The following was originally published April 28, 2009 at
Students who use the four patterns of thinking as they learn new content knowledge improve their ability to transfer. In other words, they can apply something they learn over here to something that shows up over there.

A word on transfer. Actually, Derek has a pet phrase for transfer, not just a word. He calls it the "Holy Grail of education." Transfer is the thing. You can leave your horse in the stable and let the suit of armor stand decoratively in the corner, but as a teacher and learner, go after transfer with all your heart and soul.

Why is transfer so crucial? Students can't learn everything in school. Even if they could, teachers couldn't teach them everything. The good news is that these limitations affect only what we choose to do in the classroom. They don't limit what students can deal with out in the world--whether in academia, the workaday world, or their personal lives. If they can transfer anything we teach them to anything they encounter, they're set for life.

Transfer isn't that mysterious or elusive. All learning involves transfer because we use what we already know to learn any new concept or procedure. Anytime teachers help students access prior knowledge, they're engaging with the mechanism of transfer.

We culled and paraphrased the following tips on transfer from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, by the Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education (CBASSE), 1999. See chapter 3, “Learning and Transfer,” pages 39 - 66.

What promotes transfer?

Helping students learn deeply:
  • give them/have them take time to learn
  • make sure they come to a true understanding (Memorizing facts does not promote transfer!)
  • have them practice/work with new knowledge
  • give them/have them get feedback on knowledge gained (so they can see for themselves what they've attained)
Getting out of overly contextualized knowledge:
  • teach things in multiple rather than single contexts (They'll see how something applies in more than one instance and be able to apply it again with something novel.)
  • give them a similar case once they've understood something in one instance
  • stretch their understanding with what-if problem solving ("What if we saw this again but with frogs?" "What if we changed this one piece--then how would the whole thing work?")
Giving students abstract representations of knowledge:
  • offer them a general principle or rule or formula behind the specific knowledge they're working with
  • give them contrasting cases (They'll learn linear function better when you put it next to non-linear functions.)
In their words:
Here's a clip from p. 51 of How People Learn, cited above:

"Students who were trained on specific task components without being provided with the principles underlying the problems could do the specific tasks well, but they could not apply their learning to new problems. By contrast, the students who received abstract training [learned the general principle behind the specific problem] showed transfer to new problems that involved analogous mathematical relations."

In our words:

This boils down to content versus structure. When students learn specific content, they have a piece of knowledge that they can't transfer well to anything else. When students learn the structure of an idea, they can take that structure and apply it to new content.

The patterns of thinking give us the structure of all knowledge. We can apply them again and again to any content. Once we grasp how we're making distinctions, organizing part-whole systems, recognizing relationships, and taking perspectives with any idea we're working with, we're equipped to approach any new idea with confidence. Content can change drastically from one idea to the next; these four patterns--the structure--will remain the same.

For example, the structure of an analogy remains the same no matter the content. The first analogy - "Hand is to glove as foot is to shoe"
external image Anaolgy1.png- has the same shape as the second - "Bird is to nest as people are to homes."external image Analogy2.pngBecause students can separate the structure of the idea

from the content of the idea,

they can use this structure to organize new knowledge. That's transfer!
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