The Teachers College Reading and Writing Project welcomed renowned educator, author and reformer, Grant Wiggins, to speak to an audience of school principals and classroom teachers on the topic of transfer. Wiggins is best known for the concept of “backward design” in curriculum planning and his publications, Understanding by Design, Schooling by Design, and Essential Questions: Opening Doors to Student Understanding (with Jay McTighe). He is the President of Authentic Education, an international consulting firm, and an active participant in many reform initiatives in the United States and across the world.
“I taught it, but they didn’t get it,” is a universal teachers’ lament. Why do so many students seem to forget what they have been taught when asked to apply their learning in new or challenging situations? Too frequently students do not demonstrate an ability to transfer strategies and skills from one context to another.
Wiggins began by reminding the audience that transfer is the ultimate goal of instruction. In workshop teaching we aim for students to be truly independent readers and writers. What we teach one day in a workshop we want students to be able to apply and reapply in as many situations, texts, and places as possible. We need to ensure that our students are able to apply their learning—on their own, in any situation, without our help—and that this goal needs to be made clear to students.
Using the analogy of learning to play basketball, Wiggins explained that players do drills and play scrimmages in order to be able to play a new game against a new team. That’s what standardized tests are like; when students come up against a new prompt and a new passage they have never seen before, they need to adapt prior learning to tackle this new challenge. What matters is that our students have a repertoire of skills to draw upon and they use them flexibly, making judgments about which skill to use and when.
Instruction often focuses too much on the parts of a subject, teaching strategies or the use of tools without instruction about decision making. If a team of basketball players spent all of their time doing drills they would never learn to actually play basketball. Scrimmages are essential along with drills so that players understand how to put strategies and tools to work. Transfer happens when children understand the ideas behind the tools, develop judgment in the use of the tools, and understand the purposes for the tools.
Scaffolds, yes. Forever, no. We need to remember that scaffolds, like charts, strategies, or language prompts, are great tools, but also that we need to plan for the removal of these scaffolds so that students become more adept at solving problems and making decisions on a regular basis. “Sometimes to be helpful, you have to be not helpful,” Wiggins noted.
If we are ever mindful of the ways our instruction supports and sometimes hinders students, if we plan for the removal of scaffolds, if we maintain a focus on the goal, not the tool, students will learn to make decisions as readers and writers so that they flexibly transfer their learning from one context to another, from one year to the next — this is our ultimate goal.