A framework for learning transfer (updated Sept 2020)

Updated: Sep 25

Passing Stats - are we even checking?

I am no American football aficionado. Until this moment I didn't even know who Jameis Winston is. What I know though is that in 2019 he was the best passer in the NFL. Why? Because the sport has established a way to measure it. It knows what it looks for and measures it. That's how it works. Claims to effectiveness require evidence. Not only that but you can bet that these statistics are scrutinised in his training sessions to know what strategies he needs to adopt to improve his passing.

In the International Baccalaureate Middle Year Programme (MYP) we make a different kind of 'throwing and catching' claim. We claim that conceptual ideas in one unit we teach can be transferred to other units. Not only to other units in the same subject but to other units throughout the curriculum.

According to the core document MYP: From Principles into Practice, the way that this is achieved is through the Statement of Inquiry (SOI). This SOI "expresses the relationship between concepts and context; it represents a transferable idea supported by factual content" (p62) and it needs to be written such that it is "transferable beyond the content of the unit"(p63). The principle mechanism for this to effectively happen is by the inclusion of a key concept because key concepts provide "connections that can transfer across time and culture" (p15). This is done such that "Over the course of the programme, students need to develop an understanding of the key and related concepts at increasing levels of sophistication and abstraction." (p58).

All good. However, there is a problem. There is at the moment no advice on how we measure whether this transfer actually occurs, let alone establish whether this is results in a greater depth of understanding of any transferrable conceptual understandings.

Going back to the opening analogy. Unlike the NFL , we in the MYP are claiming that the SOI is a great 'thrower of the ball' but have no measurements to establish whether the 'ball is caught' in any other unit. We are not scrutinising the passing success to be certain of our claim that the SOI transfers. Nor are we analysing such measurements in an attempt to develop better strategies that can improve this transfer.

Perhaps then, as Christopher Hitchen so deftly pointed out, in a phrase come to be known as Hitchen's razor, we can simply ignore the claim?

Supporting Strategies

Indeed if you look into the literature there is a huge amount of ambivalence in the research community as to whether transfer can actually happen. What is clear is that if it does happen then some framework for that transfer is necessary to support the learner in making the leap in the concepts. In other words if it is merely left to chance the likelihood is minimal and no better than if we never even tried.

We therefore need a strategy, prefera framework to support transfer.

Previously I have made the case for key concepts that are shared across all subjects.

Although I remain convinced that having shared concepts would help, I have been wondering if moving to shared concepts alone will fix the issue. Plus it might coerce some to rewrite their SOIs and this could be disruptive for no real gain. Limited number of concepts has another disadvantage given the sheer number of really important concepts that we might want to see sophisticated conceptual understanding in. I will address this problem at the end of the article, before doing so I want to establish an importance principle regarding interdisciplinary connectivity of concepts.

'Meeting houses for the comparison of perspectives'

In a previous article I wrote on the effectiveness of concepts. I took issue with one of the misconceptions of the role of key concepts that I believe lies in the language that Dr Lynne Erickson uses around conceptual understandings. She calls them 'generalisations' and suggests that this generalisations are 'universal' and 'timeless'. I would state instead that each discipline develops their own conceptual approach to various concepts. For example, Science explores the concept of human identity in very different ways than Art which in turn is different to History, Psychology, Cultural Anthropology etc etc. In short each discipline (indeed disciplines are further split into competing schools of thought) develops their own quite specific generalisations, which are not universal, they are highly contextual and constantly evolving.

Instead we need to see that concepts, rather than leading us to some commonly agreed understandings, act more like meeting houses for the comparison of perspectives. Some perspectives will be common, some will pose an alternative view.

Catching the ball thrown

If we have these meeting houses then (to mix an analogy) we can also start to catch the ball thrown to us from another subject. Indeed, if this was strategy was opted school wide, units could flag the conceptual understandings they want other units to 'catch'.

Imagine starting a science unit on 'interpretation' and as the early formative assessment we asked students about what they have learnt about this concept from all their other subjects. Since other units would flag what they are wanting to be caught we could (assuming we share units with everyone to be able to see them) be pre-armed with the knowledge that in Art they talked about interpretation being in the eye of the beholder (allowing us to discuss how science approaches this differently) and in History the teacher had emphasised that evidence was essential to interpretation (a concept science shares, with some subtle differences).

By having meeting places, we could start to document growth in a student's conceptual understandings on the conceptual understandings shared there . Students could be asked to maintain a reflective journal (or evolving presentation) on the conceptual understandings that they make as we look at each transfer question. By setting assignments based on these reflective journals we can make their thinking visible and thus assessable. Perhaps we could even run a grade level exhibition style event "the Marketplace of Ideas" where kids showcase their conceptual understandings. In such a format students could reveal how they came to these ideas and how their thinking changed with the insights they gained over the year. From this we would be able to make some qualitative judgements as to whether their conceptual understanding are getting more sophisticated, (I would certainly not want to see NFL stat sheets on this!) as well check if indeed learning is transferring across the subject divides.

A simple rubric for growth in conceptual understanding could be:

Shared Questions rather than Shared Concepts

As I have hinted, I am not convinced that shared concepts are the best place to create meeting houses of ideas. There are so many concepts involved in any issue that limiting to number of shared concepts is probably too restrictive. Add to that a key (and very astute) insight that Dr Lynne Erickson brought to our attention - conceptual occurs in the interplay between concepts (specifically she insisted that conceptual understanding must be expressed using two or more concepts). Outside of this concepts, as single words, become categorisation labels, they become identifying or descriptive at best.

The solution that I am proposing is then that we introduce to our horizontal curriculum planning some important shared questions that require conceptual understandings to address them. In other words, when delivering our units we can reference to the concepts that underpin a deeper understanding of these questions through our specific disciplinary lens. By doing this, over the course of their studies, students would develop and sharpen their ability to approach these questions using a variety of concepts (each of which was drawn from a different disciplinary perspective). This would allow students to compare and contrast the how different disciplines interact with these bigger concepts. The very act of doing this will facilitate transfer and honour (rather than simply generalise) disciplinary insights.

What are these Shared Questions?

In the formulation of this framework it struck me that formal education is trying to accomplish two things. Firstly it wants students to develop an understanding about the world around us but it also wants us to make decisions in how we engage with it. In other terms we want to understand problems and fix them, it wants students to learn the basics of each subject and hopefully create something with it.

I have isolated the questions into these two "camps": 'understanding' and 'engagement'. For each of these "camps" there are 3 "meeting houses" of questions. Note each question has a non-exhaustive (and non exclusive) list of possible concepts (italicised) that could contribute into our exploration of potential answers to these questions.

Part A - Making Meaning

1. What do we understand about ourselves (personally and as a humanity)?

Identity, Culture, Empathy, Insight, Experience, Faith Compassion, Wisdom, Expression, Influence, Control , Confidence, Ideology, Needs, Bias

2. Do our models, metaphors and theories explain what we observe?

Form, Structure, Representations, Behaviours, Inference, Patterns, Reliability, Belief, Opinion, Context, Paradigms, Confirmation Bias, Prejudice, Selection

3. Do we grasp the workings of complex interrelated systems?

Function, Systems, Reductionism, Complexity, Relationships, Globalism, Connections, Networks, Communities, Diversity, Disturbance, Balance, Cascades, Tipping points, Components, Actors

Part B - Taking Action

1. What motivates us to seek change?

Purpose, Values, Priorities, Ethics, Power, Authority, Privilege, Responsibility, Hubris, Problem solving, Fairness, Technology, Competition, Resolution, Curiosity

2. How does change unfold?

Reasoning, Creativity, Necessity, Invention, Innovation, Decision, Critique, Skepticism, Adaptation, Evolution, Communication, Revolution, Viral

3. Do we know / consider all the impacts of the changes we make?

Change, Causation, Consequence, Progress, Innovation, Development, Sustainability, Risk, Prediction, Complexity, Uncertainty, Conflict

In exploring these questions each subject might bring a very important conceptual understanding to the 'meeting houses' that these questions create. Rather than confining subjects to a defined list of concepts, they might indeed use different, even unique concepts in the process. However, as students reflect on and address these questions (perhaps in a yearly summation of their ideas) this would result in a growth in conceptual reasoning underpinned by the insights TRANSFERRED from the study of the subjects.

Lastly, and importantly, this strategy would not require any adjustment to SOIs (assuming that they have been correctly written to be transferrable). It is a strategy that overlays but not alters the official MYP approach in a very synergistic way. It will of course ask for collaboration but no more so than what you are already expected to do when looking for cross curricula links. I would advise adding an extra box to your planner to note connections to other subjects and units also exploring these questions, noting their wording of their SOIs.

If you are a coordinator at a school who would like to try this idea please reach out to me, I'd love to hear how it is working for you.

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