Wishful thinking about far transfer

Can students be taught knowledge and skills in one context and apply those skills in an unrelated field? I 3 min 30 sec read

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I keep thinking about this concise article: If You Learn A, Will You Be Better Able to Learn B?  It’s about 10 years old but it just might be one of the most important articles I’ve read in quite a while.

Quick Summary: the authors look at the idea of far transfer, which is defined as using knowledge or skills that you have learned in unrelated situations. 

In some ways, the goal of every teacher in any classroom is always far transfer: wouldn’t it be fortuitous if we could teach knowledge and skills in one curriculum area and students could/would transfer those skills when tackling a problem in very different contexts?

Unfortunately, learning doesn’t seem to work that way.

The authors of the article reluctantly concluded this kind of far transfer is unlikely to happen. After investigating all the research presented in five contexts: creativity training, chess, computer programming, music and Latin language learning, they stated: 

… in each case the results were disappointing. This is not to say that there is no evidence whatsoever for far transfer but it’s very clear that the level of reliable evidence decreases in relation to the quality of the research: the better the research, the scanter the evidence.

According to the findings, it doesn’t look like we can teach students knowledge and skills in one context and expect them to use those skills in another context. This is inconvenient: it would be great if we could teach “general critical thinking skills” or “problem solving steps” or a “creative thinking framework” to students so they could apply these general multi-purpose skills in diverse situations.

But is this really a surprise? 

Do we experience this kind of transfer in our lives as learners? Most of what I know and can do resulted from specific training and experience. I’m not a good carpenter but I can cut boards and put them together (albeit clumsily, I usually get it done). I have learned carpentry skills by working on a lot of projects (wasting wood and making many trips to the hardware store). My wife is a book binder by trade and sells beautiful custom-made books. Carpentry and book binding appear to share a lot of knowledge and skills: measuring, cutting and joining. Someone might expect that learning how to measure, cut and join wood might enable me to do those same skills and put a book together, while my wife on the other hand might be able to use her skills on a carpentry project. The reality is I can’t bind books, so I make bookshelves instead. 

The inconvenient truth seems to be that knowledge and skills are mostly context dependent. 

If I want to learn how to play the ukulele, my background as a bass player may help me a little at the beginning, but not much. I'll just have to practice, a lot. It's wishful thinking to pretend that teaching a "creative thinking skills" unit will have lasting impact on students' ability to be creative "across the board" in their lives. Learning to play chess well or learning Latin may have intrinsic value, but they won't magically increase our "logical reasoning" skills. Learning to play an instrument or sing well is an inherently valuable activity, and some research indicates that music training has specific impacts on some aspects of executive functioning, but researchers are trying to figure out if these changes are long term and dependent on some specific kinds of direct instruction and modeling how to transfer what students learn in music classes to other contexts. Maybe we should just admit that far transfer isn't likely to happen, and focus on helping students get the specific, contextual training they need to get the skills they want and need.

Rob McEntarffer

Assessment/Evaluation Specialist, Lincoln Public Schools

2 Comments

Go to the profile of Global ESD
Global ESD 4 months ago

Thank you for this well stated argument Rob. We think the science behind your argument is solid, but your conclusions are a bit too strong. Far transfer is indeed possible and really important, but it takes careful thinking about the kinds of concepts and conceptual networks that do transfer, and how widely these transfers can be made. Evolution science is a great example of a field that has leveraged far transfer for significant scientific and practical gain, and, we argue, this field offers perhaps the central opportunity for cultivating far transfer. Our NPJ Science of Learning response to your post outlines our argument further, we would love to get your take on it - as well as others in the Science of Learning community! https://go.nature.com/30yHhlU

Go to the profile of Rob McEntarffer
Rob McEntarffer 3 months ago

Hi Global ESD! Thanks for starting this good conversation. I'm still thinking about what your thoughtful post - https://npjscilearncommunity.nature.com/users/385934-global-esd/posts/evolving-far-transfer-of-learning - and I plan on doing some writing. I suspect we can both get more specific about our thinking about far transfer through this discussion. Thanks!