Conceptual learning in a thinking classroom – teaching for transfer

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I was recently fortunate enough to co-lead a workshop on conceptual driven curriculum in the PYP. During the workshop participants constructed meaning about the nature of concepts, why they are the driving force behind the pedagogy of inquiry and why concepts are so fundamental in teaching children about international mindedness.  Like all workshops, I came away with many new ideas about how to improve my own practice and questions about how we balance the need for meaningful, quality learning over the quantity of content demands.

One question I asked myself is; what is the right balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry? As PYP teachers we are co-constructers in curriculum design, our practice is guided by the value of “choose, act, reflect.”  In reflecting, I think the balance of conceptual understandings to strive for within a unit of inquiry is very contextual and dependent upon a number of factors (eg. developmental age, ESL, complexity of the subject, motivation of the pupils, socio/emotional issues…) and yet to what extent do we factor these variables into our planning? I believe neglecting the unique contextual characteristics of the learners in our schools runs the potential of subjugating conceptual teaching to content teaching – simply put, if you are trying to teach too many conceptual understandings at one time you can run the risk of purely teaching factual content. So how can we tell when less is more?

As practitioners we need tools to help us reflect, we need ideals, benchmarks and anchor points from which to draw reference if we are collaboratively to build our understanding of this most important facet of learning. For me one essential way of evaluating how effective our conceptual teachings are is to look at how learners transfer their understanding across subject boundaries and how their learning becomes part of everyday, real life interactions in thinking, problem solving and action. However, transfer can sometimes be elusive and does not necessarily happen at the end of a unit of work, it is not always readily assessed through the formal procedures and the tools we design to record them. Students do not automatically connect, apply, or extrapolate what they know to other learning contexts. So what foundations can we put in place to ensure we are dong the best we can to nurture conceptual understanding and seek its transfer to new contexts? Here is my attempt to map out a few strategies that work for me:

  1. Make transfer the big goal of conceptual teaching and learning – always have ideas in mind about how students can transfer their conceptual understandings and skills to new contexts.
  2. Concepts over content – think big picture not activities. The exploration of concepts during collaborative teacher planning sessions will lead to a multitude of activities that can be applied in the classroom – the activities will always take care of themselves!
  3. Less is more – working with fewer conceptual understandings means that you can use and extend the knowledge and skills students present in a meaningful, formative way – be mindful.
  4. Prior knowledge – Take the time to nurture student’s interest and avenues into the concepts you are teaching.
  5. Authentic assessment – map out the formative and summative assessment opportunities that are likely to arise through the teaching and learning experiences. Through these opportunities, challenge student’s misconceptions, stereotypes and tendencies toward rigid thinking.
  6. Levels of transfer – transfer can happen on a “near” level where contexts can be very similar, or transfer can happen on a “far” level where the context is more abstract and removed from the original learning, some learners are natural abstract thinkers, others are not.
  7. Think discriminatively – be measured about when opportunities arise for students to apply transfer, be mindful about when you can make it happen authentically, create opportunities for success and not failure.
  8. Value thinking, nurture it and make it visible – train and engage students in a variety of daily thinking routines, use Socratic questioning in discussions to connect new ideas with existing knowledge. Metacognition, metacognition, metacognition!!
  9. Nurture the potential of transfer in younger students – (EY- G1) value and reflect upon the meaning of children’s connections in collaboration with others. Make children’s connections visible and a part of discussion for other learners.
  10. Homework – getting students to apply what they are learning in class and explore the meaning of concepts to their own lives can provide rich and diverse opportunities for transfer. Infinitely more valuable than completing worksheets!

For more ideas on the transfer of learning see “ten tools for teaching transfer” or look up some of the writings of David Perkins.

3 thoughts on “Conceptual learning in a thinking classroom – teaching for transfer

  1. Hey mate,
    Good luck in Bangladesh fella! Craig & Ros who attended your workshop really impressed by your knowledge, ideas and thoughts – we should have met up for a beer. Been offered a place on workshop training next month in Chang Mai.
    Socha making a name for himself as an intellectual there is a video on YouTube of socha and Noam Chomsky worth checking out.
    Keep well

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