Learning That Transfers is a ground-breaking approach to designing lessons that prepare students to be adaptable, life-long learners in a rapidly changing world. Synthesizing dozens of academic papers and books, we’ve developed the Learning Transfer Mental Model, to help teachers facilitate students’ abilities to apply their learning to new situations. This three-step visual below illustrates the key stages of our framework.

Our Chief Claims

  • All fields or areas of expertise contain a deeper organizational structure of the most fundamental elements (which we call concepts) and how those elements interact. 
  • Conceptual organization facilitates transfer. In fact, concepts and their connections are the link between prior learning and new situations, opening up enormous possibilities for harnessing students’ prior knowledge and experiences and enormous possibilities for innovative problem-solving. 
  • Transfer — applying learning from one situation to another — is extremely difficult, and we can teach it more effectively through building a culture of focusing student attention on how organizing concepts and their connections play out in different situations.  
  • When we teach the model explicitly to students, we empower them to look for the deeper structural patterns and use their prior learning to unlock new situations.

We are certainly not the first K-12 education practitioners who have advocated similar claims and are indebted to many pioneers who have influenced us, chiefly: 

  • Understanding by Design, Wiggins & McTighe
  • Concept-Based Curriculum and Instruction, Erickson & Lanning 
  • Visible Learning Practice Series, Hattie, Fisher, Frey, & Almarode
  • From Snorkelers to Scuba Divers, Almarode
  • Dual Coding for Teachers, Caviglioli

Foundational Research

We’ve divided the principal research underpinnings into four sections. 

  1. Concepts and conceptual learning 
  2. Organization, connections, and structure
  3. Transfer of learning
  4. Potential for equity and world-changing innovation

We’ve highlighted key quotes alongside direct links to the research for further investigation. 

Section 1: Concepts and Conceptual Learning 

“Learning with understanding has two parts: (1) factual knowledge must be placed in a conceptual framework to be well understood; and (2) concepts are given meaning by multiple representations that are rich in factual detail. Competent performance is built on neither factual nor conceptual understanding alone; the concepts take on meaning in the knowledge-rich contexts in which they are applied.”  How Students Learn, 2005, National Academies Press

“Fortunately, even novel things are usually similar to things we already know, often exemplifying a category that we are familiar with . . . Concepts are a kind of mental glue, then, in that they tie our past experiences to our present interactions with the world, and because the concepts themselves are connected to our larger knowledge structures.” Murphy, 2002, p. 1 The Big Book of Concepts

“Because the brain is a pattern seeker, present information in a conceptual framework so that students see how the pieces fit together in meaningful ways (p. 171).  

…Critical attributes are characteristics that make one concept unique among all others. Teachers need to help students identify these critical attributes so students can use them for eventual and accurate retrieval…All subject areas have major concepts whose critical attributes should be clearly defined.” (p. 175) Sousa, 2017, How the Brain Learns, 5th edition

“In the revised taxonomy, we wanted to distinguish knowledge of discrete, isolated content elements (i.e., terms and facts) from knowledge of larger, more organized bodies of knowledge (i.e., concepts, principles, models or theories). 

… Accordingly, we have reserved the term Factual Knowledge for the knowledge of discrete, isolated ‘bits of information’ and the term Conceptual Knowledge for more complex, organized knowledge forms. We think this is an important distinction for educators to make.

…One of the hallmarks of experts is that not only do they know a lot about their discipline, but also their knowledge is organized and reflects a deep understanding of the subject matter. In combination, conceptual knowledge and deep understanding can help individuals as they attempt to transfer what they have learned to new situations, thereby overcoming some of the problems of inert knowledge (p. 42).”  Anderson, Krathwohl, et al Taxonomy for Learning, Teaching, and Assessing: A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Abridged Edition

“Focus on core concepts – Students can more effectively transfer their knowledge when they comprehend principles that organize, guide, and explain content and skills. Instructors can develop activities that connect dots through deeper relationships, shared functions, or similar organizing principles. With a strong conceptual framework, rather than memorized facts or a string of lecture notes, students can recognize contexts operating through similar concepts and arrange knowledge as more functional parts of a whole.” Transfer of Knowledge to New Contexts, Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale

“Deep understanding and skillful application of these [fundamental and powerful] concepts will help students to reason through nearly everything else they learn throughout the year.” Gerald Nosich, 2012, Learning to Think Things Through: A Guide to Critical Thinking Across the Curriculum, 5th edition

“A focus on threshold concepts enables teachers to make refined decisions about what is fundamental to a grasp of the subject they are teaching. It is a ‘less is more’ approach to curriculum design.” Cousin, 2015, An introduction to threshold concepts

Visible Learning Meta Analyses on conceptual change programs

Section 2: Organization, Connections, and Structure 

“Grasping the structure of a subject is understanding it in a way that permits many other things to be related to it meaningfully. To learn structure in short, is to learn how things are related.”  Bruner, 1976, The Process of Education, 2nd edition

“The reason experts remember more is that what novices see as separate pieces of information, experts see as organized sets of ideas.” How Students Learn, 2005, National Academies Press 

“A knowledge base of value to students involves more than being familiar with a broad survey of topics. Knowledge becomes most powerful when students can use information to gain a deeper understanding of specific problems. Such understanding develops as one looks for, imagines, proposes and tests relationships among key concepts in order to clarify a specific problem or issue.” – Newmann, et. al. 2001, Authentic Intellectual Work and Standardized Tests: Conflict or Coexistence? 

“At the unistructural level, one aspect of the task is picked up, and student understanding is disconnected and limited. The jump to the multistructural level is quantitative. At the multistructural level, several aspects of the task are known but their relationships to each other and the whole are missed. The progression to relational and extended abstract outcomes is qualitative. At the relational level, the aspects are linked and integrated, and contribute to a deeper and more coherent understanding of the whole. At the extended abstract level, the new understanding at the relational level is re-thought at another conceptual level, looked at in a new way, and used as the basis for prediction, generalisation, reflection, or creation of new understanding.”   SOLO Taxonomy, Hook

“In their domain of expertise, experts do know more facts than other people but more crucial is that the facts are connected and organized into patterns, or schemas, that are meaningful for the content domain (Ericsson, Charness, Feltovich, & Hoffman, 2006).” cited in (PDF) Research on Learning and Instruction

“Deep learners have schemas that enable them to see how discrete pieces of knowledge in a domain are connected; rather than seeing isolated facts, they see patterns and connections because they understand the underlying structures of the domain they are exploring.” Mehta and Fine, 2015, Deeper Learning Research Series also in In Search of Deeper Learning, 2019

Visible Learning Meta Analyses on concept-mapping 

Section 3: Transfer

Transfer always involves reflective thought in abstracting from one context and seeking connections with others.” – Perkins and Salomon, 1988, Teaching for Transfer, Educational Leadership

“In all experiments Ss who first read a story about a military problem and its solution tended to generate analogous solutions to a medical problem (K. Duncker’s 1945 ‘radiation problem’), provided they were given a hint to use the story to help solve the problem. Transfer frequency was reduced when the problem in the military story was substantially disanalogous to the radiation problem, even though the solution illustrated in the story corresponded to an effective radiation solution (Exp II). Ss in Exp III tended to generate analogous solutions to the radiation problem after providing their own solutions to the military problem. Ss were able to retrieve the story from memory and use it to generate an analogous solution, even when the critical story had been memorized in the context of 2 distractor stories (Exp IV)… 

At a more abstract level, the story and the problem both involve the goal of overpowering an object located in a region that must be preserved…A system of representation for analogy must be able to describe a fundamental property of such relational systems, namely, that analogy may be defined at multiple levels of abstraction…we assume there is an optimal level of abstraction at which analogical relations may be represented in order to effectively guide the solution process.” Gick & Holyaok, Analogical Problem Solving, 1980

“Analogical reasoning is a cognitive underpinning of the ability to notice and draw similarities across contexts…Appreciating and learning from this analogy requires the student to look past surface-level differences between the source and target and instead notice the underlying, shared relational structure between domains.”  Vendetti, Analogical Reasoning in the Classroom

“Knowledge becomes deeper when you can use it not only to address a problem in the context in which it has been taught, but that you can also use it to understand or explain something in a different, but related, context.” – Mehta and Fine, 2015, Deeper Learning Research Series

“…transfer depends on the flexible deployment of abstract general principles…Thus, individual differences in transfer according to these theories could be the result of differences in the organization of knowledge rather than differences in meta-cognition or basic educative processes.” When and Where Do We Apply What We Learn? A Taxonomy for Far Transfer

Visible Learning Meta Analyses on transfer

Section 4: Potential for Equity and World-Changing  Innovation 

This final section is in our own words with a few key quotes from others. 

Conceptual connections open up endless possibilities to harness students’ prior knowledge and link them to class content. For instance, students can consider their understanding of how “alliances” within their social groups interact with “conflict” as a way of understanding the connections between alliances and conflict among nations. Here is our working document (still very much a work in progress) of exploring this idea in more detail. 

Analogical reasoning, or the ability to make comparisons between two seemingly different situations essentially draws on conceptual connections. For instance, Julie’s four-year old son explained one day while hula hooping in the driveway, “The moon is like the earth’s hula hoop because it orbits around it.”  Imagine the possibilities for teachers if we looked to analogical reasoning, via organizing ideas we call concepts. 

In Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Hammond asserts that, “Information processing through the creation of metaphors and analogies helps by making meaningful connections more obvious…The explicit comparisons in a metaphor help students move beyond memorization to deeper comprehension (p. 136).” 

Although we draw heavily on research about expertise, the ability to see connections between very different contexts holds promise for innovation — provided that we intentionally promote creative thought through conceptual connections. Connecting dissimilar contexts through concepts has the potential for creative solutions to complex problems. 

Most problems that we encounter in the world today are what author David Epstein calls wicked contexts—domains where there’s a lack of discipline-specific models, repetitive patterns, or clear feedback that can be consistently relied upon to solve problems. Epstein (2019) makes the claim that “breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. That is, the more contexts in which something is learned, the more the learner creates abstract models, and the less they rely on any particular example. Learners become better at applying their knowledge to a situation they’ve never seen before, which is the essence of creativity” (p. 76). 

Frans Johansson (2017), author of the breakthrough book, The Medici Effect, believes that the type of innovations that make a sizable impact only happen in what he calls the “intersection”—where the concepts from one field intersect with the concepts from another. These points of intersection lead to a cascade of new ideas and insights that fuel meaningful problem-solving and might even open whole new domains of study.

The examples detailed in The Medici Effect are proof of the power of intersectional thinking and learning transfer—architectural design inspired by nature, investment bankers gleaning insight from grain traders, and Disney’s Pixar Studio’s design process where computer-based animators take acting lessons in order to breathe life into the characters. These examples demonstrate the innovation that is possible when we explore the intersection between different disciplines and remove the barriers that trap us in one mode of thinking. Read an excerpt here: Create the Medici Effect – HBS Working Knowledge

Are you ready to build a culture of transfer with your students?

Check out our book — which has these and over 100 additional references — and our online courses where we translate all of this into practical strategies that teachers can use in their classrooms.