Wishful Thinking about Far Transfer

My friend Alan sent me this article, and I keep thinking about it:

https://www.aft.org/ae/spring2020/debruyckere_kirschner_hulshof

This is a concise article (about four and a half pages), and it’s about 10 years old, but it might be one of the most important articles I’ve read in a while.

Quick summary: the authors take a careful look at the idea of “far transfer,” which is defined as using knowledge or skills that you learned in one situation in a dissimilar situation. In some ways, the goal of every teacher in every classroom is always some form of transfer: we want to help students learn knowledge and skills that they can USE outside our classes. But wouldn’t it be great if we could teach knowledge and skills in one curriculum area, and students could/would transfer that those skills when tackling a problem in a very different context?

That would be great. And learning doesn’t seem to work that way.

These authors reluctantly conclude that research indicates that this kind of far transfer is unlikely to happen. They take a careful look at research in five well researched contexts: creativity training, chess, computer programming, music, and Latin language learning. After looking at all the research, they conclude that “… in each case the results were disappointing. This is not to say that there is no evidence whatsoever for far transfer, but it’s very clear that the level of reliable evidence decreases in relation to the quality of the research: the better the research, the scanter the evidence.”

So it doesn’t look like we can teach students knowledge and skills in one context and expect them to be able to use them in a very different context. This is inconvenient: it would be great if we could teach “general critical thinking skills” or “problem solving steps” or a “creative thinking framework” to students and they would use these general multi-purpose skills in a different context.

But, is this really a surprise? Do we experience this in our lives as learners? Most of what I think I know and can do resulted from much more specific training and experience. I’m not a good carpenter, but I can cut boards and put them together (sometimes clumsily, but I can usually get it done). I learned how to do this by working on a lot of projects (and wasting wood, and making may trips to the hardware store). My wife is a book binder, and she makes beautiful custom books. Carpentry and book binding seem to share a lot of knowledge and skills: measuring, cutting, and joining. Someone might expect that learning how to measure, cut, and join wood might enable me to do those same skills and put a book together, and my wife might be able to use her skills on a carpentry project. But I can’t bind books, and she lets me put the bookshelves together.

The inconvenient truth seems to be that knowledge and skills are mostly context dependent. If I want to learn how to play the ukulele, my background as a bass player may help me a little at the beginning, but not much. I’ll just have to practice. A lot. It’s wishful thinking to pretend that teaching a “creative thinking skills” unit will have lasting impact on students’ ability to be creative “across the board” in their lives. Learning to play chess well or learning Latin may have intrinsic value, but they won’t magically increase our “logical reasoning” skills. Learning to play an instrument or sing well is an inherently valuable activity, and some research indicates that music training has specific impacts on some aspects of executive functioning, but researchers are trying to figure out if these changes are long term and dependent on some specific kinds of direct instruction and modeling how to transfer what students learning in music classes to other contexts. Maybe we should just admit that far transfer isn’t likely to happen, and focus on helping students get the specific, contextual training they need to get the skills they want and need.

3 thoughts on “Wishful Thinking about Far Transfer

  1. When I was young I couldn’t even stand when ice skating, I then roller bladed exclusively for years then one day picked up ice skating again when older. Ice skating a roller blading are different but similar. I mangaged pick it up the first time in the first day after some adjusting, skating backwards, some tricks just like I would with rollerblading.

    I’ve seen a guitarist who only exclusively played guitar, pick up a uke fluently in a week, he said it wasn’t much different but just took some adjustment.

    I’ve seen a trained dancer pickup karate forms perfectly in a couple of sessions what would take beginners months.

    I’ve seen certain trained gymnasts managed to do 200kg+ deadlifts after being shown the proper form after a couple of times who have never done weight training before.

    Well I won’t expect to become an astronaut by training to be a michelin star chef…but then again I wouldn’t rule it out as completely impossible. May be where you have a point with far transfer but transfer in similar contexts still shows transfer is possible.

    I mean isn’t this what interleaving is all based on?

    I haven’t done studies but I’ve seen learning transfer happen way too many times with people in different fields using prior mental models they’ve learnt in other fields to dismiss it entirely.

    1. Hi Chris! Thanks for this thoughtful comment. I think I agree with you: your examples of transfer make a lot of sense to me, and I have similar examples in my life. Your comments and comments from others make me wonder about the definition of “far transfer.” How “far” does an example have to be to “count” as far transfer? I wrote a bit more about that here, if you’re interested: https://robmcentarffer.net/uncategorized/more-thoughts-about-far-transfer/

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