Sunday / July 21

Harnessing Natural Curiosity for Learning that Transfers

Harnessing Natural Curiosity for Learning that Transfer

Pollution and contamination of the environment, the rise and spread of international terrorism, a polarized populace, global poverty—the question for our generation of teachers is, “How do we prepare young people to tackle problems we currently don’t know how to solve?” This generation of school-aged children needs to solve problems with a level of complexity and magnitude rarely seen over the course of human history. More than ever, students need to transfer their learning to real-world, highly dissimilar situations. And we know from a mountain of research that transfer requires an abstraction to the conceptual level to derive principles about how the world works.

Elon Musk’s Secret

A recent article by Michael Simmons revealed how Elon Musk is able to innovate in so many different areas. He reads 60+ books a month in science, religion, philosophy, engineering, etc. Guess what the secret is? Abstracting big ideas from each field and then transferring them to new situations. This is strikingly similar to our two-step process of uncovering and transferring conceptual understanding.

Elon Musk’s two-step process:

  1. Deconstruct knowledge into fundamental principles (uncover)
  2. Apply those principles to new fields (transfer)

Here’s the important truth: Innovation requires the creative transfer of the fundamental and powerful concepts of the traditional disciplines. Innovators stand on the shoulders of past scientists and mathematicians in order to innovate.

Moving Beyond Facts & Topics

The key to understanding transfer is this: facts and topics do not transfer. Facts are specific and locked in time, place, or situation such as North Korea or the endangered brown spider monkey. They cannot be applied directly to a new situation. Concepts are organizing ideas that are universal, timeless and abstract to different degrees, such as power, change, system. 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. The brain naturally seeks pattern recognition and meaning making. And conceptual understanding allows for organization and better retention of factual information.

The problem is, if we remain at the topic and factual level, students stop trying to derive the larger principles about what they’re learning. By the time they reach upper elementary school, they have been conditioned to retrieve knowledge on cue without deep understanding. But we continue to expect transfer. Knowing that students read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory last year, we assume they will have more insight into James and the Giant Peach. Once they’ve learned to perform calculations involving fractions, we expect them to solve a word problem that asks them to cut a recipe in half or to double it. We’re surprised when learning doesn’t transfer in these ways. Too often, we assign students a poor grade and move on.

There is no denying that as they age, students tend to lose their motivation for learning in formal schooling. Most second graders are likely to shoot their hands in the air, desperate for the teacher to call on them. By eighth grade, they sit silent in their seats, waiting for teachers to tell them the answers. Creating a conceptual framework and adopting an inductive teaching approach will do wonders in protecting curiosity and risk-taking in schools.

Creating Curious Innovators

Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction is a major component in preserving students’ innate natural curiosity while preparing them to transfer learning to tackle complex problems.

What would schools look like if we were developing students as collaborative innovators ready to tackle the world’s most complex challenges? Picture a school organized around real-world problems that require the flexible application of each subject’s concepts with an eye toward identifying and developing students’ passions. Students would engage in a variety of experiences that ask them to contribute to building a healthy, sustainable, and just world. Research shows us how to do it, we just need the courage to make it happen.


Erickson, H. L., & Lanning, L. A. (2014). Transitioning to concept-based curriculum and  instruction: How to bring content and process together. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Simmons, M. (2017, April 15). How Elon Musk Learns Faster And Better Than Everyone Else. Retrieved April 25, 2017, from

Written by

Julie is the author of Tools for Teaching Conceptual Understanding and is a Verified Master Trainer and has Coaching and Change Management Certificates from the Association for the Supervision of Training and Development. She has received training from Phi Beta Kappa International on Curriculum and Assessment and is a Specialist for Dr. Erickson’s Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction Certification Institutes. She is a James Madison Constitutional Scholar and taught Social Studies for many years. She was also the Director of Public Policy and Curriculum Innovation, leading the revision of curriculum in all subject areas grades 6 – 12 at the Cesar Chavez Public Charter Schools in Washington, DC. She has a Master’s Degree in International Education from The George Washington University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and Psychology from Loyola University New Orleans.

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