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'Learning Follows a Spiral': Doug Fisher & Nancy Frey on Learning Transfer

Editor's Note: This is the sixth post in a series called "A Look Back." In it, I'll be highlighting a particularly insightful response an educator has provided in a past column.

Past posts in this series have included:

'Stop Hiding Behind the Factory Model of Teaching': Rick Wormeli on Differentiation

'The Importance Of White Students Having Black Teachers': Gloria Ladson-Billings on Education

'Educators Get Transformed From Life-Changers Into Wardens': Chris Emdin on Urban Schools

Don't 'Veer Off-Course': Roxanna Elden on Finishing The School Year Strong

'No Easy Answers': Dan Pink on Student Motivation

Today's "A Look Back" features a response contributed by noted educators Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey to a question on transfer of learning.

It comes from a column headlined Learning 'Transfer Is Our Collective Goal.'  That post also features responses from Adeyemi Stembridge, Todd Finley, Kenneth Baum, and David Krulwich, as well as a video I produced with Education Week.

You might also be interested in 'Visible Learning for Literacy': An Interview With Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey.

Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey are professors of educational leadership at San Diego State University and teacher leaders at Health Sciences High School. They are the authors of numerous books, including Rigorous Reading (Corwin, 2013):

Transfer-is-our.jpg

 

John Hattie, author of Visible Learning and co-author of Visible Learning For Literacy, defined learning as the process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations. (2014 Vernon Wall Lecture)

Clearly, learning is a process and one that should result in students' ability to apply what they have learned in unfamiliar situations. We believe that learning follows a spiral as students move from surface understanding of a skill or concept toward an ever-deepening exploration of what lies beneath. Over time, and with practice, students should be able to use the skills, concepts, and knowlege they have gained in new ways. As Wiggins and McTighe (2011) note,"The ability to transfer is arguably the long-term aim of all education. You truly understand and excel when you can take what you have learned in one way or context and use it in another, on your own" (p. 14).   

We're not saying that transfer is easy. In fact, we think that transfer is one of our collective dirty little secrets. We all say that we want it, but aren't really sure how to accomplish it. In fact, the American Psychologial Association (2015) notes that "student transfer or generalization of their knowledge and skills is not spontaneous or automatic" (p. 10). How then does it happen?

The simple answer is that with appropriate instruction about how to relate and extend ideas, students will deepen their understanding and with tasks that require them to apply that knowledge they will develop the ability to transfer. Of course, there is a much longer answer that involves establishing transfer goals and then aligning instruction to reach those goals. 

For example, a kindergarten teacher in San Diego worked with her team and they agreed that one of the transfer goals that they had for students was to "recognize that some books contain accurate information." Imagine how many lessons and experiences students needed to have to reach that goal! Establishing transfer goals across units allows teachers to determine what it is that students should be able to do long-term, and then ask themselves if their lessons provide students sufficient practice to ensure that they are developing the necessary thinking required.

An even longer answer includes a discussion about the value of surface and deep learning to develop students' habits. Returning to the kindergarten transfer goal, imagine how many surface skills and strategies students need to reach this target. They'll need to recognize markers for works of fiction, analyze authors' purposes, understand the concept of accuracy, and so on. They will also need to develop some deeper learning skills, including discussion and questioning techniques, as well as strategic, metacognitive thinking so that they can reflect on their own understanding. And remember, they're only 5 years old.

In sum, transfer is our collective goal. We don't strive to produce students who are teacher-dependent, but rather students who can take the knowledge and skills they have developed and apply that to a wide range of problems and situations. To our thinking, that's how we produce innovators, creative thinkers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others who can solve a wide range of problems, some of which we haven't even created yet. 

 

Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2011).  The understanding by design guide to creating high-quality units.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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