Very kindly, Greg Ashman posted his thoughts on #WrongBook on his site yesterday – if you haven’t seen his ‘review’ you can find it here. I really like both the style and the substance of Greg’s piece, but I do want to take him up on the way he’s interpreted my use of the term ‘transfer’. In the book, I define learning as, “The ability to retain skills and knowledge over the long term and to be able to transfer them to new contexts.” Greg is unhappy with the inclusion of transfer in this definition and argues the following:

It sets the bar too high for learning and implies that anything that does not lead to transfer is not true learning. This idea has been used by educationalists to argue that traditional ‘transmission’ teaching does not lead to ‘deep’ learning and that we need other methods instead. There is usually little evidence supplied that these alternative methods do actually lead to greater transfer but the assertion gets a lot of currency nonetheless.
Transfer is difficult and not even required in many situations. Who regularly solves novel problems? Professional problem-solvers – engineers, plumbers, statisticians – are usually solving variations on well-known problems (thanks to Barry Garelick for shaping my thinking on this). The elevation of transfer tends to do what Didau cautions us against when pursuing taxonomies such as Bloom’s; it devalues ‘lower’ kinds of objectives and makes learning the basics of a subject seem prosaic and unworthy.

I’d never come up against this view before and found myself somewhat startled by it, so clearly the concept of ‘transfer’ needs a little more unpicking than I’d previously thought. Although I’m sure it’s not deliberate, I think Greg has misrepresented my view of transfer. In the book, I’m explicit that ‘far transfer’ between different domains – the idea that you could learn the skill of analysis in history and then apply it physics –  is a bit of a fool’s errand. Instead, I’m talking about ‘near’, contextual transfer. Transfer from the classroom to the exam hall for instance. It can be staggering how often students struggle to transfer what they’ve learned from one seat in a classroom to another seat in the same room! Surely everyone needs to be able to transfer knowledge from the context in which they’ve learned to the context in which they’d need to apply it. The trouble is, when we learn a thing in one context we rely on environmental cues in order to recall it, when we change the context the absence of those can cues can cause us to be unable to retrieve what may have been secure in another location. Is this really setting the bar too high?
This is categorically not about he type of ‘novel’ problems Greg talks about in his review. I’m not claiming any need for generic problem solving which ‘transfers’ through some spooky, osmotic process, and I certainly don’t want my plumber to attempt transferring her plumbing skills to my electrical wiring. That said, I do want my plumber to transfer what she’s learned about plumbing toilets in different contexts to the context of my leaky toilet.
Greg points out that some people use the concept of transfer as an excuse for their criticism of transmission teaching. I’m not quite sure how these ‘educationalists’ manage this conjuring trick, but I have no truck with them. It might be true that lots of people misuse or misunderstand transfer, but it’s always worth considering Sturgeon’s Law: If 90% of everything is crap, let’s talk about the 10%. I use the term transfer because it is part of Robert Bjork definition of learning and, at least in part, my book is a treatment of his ideas, but far as I can see, any definition of learning which does not account for people being unable to reproduce a thing in a new context is dubious. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that knowledge ought to be both durable and flexible.
But let’s be really clear here and say that privileging transfer over retention is stupid. They are equally important functions of improving storage strength and as such both benefit from teaching in a way which focus on embedding learning in long-term memory. I’m pretty clear that teaching ought to contain elements of explicit instruction (explanations & modelling) as well as opportunities for scaffolded struggle and independent practice. Whilst there’s no benefit to introducing struggle at the point of encoding (transmission) there does appear to be compelling reasons to believe that certain ‘desirable difficulties‘ at the point of retrieval help to increase students’ ability to both retain and transfer the content we wish them to learn.
I hope that at least clarifies what I mean when I talk about transfer. Please feel free to politely disagree below.