Wednesday, July 15, 2015

How People Learn: Learning That Transfers To New Contexts

Continuing my summer book study...

"Transfer from school to everyday environments is the ultimate purpose of school-based learning."  That's the kind of statement that seems obvious and turns out to be important. In How People Learn, the transfer process gets close attention--and now it's got mine as well.

Here, transfer is about ability to use knowledge in multiple contexts. For example, veteran shoppers can be very good at figuring out cost per unit and identifying bargains, but struggle with related division when dropped into a formal classroom.  Conversely, most of us have watched kids part way through elementary school who aren't at all sure which bit of "school math" to use in stores. The studies in the book give examples like seeing if Latin or computer programming develops logical reasoning for other kinds of work and sorting out which kinds of simulations create lasting and useful understanding. If you've learned something that you can only used in the situations that are most like being in school, it isn't going to be a lot of help for other kinds of challenges.

With research citations for each claim, the chaper looks at what scientists know about when transfer is and isn't likely to succeed. Some major points:
  • Time spent on understanding how a process works and when it matters yields better transfer than memorization.
  • Teaching a set of knowledge in multiple contexts makes the learners more able to transfer it.  
  • Transfer is also improved when students are equipped to monitor their own understanding and evaluate their own progress (with "metacognition" as the power word for that process of learning about their own learning.)
All through this section, I was haunted by images students doing worksheets and computer drills to prepare for a math assessment. 

The research in this study gives support to parent concerns that a certain kind of "teaching to the test" creates knowledge that will be only useful on the test. That can be learning for a single context, focused on procedural accuracy, with little insight into how or why the same knowledge could be put to work elsewhere.

Plus, what happens if the school's response to early difficulty is more of the same kind of drill, and more, and more and more again? On this understanding of learning, students may succeed on this year's test, but not be able to transfer that knowledge to next year's work or future challenges. 

That "learning that doesn't transfer" may be central to what's going on when middle school teachers say kids come from elementary school lacking key skills, and high school teachers say that about middle school, and college teachers and employers say it about high school graduates. The folks at the lower level know they worked on that exact skill, but don't know why kids can't put it to use as they move on. The issue may be quality of learning, with students needing to move well past memorization into understanding why the knowledge matters, using it in multiple contexts, and joining in evaluating their understanding as the work goes on. Adding to the quantity of work a student turns in may not change the long-term results much at all.

One final connection: Kentucky has committed to standards that are "fewer, higher, and deeper." Learning that can transfer may take more intensive study, and that's part of why it matters to have a shorter list of expectations with deeper demands about putting understanding to active use.  This chapter adds to my sense that we're on the right track in that approach, and we'd be moving in the wrong direction if we added lots of detailed demands to our standards documents.

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