John Hattie: We need to get better at learning transfer

Speaking at the World Education Summit, top academic emphasises the importance of applying learning across domains

Simon Lock

John Hattie: We need to get better at transfer of learning and transferable skills, says academic at the World Education Summit

What do we mean by transferable skills? In the workplace, it's the ability to apply knowledge from previous experience to a new context. And it is often touted as an invaluable quality in an employee. 

But do we give it enough attention in education? According to Professor John Hattie, the world-renowned educationalist and author of Visible Learning, the answer is no. 

“We need [to pay] more attention to teaching the skills of transfer,” he said from the virtual stage of the World Education Summit yesterday.

“Surely, the purpose of teaching a child something is so that they can transfer it to another circumstance?”

He conceded, however, that knowing this and acting on it are quite different: “Over the last 200 years, it's kind of been our dirty secret: we know it's important, but it's hard to find evidence on how to teach it,” he says. 

John Hattie on the transfer of learning

Hattie was speaking about transfer as part of his unveiling of what he believes are the top 10 learning strategies. Importantly, he believes these strategies need to be viewed within the context of the learning journey. 

He defines learning as: “The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations.”

Three phases of learning – surface learning, deep learning and transfer of learning – all require a different approach, he says.

“Surface learning is about content, about the ideas, about the knowing that. And deep is about the knowing how, the relationship between ideas, the deeper conceptual understanding," Hattie explains.

“This is the model that we want to work through; making that distinction between first being exposed to surface or deep learning, consolidating surface or deep learning, and then this notion of surface to deep to transfer."

Scratching the surface

However, Hattie believes too much time is dedicated to the surface-level learning, while the process of acquiring and consolidating deeper knowledge, and the transfer of this to other areas, has been neglected – evidence of which he has seen in a body of recent research. 

“We've just looked at 17,000 transcripts of teachers teaching classes. And two things became very clear: we could not find, across those 17,000 classrooms, a single occasion when the teacher taught a strategy of learning, nor did we see any teaching of transfer," he says.

“Certainly, when we go and interview students, despite the success criteria around the classroom walls, too many of them still think learning is about knowing lots. 

“When you ask them, ‘Who's the best learner in the class?’ They say, 'Person X because she knows lots, and she doesn't need to put any effort to knowing lots' – the antithesis of good learning.”

So what strategies can be used to successfully take learning beyond that surface level?

This is where the crux of Hattie’s keynote speech comes in. Applying strategies will get much better results if they are paired with the right phase of learning. 

As an example, Hattie cites memorisation and problem-based learning, both of which have a very low impact when it comes to surface-level learning but become more effective when consolidating at the deeper phase.  

“Before you do discovery, enquiry or problem-based learning, you need to make sure that all the students have the sufficient surface-level knowledge to do the problem,” he says.

Spot the difference  

So what about successful strategies for the transfer of leaning? 

According to Hattie, being able to spot the similarities or differences between a previous problem and the one the student is approaching for the first time is extremely valuable.

“When you give a student a problem to do and they do it, stop before you give them another problem. Look for patterns between what you've asked for the task before, and that task subsequently, and you get a huge effect size," he explains.

"It is understanding those similarities and differences that is the key to the teaching and the success at transfer.”

John Hattie was speaking at the World Education Summit. Tes is the official media partner for this event 

Other highlights from Monday at the World Education Summit: 

On the World Headliner stage following John Hattie’s "Top 10 learning strategies", he was joined by Stephen Cox and Anne-Marie Duguid as they launched their student learning survey. 

Read more about the learning survey 

As part of an all-star line-up, Dame Alison Peacock, CEO of the Chartered College of Teaching, led the panel discussion "Rethinking assessment". She was joined by Hattie; Professor Dylan Wiliam, emeritus professor at UCL Institute of Education; Dr Shirley Clarke, an education author and assessment expert; and Professor Guy Claxton, emeritus professor of the learning sciences at the University of Winchester. See a Twitter thread from the session below:

Professor Paul Kirschner, emeritus professor educational psychology, gave an overview of how modern cognitive psychology has shaped education before being interviewed about his recent book, How Learning Happens, and how Direct Instruction has come out of Covid. See a Twitter thread from the session below:

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Simon Lock

Simon Lock

Simon Lock is Tes senior digital editor

Find me on Twitter @simon_lock_

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