This post first appeared on Corwin Connect. This blog is part three of a series on learning transfer. For more on teaching for transfer, see this first post and this second post

“Why do we have to know this?” It’s the age-old question students pose when they doubt the importance of the content they’re asked to learn. It’s hard to blame them. Most adults have little use for the quadratic formula or periodic table, not to mention the Battle of Waterloo or Moby Dick. When it boils down to it, any one atom of our content – any single text or algorithm, any piece of information or skill – is not all that essential to the daily demands of life, or even to tackling the greatest challenges facing humankind.

Despite the relative insignificance of any one part of these disciplines, we have designed school around the idea that, when taken whole, these disciplines are essential components of being educated. The question “Why do we have to know this?” is the cry of students mired down in the parts of our disciplines, yearning for the whole. If students truly understood the beauty and utility of each discipline, they’d already have their answer. 

Each discipline is composed of ways of making meaning of, and communicating about, our complex world. By emphasizing disciplinary literacy, or the specialized ways of knowing and doing that characterize a field (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2012),  we can help students come to understand and appreciate both the beauty and utility of each discipline. Consider how the questions below might be used to explore the power and potential of your content area with your students.

Example of Purpose-Role-Significance of English Language Arts

Teaching the ways of knowing in any given field means shifting from teaching subjects to cultivating academic disciplines in students. The word “subjects” implies content coverage. “Disciplines” implies training, order, self-control, and application of standards to thoughts and actions. Students need to understand this so they are not only the receivers of knowledge, but become disciplined makers of knowledge. They must learn to construct knowledge the way that practitioners—historians, scientists, mathematicians, rhetoricians—construct knowledge in the real world. This occurs when students’ thinking in the classroom reflects the type of thinking and reasoning done in the field. 

One of the most significant steps we can take to begin this shift in learning is to discern which conceptual tools will best serve students along the journey. We can ask ourselves—What are the most essential disciplinary practices within the context of my course that students must acquire, connect, and transfer in order to be effective practitioners of the discipline(s) I teach? What are the two or three concepts or practices that I want students to consider, every single time they encounter a new situation? Though this isn’t an exhaustive list, we’ve compiled what we feel are some key disciplinary lenses for several fields.

A focus on disciplinary literacy should also provide students with the technical vocabularies and practices necessary to evaluate and produce disciplinary knowledge, instead of simply memorizing it. To accomplish this, teachers need to facilitate inquiry that allows students to explore how each discipline asks and examines questions, makes and debates claims, and draws and defends conclusions (Moje, 2015). We like using the following graphic to visualize how experts use disciplinary lenses to think about their field and what key concepts are most relevant. Click here for more examples and use this template to make your own disciplinary literacy chart like the one below. 

Imagine how school would change for the better if educators made this one, simple shift. Instead of mastering a body of knowledge created by others, students would become adaptive experts capable of using the thinking of each discipline to solve real-world problems. Although we cannot predict the exact challenges that future generations will face—manifestations of the climate crisis, intractable global con- flicts, economic disruptions, injustice in its myriad forms, or even the wide variety of personal dilemmas that plague each of us from time to time—we certainly know that they will be better off if they can draw on the logic of a scientist, precision of a mathematician, the empathy of a literary scholar, and the skepticism of a historian, for instance, to navigate these situations. 

For more strategies that will help you teach for transfer, check out Learning That Transfers by Julie Stern, Krista Ferraro, Kayla Duncan, and Trevor Aleo