Readings Week Five: Acquisition, Meaning, and especially Transfer

A central theme from the readings this week was on teaching for transfer over simple recall and acquisition; developing general skills and “mental muscle.” My partner is different from me in that he is in the sciences–engineering–rather than the humanities, which is my undergraduate background, and he is pursuing a PhD rather than a Master’s. However, he is more interested in teaching than I am; though we’re far from retirement, his dream to is be a high school math teacher when he’s done with research. Thus I talk to him quite a bit about this class and about the readings, especially. We had a conversation recently about the idea of learning for transfer and developing that “mental muscle.” While many would disagree, he argued that even a doctoral degree is more an exercise in learning for transfer than it is in doing meaningful research: oftentimes the research PhD students do while in pursuit of their degree ends up being less significant than the work they do later in their career, which wouldn’t be possible without the skills they acquired in grad school (apologies if that came out convoluted!).

The Wiggins and McTighe article, “Putting Understanding First” (2008), discussed reforming high school curricula to address the problem of acquisition of content for its own sake and neglecting meaning and transfer. They assert that, instead, “we must recognize that the purposeful and effective use of content is the ever-present goal, and we must design all instruction with that goal in mind” (Wiggins and McTighe). I appreciated their succinct distillation in the first half of that sentence. I don’t know very much about the public school system or state requirements for curriculum, despite being a product of that system, but it seems that to achieve the latter goal, instructors would have to massively overhaul the system and take away the emphasis on test results and required coverage of certain material.

Another concept discussed in the readings, in How People Learn, is metacognition. Before this class I would have had a murkier understanding of it; now, as I mentioned in my previous post, I see that we’re assessing ourselves as learners and and monitoring and regulating our own understanding. I can see the connection between formative assessment and metacognition, and the ways that both help the learner develop “general skill” and the “mental muscle” to apply knowledge in any environment.

I’m looking forward to connecting all of these interesting concepts to libraries in class tomorrow evening. We’ve talked from the beginning of the semester about the importance of transfer; an example was attempting to make connections in our screencasts for viewers to transfer the skill somewhere else. I will continue to contemplate the other areas where we should be thinking about transfer!

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2 thoughts on “Readings Week Five: Acquisition, Meaning, and especially Transfer

  1. I agree with your observation about the type of learning in grad school. When I was in undergrad I worked in a research center where a lot of doctoral students were in various stages of their research. One of the things I observed was that they approached a lot of their research, even the projects that were not directly related to their PhD, as a learning opportunity to learn from the research faculty in the center. Despite the specificity of doctoral research, I agree with you that it is an exercise in learning transfer.

    I also like, and admire, your approach to understanding the concepts we have been discussing in class. Using myself as a kind of case study is something that I struggle with and am not always able to remove the personal from my experience to grasp a better understanding of my process of learning as a learner.

  2. I agree that public schools would need to reevaluate the way they teach in order to achieve the goal outlined in the Wiggins and McTighe quote. Theoretically, the material covered on tests should be the most useful material, but more and more that is not the case, particularly when it comes to SAT and ACT testing. These are becoming more and more about how to actually take a large test, something that ceases to be relevant the minute you finish taking it.

    Thinking back to high school history class, there is typically a discussion of when schools stopped simply making students memorize information (writing sentences over and over on a chalkboard) and began helping them analyze information (what books and articles on education hope to achieve). After reading about what educators are supposed to be doing, I see that we are still much closer to the former. Kids still have to memorize, and are tested on, the names of all the presidents. What goal does that achieve? I wonder where this idea about practicality and goal-oriented learning goes?

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