PAB #4.2: “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?”

Middleton, Howard, and L K. J. Baartman. “Transfer, Transitions, and Transformation?” Transfer, Transitions and Transformations of Learning, 2013. 1-11. Print.

Book Cover: Transfer, Transition and Transformation of LearningThe first chapter of this text, in outlining what to expect in the following chapters, provides a good overview of the theories behind transfer, which up until now, I have only discussed from a compositionist angle and not from a more psychological or social scientific one, so this chapter proves useful, as I examine some of the basic theories in transfer. This article cites the seminal studies of Thorndike and Woodworth in 1901 on how learning of one concept carries over to learning in another context.  By 1913, Thorndike concluded that transfer does not occur, that the mind learns “things separately and apparently in isolation” (1).  Of course, counterarguments exist concerning this theory.  Bransford and Schwartz in their 1999 study argue that Thorndike and partner were looking at transfer the wrong way: they were looking at in a sequestered problem solving (SPS) manner, which promoted that “subjects in transfer tests are kept isolated and have no access to texts, or the ability to try things out, receive feedback, or revise” (2).  As Bransford and Schwartz argue, this type of separation is not conducive to, what they call, preparation for future learning (PFL).  The difference between the two is that while SPS looks for direct application from one context to the next, Bransford and Schwartz offer “an alternative approach to understanding transfer,” where it is more appropriate to measure the degree to which particular learning prepares people for future learning (2).

In addition to Bransford and Schwartz, the article discusses Perkins and Salomon (2012), who argue that “motivation is a key factor in any explanation of transfer, both in terms of successful and unsuccessful instances of transfer” (3). This view actually plays off some of the work of Bransford and Schwartz who argue similarly but not in a deep way.  Rather, Perkins and Salomon put forward a “‘detect-elect-connect’ model where the three aspects of the model are described as ‘bridges’ [. . . .] to identify if the process of transfer is occurring” (3).  Detect is the moment where individuals become aware that they are in a situation where previously understood communication would apply to the current exigency.  Elect, then, in the model, is the actual decision to act on it, which Perkins and Salomon say is not as easy as it sounds due to the intellectual disturbances that “old learned practices and habits” pose (3).  The final step in the model, connect, makes a way for individuals, after detecting a possible relationship and electing to explore it [. . . ]go on to make the connection between the prior knowledge and the current situation” (3).

The chapter also discusses Marton’s (2006) work that says transfer needs to focus on differences and not similarities.  In Marton’s view, “transfer is regarded as a function of the perception of differences between learning and other situations, or put another way, between one context and another context” (4).  One of Marton’s examples, here, explains that if students learn addition by rote, then teachers do not know if they actually learned addition until they give them different tasks on addition.  The authors compare Bransford and Schwartz’s (1999) work to Marton’s, as the former also discuss “how experience with contrasting cases can affect what a learner notices about subsequent events and how the learner interprets them” (4), but the students would need to analyze the differences and similarities after the fact.

What’s more, the chapter authors discuss Overzealous Transfer (OZT) so labeled by Schwartz et al. (2012), which argues that transfer strategies can be overdone and “learning is overgeneralised and transferred into situations where it is inappropriate” (5). As example, Schwartz et al. says that 75% of the work on transfer in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) uses what are called tell or teach and practice routines, which, as pointed out, only allow for near transfer.  Schwartz et al (2011), says OZT “could be reduced by having students use a technique called inventing with contrasting cases, where they had to, in essence, invent a way to understand the learning material” (5). Another helpful way to work toward a more efficient level of transfer is to have students engage in learning material in different contexts.

Following OZT, this chapter turns to a section on Consequential Transitions Involving Transformation.  This area primarily follows the work of Beach (1999), which argues for a different approach to transfer, one that is based on consequential transitions through a sociocultural approach. The idea, then, is that “people generate knowledge across social activities rather than transfer it from one situation to another” (5).  Beach “argues that while transfer happens
in general life situations, intentional transfer, or facilitated transfer, as is assumed to occur as a result of formal learning, does not occur or occurs rarely” (6).

To bridge the gap, Beach argues for a different name for transfer.  He proposes transitions.  As such, the chapter turns to explain the different levels of transition discussed in Beach’s work, including lateral, collateral, encompassing, and mediational transitions.  Lateral transition is unidirectional, and as an example, the authors cite the transition of moving from school to work. Collateral transition is multidirectonal and provides less of a clear pathway since it deals with multiple ways of transfer, such as from one course to multiple courses in a curriculum.  Encompassing transition is when individuals engage in a social activity and the change happens within the actual activity.  Mediational transition happens in educational activities where students are uninitiated in the activity but have prior experiences to stimulate them “to move beyond their current point, to the developmental position they are working towards” (7).  Beach’s work also makes the point that transitions come with a struggle but lead to transformation.

The final area in the chapter is on Boundary Crossing and presents the work of Akkerrman & Bakker (2011).  Boundary crossing theory focuses “on the values of differences between learning settings and how to create possibilities for learning at the boundaries of diverse practices” (1).   Transfer in boundary crossing theory requires “‘letting go’ of previously held ideas and behaviours” (7), and, instead, individuals must affect a new attitude and “look critically at their
current knowledge and beliefs” (8).  Studies show that many establish boundaries between different situations, such as professions, because of “feelings of uncertainty or threat” (8).

Overall, this chapter helps compare and contrast theories on transfer as well as summarize the working body of theoretical knowledge in the area.  Additionally, the chapter leads to numerous studies on transfer and serves as a jumping off point for future research, if not reading of the entire book on the subject.

Reflections on PABs 4.1 & 4.2

So, as I look at both the chapter from Yancey et al. (2014) and the chapter from Middleton and Baartman (2013), I am presented with a number of methodologies and theories surrounding transfer.  Yancey et al. does not offer any different methodologies, per se, than Wardle (2007) or Tinberg (2015); rather, all focus on surveys, interviews, and case studies. This way to carry out research seems to be the norm in studying transfer. However, the one main difference–and what appears to be the most interesting about Yancey and her colleagues’ study–is their object of study.  Instead of studying just people and performance (like Wardle and Tinberg), they study content. What’s more, they set up this study with a type of experimental group  (i.e., TFT-designed course) vs. a control group (the expressivist-and-media-studies-designed courses). Interestingly, Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak make it a point to say that parity exists among all courses, but the reader can easily realize that the authors hope that the experimental group will demonstrate some new results. If I were to set up a research project on transfer, this chapter adds one more way to seek an object of study in investigating transfer. Also, it complexifies the way that one might setup a study in a more controlled way, rather than a naturalistic setting, such as those by Wardle and Tinberg.

Regarding Middleton and Baartman, I have yet to fully invest myself in any one theory on transfer that the authors reveal in their chapter.  My initial thoughts on transfer sided with Perkins and Salomon that motivation needs to be present for transfer to happen. I have yet to fully look at their work, but I was thinking about the object of study that I’ve played with for a while regarding aiding transfer with digital learning objects (DLOs) that trigger a buried memory after a first-year-composition (FYC) course, a digital (re)mediation of sorts; and I came upon the idea that motivation does not necessarily need to be intrinsic; rather, extrinsic motivation may be the most instructors/researchers can get (e.g., better writing transfer = better grades) , especially when talking about the dreaded process of writing, as it is often perceived. With all that in mind, this type of extrinsic motivation may be what leads students to a DLO in the first place, or perhaps, if the DLO offers some sense of motivation itself–I am thinking of some sort message that inspires or demystifies (and I know I’m talking vaguely here but actually more theoretically)–then perhaps Perkins and Salomon’s view is a largely viable option to consider.  

On other hand, I do like Beach’s idea of changing transfer to transition and transformation, but sometimes I feel those shifts are merely semantics. Wardle (2007) also wanted to make semantic shifts in discussing writing transfer, using the term generalization instead.  I do not know that Beach’s theories offer anything that makes for an eye-opening event for transfer within writing because he offers a more sociocultural approach.  Maybe if I were to look at the differences in writing transfer demographically, then perhaps so.  Certainly, I could go on to discuss other theories mentioned in Middleton and Baartman, but this post is getting overly long at this time, and to be honest, Marton (2006) and Bransford and Schwartz’s (1999) works are not as stand out (to me anyway) in my scenario of writing transfer as Perkins and Salomon; however, as Yancey et al. does, they attach theory to their study after discussing its outcomes, which means that the other theories I decline to discuss in detail here may have more meaning after a research study is carried out.  Conclusively, though, theory informs methodologies and vice versa.