Editor’s Note: In late April 2016, Teton Science Schools held its first Place-Based Education Symposium, in which staff members shared best practices in design, inquiry, and local learning. Last week, the blog featured a review of the Symposium. This week, we share one of the presentations.

Experiential education programs have the ability to grow student values and identities through meaningful experiences. But they are stop-overs in life, not ends in themselves. Thus information, skills, and understandings are knowledge-to-go and not just for use on site. This is why particular attention at Teton Science Schools is given to transference. Thoughtful instruction aims to solve the “inert knowledge problem,” a term coined by Alfred Whitehead to describe a failure to apply knowledge gained from initial learning to effective problem solving in realistic situations. More than academic inconvenience, the inert knowledge problem presents serious individual and social consequences for students.

Transference is the synthesis and intentional application of learning to other settings. It assumes learning within a certain context and asks about the impact beyond that context. It is the application of an explanatory concept to new instances well removed from the initial learning. Of course, different taxonomies of transfer exist. A common distinction is between near and far transfer, also known as low- and high-road transfer. Near transfer takes place between two similar contexts, triggering well-practiced routines – like being able to drive a friend’s car. Far transfer demands extended cognitive effort and the ability to solve novel problems that are isomorphs, meaning that they share the same logical structure – like being able to transfer knowledge from a game of chess to politics.

In order to reach mindful or high-road transference, students must build three mental bridges; let’s call them detect, elect, and connect. These are often built in succession: students detect connections to past lessons, elect to explore that link, and connect the relevant relationship between initial learning and the transfer situation. The most successful transfer is achieved when recovery conditions match the conditions of learning. For instance, students who memorize facts or follow fixed procedures struggle with problem solving, while metacognitive reflection, mindfulness activities, and use of metaphor and abstractions in lessons promote transfer skills.

But transference isn’t just about cognition; motivational factors affect transfer by promoting engagement in learners, influencing initial transfer attempts, and contributing to persistence. For students from California, which has recently experienced the worst draught on record, snow water equivalent was the connection to Sierra snowpack and potable water in their communities. Once conditions for transference have been met, we as educators may input valuable ideas, core processes, and cross-cutting concepts. In field science education, Next Generation Science Standards have been the gold standard for synthesizing these enduring understandings.

Enduring understandings will transfer if lessons are left unbounded. That is, if learners are not telegraphed a narrow view of content (this day, this unit, this test), but rather expected to use their knowledge diversely later or to recall learning goals that they have set for themselves. This style of expansive framing is more dynamic and thus better enables the transfer of knowledge. At Teton Science Schools, we acknowledge that experiential learning is more than learning by doing. Reflection and processing are needed for internalizing these enduring understandings. This is why we don’t just “let the mountains speak for themselves” but go further and reserve time for reflection, consideration, and connection.

As instructors, we are also mindful that transference doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Transfer also depends heavily on social, cultural, and environmental variables. This is why we must consider our students’ transition progressions and help them move through group development and cultural adjustment. Emotional shifts in perception often occur during the course of a field week. Students must be empowered for re-entry into their home communities after program completion if these shifts are to be carried home with them.

There are several tools to empower students for these transitions: personal journals, facilitated discussion, visualization, meditation, action plans, and future involvement. At the end of each field week, we also celebrate student achievement with photos, culminating projects, and ceremonies. Lastly, social networks, or extended association to those who are also connected to their field experience, may support transitions to home communities, where student lessons may continue to flourish and build on themselves. Teaching is a creative profession; instructors must customize their tools to build a course of learning for students that navigates between routine and novelty. This corridor will provide enough room for straightforward exercises as well as enough stretch to build flexible understandings.

So can we teach for transfer? I believe transference is not difficult to obtain; we just need to build the right bridges in the right places. High-road transference depends on abstraction in context, causing students to mindfully navigate from an initial lesson towards a new challenge with a willingness to pursue those novel ideas. What is needed is a culture of expansive framing, in which engaged learners navigate open-ended experience. Instruction must encourage abstraction, searches for possible connections, mindfulness, and metacognition. Field education can achieve abundant transfer – if it is designed to do so.

Information in this article from: Larsen-Freeman, Diane. “Transfer of Learning Transformed.” Language Learning 63.1 (2013): 107-29; Lewis, Stephanie J. (2012). Making Meaning Transfer: Empowering Students to Effectively Apply Experience. (Master of Science, Thesis). Laramie, WY, University of Wyoming; Perkins, David N., and Gavriel Salomon. “Knowledge to Go: A Motivational and Dispositional View of Transfer.” Educational Psychologist 47.3 (2012): 248-58; Salomon, Gavriel, and David N. Perkins. “Rocky Roads to Transfer: Rethinking Mechanisms of a Neglected Phenomenon.” Educational Psychologist 24.2 (1989): 113; Sibthorp, Jim, et al. “Mechanisms of Learning Transfer in Adventure Education: Qualitative Results from the NOLS Transfer Survey.” Journal of Experiential Education 34.2 (2011): 109-26.

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