The question for our generation of teachers is this: How do we design lessons that will prepare students to solve problems that adults can’t currently solve? In other words, how can they transfer what they’ve learned in school to make sense of the world and tackle complex problems? Most teachers hope for this type of learning for their students. But we know from a mountain of research that the vast majority of classroom tasks remain at the surface level, which sadly has no hope of transferring to complex situations (Meta and Fine, 2015; Hattie, 2012).
Take for instance the shrinking of the Aral Sea in Central Asia. It was once the fourth largest lake on Earth and was essential for the livelihood of thousands of people. Soviet irrigation projects devastated the lake. The impacts range from a public health emergency from blowing sands contaminated with pesticides to a migrant crisis of people fleeing Uzbekistan in the hope of employment in Kazakhstan. Is it possible for 11 and 12 year-old students to understand and analyze this situation without direct instruction from the teacher? Yes, it is! We’ve done it!
Here’s the thing about transfer: facts and topics do not transfer. Real-world transfer of learning requires teaching for conceptual understanding. As Dr. H. Lynn Erickson laments, most classrooms remain at the factual and topical levels, which do not transfer to new situations (Erickson, 2007). Grade 6 students studying the US Westward Migration, for example, would normally remain at the level of facts about this event in history. Perhaps the teacher could add some higher-ordered thinking skills by asking questions of analysis about this topic.
But the teacher can also help students abstract their learning to uncover key relationships between transferable concepts such as migration, hardship, resources, and opportunity. The teacher could frame the unit by asking students, “What is the relationship between migration, resources, and opportunity?” and “What is the relationship between migration and hardship?”
Through their study of the US Westward Migration, students could make connections and find patterns such as, “People migrate for greater opportunities.” Further study could complicate their understanding when they discover that “Migration often comes at great cost and hardship to the people who migrate.” Notice now how students are better prepared to transfer their learning to the complex situation of the drying up of the Aral Sea and the migration of people from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan.
Whenever we try to apply our insights from one situation to another we are always abstracting to the conceptual level, generalizing from a specific instance to a broader rule, before our knowledge helps us unlock the new situation. Although skills such as analysis do transfer and are an important component of unlocking complex situations, students still need to understand big ideas of conceptual relationships in order to tackle our world’s most pressing problems. Conceptual transfer only occurs when students apply insights about the relationship among concepts to a new scenario.
The example above illustrates a simple method for designing lessons for real-world transfer of learning. At a very basic level, instruction should cycle frequently through two major components:
- Students respond to abstract questions of conceptual relationship
- Students explore a specific context – a mathematical problem, scientific experiment, historical moment, or passage of text – in which the concepts play a major role.
Figure 3.3: Conceptual inquiry cycle© 2015 Education to Save the World, LLC
The specific contexts help students to answer the questions of conceptual relationship. The more contexts they explore, the deeper their learning. Ideally, the specific contexts should initially be quite simple and increase in complexity as students gain the necessary experience and understanding for answering the conceptual question.
Take for instance this example for English Language Arts:
What is the relationship between the use of literary elements and the impact on the reader?
What is the impact of new forms and mediums of communication on society?
Students could begin with an analysis of the work of Langston Hughes, a Harlem Renaissance poet, novelist, and playwright who used rhythm, tone, and imagery to explore themes of justice and equality. His poems in particular are easily accessible, short, and effective at forcing the reader to ponder the injustice of his era. Secondary students can easily see how his use of literary elements pushed the boundaries of poetry and helped to create something new called jazz poetry. Next, students could look at the work of playwright Tennessee Williams who also pushed boundaries using literary elements. His themes and strategies are a bit more complicated to understand. Finally, students could look at the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is credited with inventing the style of magical realism to understand how the use of literary elements impacts the reader and society. For transfer into the real world, students would then be ready to analyze the impact of social media such as Twitter and Facebook on society, drawing on their study of Hughes, Williams, and Marquez as evidence. Notice that the real-world transfer requires students to use their conceptual understandings in dissimilar situations. That is how we know they truly understand.
This method of instruction is easily contrasted with a typical “coverage style” of lesson planning. The figure below shows the concept-based approach in comparison to a linear, traditional way of teaching. The image on the right shows a progression of subtopics that ends with a test on those topics. As you can see, learning largely remains at the surface level. The image on the left demonstrates a depth of learning as students return to answer an abstract conceptual question through increasingly complex contexts or situations.
© 2016 Education to Save the World, LLC
Learning in this way may feel difficult for both teachers and students at first. It requires setting up a culture of thinking and risk-taking. It is different from the “yep, I got it” style of learning that characterizes most classrooms. We suggest re-orienting students to this type of learning. Below are a few strategies that help to create this type of learning environment.
Instructional Strategy #1: At first I thought…but then…so now I think…
(adapted from Making Thinking Visible, Ritchhart, Church, and Morrison, 2011)
This simple template helps students identify their preconceptions and become aware of the way their understanding is changing as a result of their learning experiences. We like putting this sentence framework up on the board at the end of class and asking students to share out ways their thinking has changed. It is helpful to model the evolution of your own thinking as an example:
At first I thought that fate was the most powerful force in Oedipus’s life, meaning that despite all Oedipus’s efforts, his acts of free will could never alter his fate. But then Marco’s comments made me change my mind. Marco pointed out that Oedipus decided by his own free will to kill the man who attacked him along the path (who turned out to be his father), and Oedipus could have made other choices in that moment. So now I think that Oedipus’s free will was also a powerful force in his life. Oedipus’s belief that he had conquered fate led him to make rash, foolish decisions, which ultimately led to his downfall.
Doing this regularly encourages students to notice how they and their peers think and learn differently, and helps students gain metacognitive awareness of how their thoughts are changing in light of new information and experiences. Instead of asking students to share their thoughts verbally, you might ask students to write their responses on sticky notes and place them on the board as they leave the room. You can then read them and comment on the trends you see at the start of the next class.
Use these to help maintain a classroom culture where students support one another to become better thinkers.
- Ask students to describe their ideal class environment. What could your peers say or do in order to encourage you to take risks and develop strong ideas? What could the teacher do? What should we avoid? Create a poster of behaviors and attitudes to strive for, and a poster of behaviors and attitudes to avoid. Every few weeks, spend ten minutes of class time reflecting on the extent to which the class is on track.
- Make time in class for students to set personal goals for their learning and intellectual development. This is not the same as setting goals for grades or exam scores. Rather, these are goals about the type of thinking or understanding students want to achieve. For instance, one student may want to strengthen her ability to use supporting evidence in her essays. Another may be curious about the role of women scientists in making advances in the field of physics. Ask students to write down their intellectual interests and goals. By reading them, you’ll show that you care about students’ individuality and that you consider them to be intellectual beings.
- Recognize students for their strong or improved thinking. This does not need to be elaborate or overly burdensome. Just pay attention to students’ conversations and writing over the course of the week and jot down two or three specific examples of clear, accurate, precise, logical, or sophisticated thinking. Spend five minutes each Friday acknowledging these students and holding their work up as an example to others.
- Allow students to offer “shout outs” to their peers for helping them understand an idea or achieve a goal. Use the simple framework, “I’d like to acknowledge ___ for helping me understand ___.”
Once the classroom environment is set up for thinking, designing conceptual lessons that prepare students for real-world transfer becomes much easier. Follow the steps below to design lessons for deep learning that empowers students to unlock complex situations.
- What topic are you currently teaching or plan to teach next? What abstract, conceptual ideas are embedded in this topic?
- What key relationships between or among the concepts articulate essential, transferable ideas? Turn these statements into questions for the students to answer about the relationships.
- What contexts from simple to complex could the students explore in order to answer questions about the relationship between the concepts?
- What complex, real-world situation could the students transfer their understanding and unlock?
Voila, you’ve done it! The type of learning we all dream of creating. Don’t worry if it’s messy at first. With practice and reflection, you and your students will get better and better at it.
Erickson, H.L. (2007). Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. London: Routledge.
Mehta, Jal & Sarah Fine. (2015). The Why, What, Where, and How of Deeper Learning in American Secondary Schools. Students at the Center: Deeper Learning Research Series. Boston, MA: Jobs for the Future.
Ritchhart, R., Church, M., & Morrison, K. (2011). Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.