110a. Transfer of Learning by Robert Haskell


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One central question which I find very difficult to answer is "What is education for?". There seem to be many parallel purposes, most of which are subjective, ill-defined, and hard to measure. It is difficult to navigate between the Scylla of unrealistic expectations far from the core activities of school (e.g. developing well-adjusted entrepreneurial job-ready good citizens) and the Charybdis of uninspiring flat-footed apparent irrelevancies (e.g. hoping that they at least remember Pythagoras' Theorem).

However, there is one aim that seems to me to pass both of these criteria: the ability to use what one has learned in novel situations. It seems absolutely necessary to make for a justifiable education - after all, if you are unable to apply your knowledge anywhere outside of the classroom, what's the use of learning it in the first place? On the other hand, it also seems eminently achievable and related to real classroom content.

Application of what one has learned to new scenarios is known in the psychology literature as transfer of learning (or knowledge transfer), and it is the subject of Robert Haskell's book. Haskell makes the compelling point that gaining knowledge and skills plus the ability to adapt them to a range of unfamiliar situations is what can properly be called education; if you can only rigidly perform a set of tasks in their original circumstances, this should be considered merely training.

After spilling considerable ink explaining what the term might really mean (scoring points with me for taking defining one's terms so seriously), the author tells us how, in over a century of research, psychologists have repeatedly shown transfer of learning to be nearly impossible to achieve. After walloping us with that shocker, he rallies us with the promise of his Eleven Points, a sort of manifesto which, he claims, can make transfer of learning possible after all. He then spends the rest of the book detailing what these points mean, and showing evidence (some convincing, some circumstantial) of the importance of each of the points in his program.

Transfer of learning is an incredibly important idea, and it is shocking that it is so little talked about in education circles. Instead, we get lectures about "21st century skills", with very little basis in actual science, as far as I have been able to figure out. After critiquing "critical thinking" in the previous episode, this one serves to draw attention to a more promising-looking educational aim with around 120 years of research behind it, but which nobody seems to be talking about.

Enjoy the episode.

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