This is the fourth in a series of posts unpicking the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching And Learning. In this post I investigate Principle 4: “Learning is based on context, so generalizing learning to new contexts is not spontaneous but instead needs to be facilitated.”

The fact that learning occurs in context is well established. Our ability to retrieve information is heavily context dependent – we link it to related subject matter, times, places, people and feelings. I’ve written before about the variation effect and troubling finding that students often struggle to transfer what they have been taught from one context to another. As the report puts it, “for learning to be more effective or powerful, it needs to generalize to new contexts and situations.” Sadly, this doesn’t ‘just happen’. And the more complex material is, the harder it becomes to transfer it between contexts. This is about making learning more durable and memorable.

The report offers some pretty mixed advice. Some of what they suggest is spot on such as the advice to teach a topic or concept in multiple contexts. This builds on Nuthall’s finding that he could predict with over 80% accuracy the likelihood of students retaining six months after instruction if they had encountered new information on at least three separate occasions, in at least three different contexts. Of course, the confounding factor is the spacing effect. Psychologists have known for well over a century that repeated exposure to information on the cusp of forgetting improves storage strength in memory. It seems highly likely that varying contexts will only strengthen this effect further.

The report’s authors also advise teachers to spend time on activities which are less likely to be useful. For instance, they suggest, we should identify and build on “strengths that students bring to a learning situation… thereby making connections between students’ current knowledge and the teachers’ learning goals”. What do they mean? That we should assess students’ prior knowledge? Fair enough, but there then seems to be the requirement to link all this to “learning goals”. Does this mean spending time trying to explicitly link everything students know to a lesson objective? Likewise, “Helping students compare and contrast contexts and noting contextual similarities that make transfer appropriate” seems like a lot of effort for little potential gain. If we were to spend all this time comparing the contexts in which learning had taken place, when would we have time to teach new content?students see the application of their knowledge to the real world or assisting them in transferring real-world knowledge when trying to understand academic principles. Teachers can provide occasions and multiple contexts in which students can use and practice their knowledge.

Suggesting that teachers help “students see the application of their knowledge to the real world or assisting them in transferring real-world knowledge when trying to understand academic principles” is similarly bland. What teacher would not attempt to link an abstract concept to a concrete application?

The worst advice comes when they recommend “Organizing facts around general principles aligns with how experts organize knowledge.” Organising facts around general principles may well be what experts do, but this is of little help to novices. If we really want to increase how well students transfer new skills or knowledge between contexts, the most important principle we need to acknowledge is that novices and experts think differently. The report’s authors begin to recognise this when they state, “For example, while physics experts approach problem-solving by way of major principles or laws that apply to the problem, beginners focus on the equations and plugging numbers into the formulas.” This is true but doesn’t go far enough.

They then make the mistake of saying teachers can improve transfer by, “Taking the time to focus on deep, underlying concepts in a domain and promoting learning by understanding rather than focusing on surface-level elements in a learning situation or by memorizing the specific elements.” These ‘deep underlying concepts’ are only visible to experts. We all start life as a novice. As such we think in qualitatively different ways to experts. A novice will know very little about a subject and will have correspondingly little to draw from long-term memory to help them think and make new connections whereas an expert has a rich fund of experiences to draw on.

Explicitly teaching students how to become consciously familiar with the methods they use to learn, how and why they work, when and how to apply them, could help them think more like experts but, we need to remember that children are not experts, and that they only way they’re likely to become experts is by learning facts about the subjects we teach. Of course what we ultimately want is for students to have a flexible understanding that can be applied to a wide variety of new situations, but this is unlikely to happen by magic. Daniel Willingham explains: “Whenever you see an expert doing something differently from the way a non-expert does it, it may well be that the expert used to do it the way the novice does it, and that doing so was a necessary step on the way to expertise.”

One piece of advice I’d like to offer (prompted by Nic Price’s comment below) is the power of narrative to provide a powerful and enduring context for learning. Willingham talks about the psychologically privileged status of stories – partly because they help us to make causal connections between information and context. It’s always useful to construct explanations in terms of their narrative structure with beginnings, middles and ends; cliffhangers, characters and, most importantly, conflict. As Willingham says,

Screenwriters use the first 20 minutes—about 20 percent of the running time—to pique the audience’s interest in the characters and their situation. Teachers might consider using 10 or 15 minutes of class time to generate interest in a problem (i.e., conflict), the solution of which is the material to be learned.

In summary, the core of this principle, that transfer between contexts “needs to be facilitated” is correct. What is less clear is the advice given on how this might be achieved.