“Didn’t You Learn This Last Year?

A class of year 7 pupils stare blankly at a teacher who has asked a question they could all answer in year 4. No one seems to be able to answer. The teacher looks frustrated.

I’ve spent a lot of time teaching and observing in primary. I can categorically say that 99% of the time, they were taught it in primary, and they were taught it well. It isn’t that they don’t know it – they just don’t know it here. It’s a problem of far transfer.

It’s a well known phenomena – pupils know something in one context, but can’t recall it or use it in another. We see it when they can’t answer a science question about a mouse when they just answered the same question about a rat. We can see them write sentences in English lessons, but not in science lessons and confidently use strategies in maths that they seem never to have seen before in a science lesson.

This is an order of magnitude worse when pupils go from primary to secondary. If you ever ask the question: “didn’t you do this last year?” the answer is probably yes, but they can’t remember because the context is different.

Barnett and Ceci (2002) developed this model to highlight the challenge pupils face.

Barnett, S. M., & Ceci, S. J. (2002). When and where do we apply what we learn? A taxonomy for far transfer. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 612-637: https://www.scirp.org/(S(351jmbntvnsjt1aadkposzje))/reference/ReferencesPapers.aspx?ReferenceID=589513

I find this model really helpful to think about the different levels of transfer pupils have to overcome.

Conclusions

  • If they can’t remember something, it doesn’t mean they don’t know it. It might mean they can’t retrieve it here and now. Remember this in formative assessment.
  • Support far transfer, by gradually increasing the distance of transfer – plan additional practice opportunities with a wider range of contexts, modalities (written, spoken, visual, practical etc), gaps between application (spaced practice) and even locations.
  • Communicate if possible with the teacher who taught it originally – use the same context to start and then branch out.

Far transfer will always be hard – support your pupil by planning for it.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Ben

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