Downhill learners

17th March 2006 at 00:00
Students need to be shown how the skills they have acquired in one field can be transferred to another activity, says Nicholas Tate

In educational circles we hear a great deal about the transfer of learning.

There is nothing more central to the educational project in which all of us, whether young people or adults, are involved. It is an issue for the whole of society, not just for schools. But it is not an area where we can feel confident that we are making much progress. One only has to think of all the national and international problems, not to mention incidents in our daily lives, that might have been handled better if some fairly obvious transfers of learning had taken place.

The educational laboratory in which I keep on being forced to think about these matters is my skiing lessons. I continue to learn more from these than from any conference or book. Having mastered a nearby ski resort's blue (easy) slopes I am now being made to move on to the red (difficult) ones and, as someone with special educational needs in this area, keep on both panicking and falling over.

My first response, like many students facing difficulties, is to give up and accept that I have reached my limit. I only keep going because my excellent ski instructor makes me, first of all, get up (by myself), then analyse what has gone wrong, think about how I can use my acquired skills in a new context, and, finally, remember the quixotic reasons why I have embarked on all this and why therefore I should be motivated to continue.

In schools young people need to articulate for themselves what they have learnt, make explicit links between different areas of experience, and reflect on how something from one area can be applied to another.

This is easier said than done. It isn't enough to ask students at the end of a project simply to give some dashed-off answer to a question about what they have learnt. It can often involve a hard, and sometimes initially unrewarding, work of reflection.

Where young people are failing to develop in one area, they need active encouragement to draw on their resources in other areas. As enforced self-interrogation on the slopes frequently teaches me, transferable skills are sometimes not transferred simply because their relevance to new areas of learning has not been thought through.

Transferring learning in schools is, of course, far more complex than on the ski slopes, especially in secondary schools with so many different teachers responsible for so many different areas. This is why it is crucial that the school's common objectives are woven through all subjects, that teachers see themselves as teachers of language, thinking, culture and values as well as of science or history, that there is exchange of information, and that tutorial systems enable an overview of each young person's progress across all areas of school life.

At the International School of Geneva, we use the International Baccalaureate Organisation's primary years programme (PYP) and our new secondary school has just started teaching the middle years programme (MYP) to its 11 to 16-year-olds. Both programmes have the transfer of learning as a core objective as well as explicit requirements for collaborative planning among teachers to ensure that this happens.

The structure encourages the making of these links, through PYP's transdisciplinary themes and what the MYP calls its "areas of interaction", one of which involves explicit attention throughout the curriculum to a variety of explicitly identified "approaches to learning". These two curriculum programmes are an attempt to reconcile a focus on subject disciplines with a recognition of the fact that the lives of students are interconnected wholes.

Developing knowledge and understanding and learning how to learn are both important objectives and they must be pursued in tandem. At its most fundamental, the fusion of these two elements tries to hold in balance the essential idea of education as the transmission of knowledge with the recognition that young people need to be prepared for a world of work and leisure that is increasingly fluid, hybrid and interlinked, and in which there will be an even greater need for the transfer of learning.

To pursue the skiing analogy, it isn't just a question of knowing the moves one has to make when confronted with an unfamiliar steep and narrow slope but how to learn from the fact that, despite this knowledge, one has skidded out of control and ended up spreadeagled off-piste.

EM Forster's Howards End, a novel I studied a long time ago, has as its theme "only connect". This is not a statement of the obvious, as is sometimes claimed, but an injunction to reflect on something that is absolutely fundamental to our lives and that we neglect at our peril.

Dr Nicholas Tate is director-general of the International School of Geneva.

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