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Education Blog

Transferable skills and knowledge: Farewell to Bo Peep?

In this reflection on the implications of research for educational practice, Jonathan Firth addresses three views of how and when learning can transfer to different contexts.

Most curricula justify what they do in terms of what psychologists call transfer, that is to say, the extent to which what has been studied can later be used in other contexts.

The most obvious example of this is the concept of ‘transferable skills’. Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, for example, suggests that schooling develops “skills for learning, skills for life and skills for work”. The Building the Curriculum 4 policy paper notes that key among these are:

  • personal and learning skills
  • literacy and numeracy
  • core skills (which apparently again include numeracy, as well as communication)
  • essential skills (which includes everything mentioned so far, so it’s hard to know why they needed another bullet point!)
  • vocational skills specific to an occupation

More broadly, it has been argued that the entire point of education is to develop capacities that people can use later:

Much of the financial and human investment in education has been justified on the grounds that formal schooling helps inculcate general skills that transfer beyond the world of academia and thus help students become more productive members of society. (Barnett & Ceci, 2002, p. 613).

As Barnett and Ceci go on to ask, can a baker apply what was learned about fractions in school to an analysis of how to divide the ingredients for a recipe, and can a military recruit apply what they have learned from a textbook when in the field? These are all questions of transfer.

As might already be clear, transfer applies to both skills and knowledge. It is not straightforward, however. As Perkins and Salomon (1998, p. 22) warn:

Students often fail to apply knowledge and skills learned in one context to other situations. 

In their paper, Perkins and Salomon discuss different views of transfer:

1) That transfer is easy and automatic. They flippantly refer to this as the ‘Bo Peep’ theory – essentially, that if we leave it alone, it will sort itself out. This, they claim, is the default viewpoint in education, but they add, “Unfortunately… the Bo Peep theory is inordinately optimistic” (p. 23).

2) That transfer is difficult, but possible if instruction is suitably designed.

We might also add a third option, linking to the views of Lave and Wenger (1998), among others:

3) That transfer from formal education to real situations is largely impossible. That is to say, the view that formal education doesn’t work.

The evidence against viewpoint 1 (‘Bo Peep’) is overwhelming. Rather than assuming that students will be able to transfer what they have studied in class for their whole lives, we probably can’t even assume that they will remember it next week!

In addition, as explained by Barnett and Ceci (2002), transfer is very situation-dependent – it’s much easier to transfer what you have learned when in the same context than in an unfamiliar one, and easier to transfer to a similar topic or domain than a more distant one (read more on this previous blog post).

Here are just a few research highlights that all challenge the assumption that learning will transfer easily:

  • The encoding specificity principle (Tulving & Thomson, 1973) is a memory phenomenon whereby memories are harder to access out of context. For example, it’s easier to remember a person’s name in the same place where you first met, vs. seeing them somewhere unfamiliar.
  • Brain training games appear to only improve performance on similar games, and not to general cognitive performance (Simons et al, 2016).
  • Baer (2016) argues that creativity is not a universal process; it requires preparation, developed skills, and concept knowledge. That is to say, you can’t be generally creative (as a skill for life and work), you have to be creative at something – something that you know and understand.
  • In a useful addendum to the Bloom’s taxonomy, Agarwal (2019) found that practising facts is a less effective way to boost performance on skills questions compared with practice of both facts and skills.

Overall, these ideas show that transfer is not straightforward to achieve. They also, however, speak against the more extreme ‘situated view’ of learning – the theory that learning and the context cannot be separated. Both formal and abstract learning can transfer – it’s just that we need to think about how to do it effectively. As Anderson et al. (1996) put it:

Situated learning has strong empirical consequences that are not always borne out (p. 5)

...and... 

Situated learning focuses on some well-documented phenomena in cognitive psychology and ignores many others: while cognition is partly context-dependent, it is also partly context-independent (p. 10).

These two quotes highlight an important consideration: knowledge and skills that are overly contextualised can reduce transfer, while abstract representations promote transfer (Bransford et al., 2000).

Gradually ‘fading’ from a concrete situation to a more generic understanding appears to be a good way to facilitate this when teaching (e.g. Fyfe et al, 2015). Varied practice (as happens during play) can help too, but is perhaps not always standard practice with older learners.

Overlearning of similar tasks in the same context (e.g. doing a couple of hours of the same kind of maths problem or music practice) is less likely to be beneficial, however, and is time-inefficient compared with spacing such tasks out (for more, see this post). Therefore, educators who want to set a group of practice tasks might be best to schedule some of these for a later date – and a different context.

 

Transfer and situated learning are explored on our MSc Education Studies programme, as part of the Frameworks for Understanding Learning module.

Do you have experiences relating to this issue, as either a student or an educator? Why not share your thoughts on Twitter, tagging @Strath_Edu.

 

References

Anderson, J. R., Reder, L. M., & Simon, H. A. (1996). Situated learning and education. Educational Researcher, 25, 5–11.

Baer, J. (2016). Creativity doesn't develop in a vacuum. New directions for child and adolescent development, 2016(151), 9–20.

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

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How people learn: Brain, mind, experience and school. National Academy Press.

Fyfe, E. R., McNeil, N. M., & Borjas, S. (2015) Benefits of “concreteness fading” for children's mathematics understanding. Learning and Instruction, 35, 104–120.

Lave, J., & Wenger, E. (1998). Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Simons, D. J., Boot, W. R., Charness, N., Gathercole, S. E., Chabris, C. F., Hambrick, D. Z., & Stine-Morrow, E. A. (2016). Do “brain-training” programs work?. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 17(3), 103-186.

Tulving, E., & Thomson, D. M. (1973). Encoding specificity and retrieval processes in episodic memory. Psychological Review, 80(5), 352–373.

 

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