The 3 a’s of knowledge TRANSFER: ACQUIRE, ANALOGISE, APPLY intro

THIS 4 PART BLOG SERIES is created to assist an educator design a sequence of learning that drives towards the ultimate goal of knowledge transfer. Consensus around the notion of transfer in learning is loose to say the least: some deny it’s existence, some accept it but differentiate the types of transfer possible, including near, far, (etc), and others dedicate entire epistemologies to its achievement. But whatever your position, few could deny that a major goal of education is to be able to apply what has been taught in the classroom to a broader context, whether that be work and/or the advancement of community, and so these posts attempt to position you better in being able to design a sequence of learning that strives as much as it is possible to transfer student learning to new contexts.  

INTRO: Towards independent learning and transfer

One approach to facilitating transfer has been to teach students how to learn. The rationale seems sound: if a student understands and practises how to go about learning, then they should be able to do it in a new context, independently. Making a student aware of their metacognition is really important, but unfortunately the resulting pedagogy that most often subsumes this direction is a) inspired by the belief that strength and resilience in learning how to learn comes from the student constructing their own knowledge of the process and b) characterised by immersing students in the context of having to think and find knowledge independently. The ostensible bonus is the potential replacement of an anachronistic teaching practice with a modern 21st century student centered pedagogy.  

But, the focus on a modern pedagogy liberating students from the shackles of the sage on the stage and all the imbalance of power that is associated with it misreads the argument of a large body of work* dedicated to providing caution to the increasing popularity of such a discovery/inquiry pedagogy. The sagacity that you need knowledge in a domain to become proficient in that domain, and more pertinently, that achieving the knowledge is more efficient if an expert scaffolds that journey for the novice, as opposed to the novice trying to find the knowledge themselves, is not driven by an impulsion to maintain a neoconservative agenda, or a thwart on choice or constructivist prerogative**, but ultimately driven by a goal to arrive at independent learning faster.  

But student learning will be stronger if they have found the knowledge themselves, won’t it? 

Interestingly, for such a widely held notion, I can’t find any evidence to support the idea that learning things on your own creates a stronger understanding than learning it from a teacher/peer, except if you are already quite proficient in a given topic/area of learning (reversal effect). Determining then how we teach the novice learner, who I contend, makes up quite a large percentage of the modern undergraduate cohort, to independence, needs a pedagogy that is less emotive and more scientific in its design, and one that is conscious of the reality of a curriculum that is starved of time.  

Standing on the shoulders of giants 

Initiating a context where novice students are expected to find knowledge on their own concomitantly initiates a context where novice students may not make the necessary connections between key ideas for a host of reasons: they may invest too much time in researching irrelevant knowledge, they may not ‘see’ the connections between ideas, they may, as John Sweller states, ‘use general problem-solving strategies such as means-ends analysis when faced with a problem’ and exhaust working memory, or worse, they simply may not engage with the autonomy of the context and do no work. Because much of what we teach is sequential, the consequence of students not arriving where we want them to be in the curriculum is that learning gaps will emerge, and these will have to be addressed in the limited time available. Understandably this ‘extra’ teaching is foregone by most, and this invariably leads to equity issues, with often only the highly motivated, intelligent or culturally literate students able to cope, as they are able to draw from schemata developed from these cultural and mental literacies. But I contend that even those students could be afforded a better more efficient pedagogy, one that scaffolds the acquisition of schema so that more meaningfully higher order thinking can be conducted sooner, and one that facilitates the creative extension of knowledge generated by ‘giant’ scholars.

The imperative of schema 

The reason why it’s inefficient to not scaffold the development of a novice’s knowledge base is highlighted by schema theory. When presented with unfamiliar content, we attempt to either assimilate or accommodate it into our schema, but if the gap between what we have and what is new can’t be connected, the working memory essentially exhausts itself, cognitive dissonance ensues and little learning, if any, happens at that point. In light of encouraging efficient transfer of knowledge, Dunbar’s finding that novices struggle significantly to encode the deeper structures of problems is pertinent: without sufficient analogies in a schema, making a new context consonant with learnt contexts in troublesome.  

The first step in building an appropriate schema is to teach in concrete terms with concrete examples. That is the base of the next post.  

*here are some examples:

Assessment training effects on student assessment skills and task performance in a technology-facilitated peer assessment. Xiongyi Liua and Lan Lib. 2013

Cognitive Load During Problem Solving: Effects on Learning. JOHN SWELLER, University of New South Wales 1988.

Constructivism as a theory for teaching and learning. Simply Psychology. McLeod, S. A. (2019, July 17)

John Hattie on Inquiry Based Learning.

The Use of Advanced Organisers in the Learning and Retention of Meaningful Verbal Material. Ausubel 1960:

What We Know About Learning. Herbert A. Simon. Department of Psychology, Carnegie Mellon University. Source:

Why Education Experts Resist Effective Practices (And What It Would Take to Make Education More Like Medicine). Douglas Carnine

Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching . Kirschner, Sweller, Clarke. 2006

**well it may be for some, but for me it’s about efficiency in learning  

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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