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Connections for Far Transfer - Repurposing Concept Based Learning

Transfer - Pie in the sky?

Transfer is essentially the purpose of schooling. We are teaching kids stuff that we hope they will be able to use in a different contexts. The traditional subject focussed model of education has concerned itself with whether skills learnt in one setting transfer effectively. For example if students learn to plot a graph in maths can they plot a graph in science? From experience we know this is a mixed bag of success. What we have learned is that there are strategies we can apply to improve this transfer.

For me, the stakes on transfer are higher. So many of the problems facing us today need interdisciplinary solutions and new insights that I have to hope that transfer of more than skills is possible. I have to hope that we can support students in the transfer of ideas and concepts.

And yet.

The jury is out in terms of whether it actually happens or not. Studies and theories of learning give different answers to the question. Situated cognition, for example, is an expansive theory that suggests learning is embedded within a context. It argues that learning is not separable into semantic claims and actionable activities (knowing-what and knowing-how), rather that learning is a social activity and thus remains inseparable from that activity. It goes on to suggest that learning in the abstract (think maths word sums that are detached from reality) is thus wasteful and so all learning activities need to be authentic as these are the only meaningful contexts we might meet in the future.

One of the outcomes of this notion of learning is, unfortunately, a skepticism that far transfer can even occur, because, by definition, it requires the use of the learned material in a completely new context. Even more so if what we are aiming to transfer is something that is, in and of itself, abstract, like a concept. In the words of Seeley Brown, Collins and Duguid, key proponents of the situated cognition theory,

Many teaching practices implicitly assume that conceptual knowledge can be abstracted from the situations in which it is learned and used (...) this assumption inevitably limits the effectiveness of such practices.
Abstract from linked article

It is not that these main proponents don't think it can happen, it is just that they have a lot of reasons to suggest why it cannot (and no real suggestions as to how it can). What we can, however, deduce from this is that the University of Nottingham believes that a process of abstracting concepts, and a trusting belief that doing so will cause transfer, is questionable.

So does that mean that transfer of concepts is impossible?

Well no, for two big reasons:

1) Situated cognition is only a theory and it is not the last word on the topic

2) There are examples of where transfer of abstract ideas has occurred see Gick and Holyoak's study

Barnett and Ceci's 2002 paper has a very comprehensive summary of the debate (also the need for clarity as to what type of transfer studies have explored). They show quite eloquently that the picture is mixed, sometimes an understanding does transfer well and sometimes not so well. It is quite context specific.

My take is that transfer, both near and far, must happen because we are clearly an adaptable species, we manage to solve new and not just repeated problems. The question is whether the current format of schooling is plugging well into this propensity. What of what we do helps transfer? What hinders it? What fails to pick up on strategies that would improve what is transferred?

That said the question remains is the learning for transfer we do at school better than leaving it to chance?

A Framework for Far Interdisciplinary Transfer

First a couple of definitions:

Concept - a word or small phrase that captures an idea (or collection of ideas)

Conceptual Understanding - a phrase compromising a relationship between two or more concepts that results in a helpful generalisation of how the world works.

To further the debate about a framework that can possibly better support the transfer of ideas, we need to consider which ideas are helpful. What type of conceptual understandings are we hoping will transfer? What type of generalisations best support interdisciplinary transfer?

Generalisations - specific vs general

Wait! There are specific generalisations and general generalisations? YES!

Specific generalisations are those we meet in a subject. Consider the disciplinary concept of gravity in physics. In this concept there are generalisations but they are highly specific. Some concepts even have further specificity within a discipline (especially those that are interpreted by various 'schools of thought' - consider neoliberalism and Keynesian economics in the study of free markets). It this very specificity that gives them their disciplinary depth (this btw is why I struggle with the list of related concepts in the MYP - many of these concepts detract from their function - to deepen disciplinary understanding).

A particular type of specific generalisations are 'threshold concepts'. A ‘threshold concept’ is a concept that, once understood, changes the way that a person thinks about a topic. Jan Meyer and Ray Land explain: ‘A threshold concept can be considered as akin to a portal, opening up a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something. It represents a transformed way of understanding, or interpreting, or viewing something without which the learner cannot progress.’ (2003, p1). A threshold concept is essential for mastering the subject and for adopting the worldview of their graduate profession.

It seems to me that aid transfer of ideas within a discipline that the use of threshold concepts and other specific generalisations are helpful.

General generalisations are the idea that Lynne Erickson came up with to suggest that we could develop broad generalisations that mental constructs that could be abstract, timeless, and universal. One curriculum organisation that developed on this idea is the International Baccalaureate. For example, in their Middle Years Programme they developed a Statement of Inquiry in which a broad generalisation from the unit of work being studied is extracted which "represents a transferable idea". In practice these generalised were so broad as be superficial, at best they ended up as truisms.

Take this example: The interaction between the Montague and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet is a relationship. The interaction between traders and buyers in a market economy is a relationship. The correlation between the speed of a vehicle and its mass is a relationship. Identifying a generalisation to sum all these up will lose the contribution of the various disciplines.

It is very unclear to me that generalised generalisations offer anything to the notion of transfer.

A better question then is "under what conditions is the possibility of transfer improved?". The answer seems to be to understand learning according to a more connectionist theory of learning and to support new learning through better coordination. Looking back at the Gick and Holyoak experiment, they showed that being more explicit in the identification of the analogies present in the learning leveraged transfer.

So we want to teach students to spot analogies and where these can be applied in novel situations. By being explicit about this helps transfer. At the same time we don't want students assuming all perspectives are analogous. This could lead to more misconceptions than insights (this would be an example of something called negative transfer). We want them to see that different disciplines have different perspectives and insights. Rather than this detracting from transfer I believe this is key to attaining a greater sophistication (nuance) in our conceptual understanding.

Take home point - Far Transfer is Facilitated by Clear Connections not General Generalisations

Assuming I have convinced the reader of the problem with general generalisations why is connections any better.

Let's use the example from above about Relationships. It would be best to bring the unique perspectives of the subject together and use this term as a meeting place for distinct specific generalisations (disciplinary understandings). By creating a connection, there comes an opportunity to compare and contrast these understandings. I would call these meeting places: Interdisciplinary connections. I would not have too many of them but they should be accessible to all subjects (ie they must be shared). I would propose 8-10 would suffice.

In other words since we have repurposed key concepts to the role of deep disciplinary understandings there is a spot vacant for terms that support transfer of ideas. Interdisciplinary connections would replace their role but not attempt to subsume ideas into a single idea (which is what key concepts seems to do) but connect ideas with varying degrees of similarity.

At these meeting places, sometimes we will find parallels and analogies between various disciplinary understandings, these should be actively sought out and reflected on. At these times a connection is built. But connections are also built when disciplinary ideas sit in contrast to other subjects.

This notion of transfer tries to preserve the disciplinary context of the ideas, rather than abstracting them and seeing them as universal. This notion of transfer sees ideas as evolving, as more disciplinary understandings / insights are gained, rather than seeing ideas as timeless and generic.

In summary - to address the issue of transfer:

We need to teach for connection, and in these connections to explicitly acknowledge analogies as well as acknowledging when disciplines differ in their approach.

Assessment of transfer

There are already four well identified practices that improve learning:

1) Retrieval practice

2) Spaced practice

3) Interleaving

4) Feedback

If we want to boost transfer then we should use these practices. We should be encouraging students to recall learning from previous units; doing this regularly at spaced intervals; we should be mixing up the learning to help them distinguish between concepts (Note: comparing and contrasting is a powerful interleaving technique); and we should be providing them with feedback on this.

By creating meeting houses (interdisciplinary connections) and by asking them to recall conceptual understandings from past units and to compare and contrast these with conceptual understandings from a range of other subjects we tap into a lot of these strategies. If we do this in a presentation format that allows us to see their understandings then we afford ourselves the opportunity to give feedback on transfer.

Note: This is true assessment - I contrast this with a dated model of assessment which is based on measuring outputs on a standardised scale.

If we can get the kids to actively review their learning, reflect and make connections, and respond with questions to explore and work to revisit to solidify understanding then we are helping them become agents of their own transfer of understandings.

Not to check if it is happening would be to consign transfer to vain hope. Is that what we want for this most important of competencies?


Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn?: A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128(4), 612–637.

Meyer, E., & Land, R. (2003). Enhancing Teaching-Learning Environments in Undergraduate Courses (Occasional Report 4). University of Leeds.

Seely Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P., (1989) Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher; v18 n1, pp. 32-42

Gick, M. L., & Holyoak, K. J. (1980). Analogical problem solving. Cognitive Psychology, 12(3), 306–355

Lakomski, G. (2003) Moving knowledge: the so-called problem of transfer and how to reframe it. Conference Paper, The Fourth European Conference on Organizational Knowledge, Learning, and Capabilities, University Warwick.

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