conceptual understanding is key to transferring learning to new situations. He explained, “We come to know ideas, and then we can be asked to relate and extend them. This leads to conceptual understanding, which can in turn become a new idea – and so the cycle continues. These conceptual understandings form the ‘coat hangers’ on which we interpret and assimilate new ideas, and relate and extend them” (Hattie, 2012, p.115).

He says there are three distinct levels of learning: surface, deep and transfer. See his triangle graphic below and notice how it corresponds to Erickson’s Structure of Knowledge above. Hattie, Fisher, and Frey stated, “Together, surface and deep understanding lead to the student developing conceptual understanding” (p. 61). They agree that, “the ultimate goal, and one that is hard to realize, is transfer. When students reach this level, learning has been accomplished” (Fisher, Frey and Hattie, 2016, p. 19). 

A High Impact Strategy to Foster Learning Transfer

To transform teaching and learning for the 21st Century, we need to create conceptual understandings or big ideas from our content and then use the conceptual inquiry cycle to explore the ideas in different contexts, transferring and deepening our understanding along the way.

Erickson gives us an easy formula for creating big ideas:

Take a look at how we can transform traditional learning objectives or big ideas into more powerful ones. The ones on the left are typical curricular goals. The ones on the right provide much more clarity for both teacher and students.

Once we have strong big ideas, the next step is to use the conceptual inquiry cycle to pose a question to students, of which the big idea is the answer, and take them through different contexts to illuminate the answer.

Take a look at the questions below that correspond to the better statements or big ideas above.  How much deeper would learning be if we used these kinds of questions to drive instruction?

Arranged this way, learning has the potential to allow students to use their understanding to unlock complex problems and challenges. And that’s just what the world needs now.

From: Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Elementary and Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding, Secondary

Additional References:

Erickson, H.L., Lanning, L.A. & French, R. (2017). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

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

Hattie, J., Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2017). Visible learning for mathematics, grades K – 12: What works best to optimize student learning, grades K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.