Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Future Is Now: Preparation for Future Learning

Learning By Doing

I have an assignment for you. A family of bald eagles was spotted on a hillside in an adjacent neighborhood. Your task is to set up a refuge that will keep them safe from poachers, crowds, and other impediments to nesting. As you start this exercise, what do you already know that will help you solve this problem?

Why would I give you this assignment? If your boss came up to you and said, "I need you to construct a plan for an eagle sanctuary. Have it on my desk by the end of the week." What would your reaction be? Like yours, mine would be, "Um, that's not my job. I don't know anything about eagles, sanctuaries, or how eagles raise their babies." I would protest and generally lobby to be taken off this project.

Now, consider what it's like to be a kid in school. Teachers assign their students projects from wildly disparate domains. Despite what kids know or don't know, they have to oblige their teacher (or face the consequences). Students can't complain that this is "not their job" or that they "don't know anything about eagles." They have to dive in, ask a ton of questions, and try to learn as much as possible. 

Hold Please While I Transfer You.

In a previous post, we defined transfer as the application of knowledge from one setting to another. For example, you might learn how to calculate the length of a hypotenuse of a right triangle in math class. While working on building a shed with your Dad, you have to calculate the length of the roof. You need to recognize that your knowledge from math class applies to this construction scenario. Being able to do so would be a great example of positive transfer. 

Unfortunately, far transfer is rare. People don't see how their knowledge is applicable in many situations. For example, when I was working on my book, I found out that I had to remove all my links to a certain online bookstore. The software I was using didn't allow me to search for the contents within the hyperlinks. I was lost and didn't know how to solve my problem. A few days later, it occurred to me that I do a similar task work all the time. I just need to use grep, which is a command-line search tool. Once I made the connection, I felt like an idiot because the knowledge for solving this problem was always right there, inside my head. I forgot what I knew because I didn’t recognize its application to the new problem at hand!!

The literature on learning is rife with similar examples of transfer failure. So is it a problem with our students? Or is it a problem with the theories on transfer in the literature? The answer is probably a little bit of both [1].

Why Is Transfer So Hard?

Let's make a distinction between two different theories of how to optimize transfer. The direct application theory of transfer is when we must do something new in the absence of any other resource, for example, when the student isn't allowed to look in a textbook, search the web, or phone a friend. In the preparation for future learning theory of transfer, the student is given an interim learning opportunity – an example to study or a related problem to solve. The intermediate step between the initial learning opportunity and the target transfer material should make the student more prepared to master the new problem (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Two different theories of transfer.

To compare these two theories, Dan Schwartz and Taylor Martin conducted the following study [2]. They wanted to compare two types of instruction. The first type asked students to invent a procedure for assessing the accuracy of a pitching machine. In other words, the scientists wanted students to struggle with inventing a mathematical formula that captures variation in a set of data. After they struggled, the teacher presented the "real" solution. This was contrasted with the "tell-and-practice" type of instruction where the students first heard a lecture, and then they are asked to practice applying the mathematical procedure.

Ordinarily, this would be a standard test of the direct application theory of transfer; therefore, they added a twist. On the post-test, they included a worked-out example that was related to the far transfer problem. The worked example served two purposes. First, it represented the resource for an intermediate learning opportunity. It also allowed them to evaluate the preparation for future learning theory. So what did they find?

The results of their experiment are captured in Figure 2. The right side of the figure demonstrates that the students in the Tell-and-Practice classroom did not benefit from the worked example. However, if we contrast that with the left side of Figure 2, we can see that the pattern of results for the Invention-Based instruction was different. The students who had the opportunity to invent a formula for variation were better able to take advantage of the worked example. Their performance on the transfer problem was much better relative to all the other students. This pattern of results lends empirical support to the preparation for future learning theory of transfer.

Figure 2. The learning differences between two types of instruction combined
with the opportunity to learn from a 
resource on the test.

The S.T.E.M. Connection

How does this play out in education? Going back to the eagle example, if we gave this assignment to both children (5th graders) and adults (college students), they would probably both do poorly. It's not really their fault because we just sprung it on both of them. None of the prior learning helped either population transfer their knowledge to this task. Their poor performance on this type of assessment would be consistent with the direct application theory of transfer. 

What if, however, we asked the two groups to generate questions that they would like to have answered so that they could successfully complete this task? By this metric of transfer (i.e., evaluating the questions each group asked), the adults blew the kids out of the water. The 5th graders were more focused on local features of the eagles; whereas, the adult questions demonstrated an appreciation for the inter-relationship between the organisms and their environment.

Examples Questions: College Students 
  • What type of ecosystems support eagles?
  • Do eagles have predators? How about their babies? 
  • What are some man-made threats to eagles?
  • What kind of experts are needed for the refuge?

Examples Questions: 5th Graders
  • How big are eagles?
  • What do they eat?
  • Where do they live?
  • How do they take care of their babies?

In other words, the performance on a "preparation for future learning" measure of transfer, the adults did quite well. They are able to ask the right questions about eagles because they can use their general knowledge of biology. Asking the right questions should, in turn, should help them find the right answers.

It's still true that transfer is hard. However, we should construct our learning opportunities such that "preparation for future learning" is taken into account. This also has implications for assessment because solving problems in a vacuum might not be the gold standard. Instead, as educators, we might be more interested in making sure students learn how to learn, and structure our assessments accordingly

Share and Enjoy!

Dr. Bob

Going Beyond the Information Given

[1] Bransford, J. D., & Schwartz, D. L. (1999). Rethinking transfer: A simple proposal with multiple implications. Review of Research in Education, 24, 61-100.

[2] Schwartz, D. L., & Martin, T. (2004). Inventing to prepare for future learning: The hidden efficiency of encouraging original student production in statistics instruction. Cognition and Instruction, 22129–184.