Learning to Transfer: A Discussion with Trevor Aleo

For my post today, I interview Trevor Aleo, a middle school English teacher and curriculum designer from Wilton, Connecticut, and a co-author of the wonderful book Learning that Transfers. Trevor is the English lead for Team LTT and an expert in all things transfer–an area of study that has helped my teaching greatly, especially in these pandemic years. Below is my interview with Trevor, which has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

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MJ: You say that transfer is both incredibly simple and incredibly complex, which is very much how I have experienced it. Considering how tired a lot of teachers are out right now, let’s begin with the simple: What is transfer?

TA: In our book, Learning that Transfers, we define it as using previous learning to unlock new situations or context. In the case of English language arts, students are transferring their understanding whenever they have to interpret or create new texts. In that regard, it’s pretty straight forward. But students’ ability to transfer their understanding is also perennial problem within education. Every teacher I know, myself included, is constantly asking themselves “How can I ensure that the things that my students learn in class show up when they have a project, test, or assessment?”

The simplicity and complexity of transfer is why it’s so challenging to teach. On the one hand, from the moment that we are walking and talking and thinking about the world as children, we’re transferring our understanding to new contexts and new situations. I have a 10 month old, and he has this green truck that he loves. We’ll say, “Where’s your green truck?” and he would turn his head to it. Now, we’re noticing him looking and pointing at other trucks when we go on a walk. In a very surface level way, that’s transfer. It is understanding being leveraged from one context to another. On the other hand, transfer can scale all the way up to innovation specialists using biomimicry to tackle complex industrial problems. One of the examples we discuss in our book comes from Franz Johaanson’s The Medici Effect. In it he shares the story of an architect who was tasked with building an energy efficient building on a really small budget. So he studied termite mounds as a way to think about how you can have proper airflow moving through a building, and used those principles to construct the building. Those anecdotes capture the massive range of transfer tasks.

Returning to school, teachers’ understanding of transfer differs based on where they fall on that spectrum, so based on the research from Perkins and Solomon, we have created an axis of transfer we call the Transfer Spectrum. 

Taken with permission from Learning that Transfers

On one axis, we have similar to dissimilar, which is thinking about how students can transfer their understanding across contexts that share a lot of similar surface features. For example, students might begin by transferring their understanding of rhyme and rhythm from one poem to another poem. To increase the complexity of the transfer task, teachers could ask students to apply that understanding to increasingly dissimilar contexts like songs or political speeches. Thematically speaking, students might develop some ideas and theories about the relationship between power, ambition, empathy, and agency by reading and discussing a children’s book like The Lorax. Then they’d have to apply and refine their working theory to increasingly complex and dissimilar texts like Long Way Down or Macbeth

Then there is what we call Academic to Real World transfer. Academic transfer is more bound, more theoretical in nature–how can students learn to navigate situations that are reflective of the academic discipline of English Studies. Real world transfer tasks emphasize ways students transfer their conceptual understanding to messy real world problems. In David Epstein’s book Range he refers to these situations as “wicked contexts.” These are problems that require knowledge from multiple domains and can’t be solved by applying clear and repeatable patterns or procedures.

And no matter what tasks students are doing, whether they’re answering a multiple choice question, which is similar and academic, or if they’re engaging in a community service project, which is more real world, they’re engaging in transfer. We created the Learning Transfer Spectrum as a way to help teachers pinpoint what type of transfer task they want to consider creating for or with their students.

MJ: What are the core steps and shifts for creating a classroom where transfer is the norm, as opposed to this thing that happens accidentally?  

TA: The simplest way to start is to use a practice called expansive framing. There’s some really fascinating research from Dr. Randy Engle at UC Berkeley about how the way we present information and frame out learning with students improves the likelihood of them engaging and understanding transfer tasks. So, when you present information to students don’t only focus and discuss it as it will look on the next test. Explain how it operates in other units, other classes, or even outside the four walls of school. If you’re about to start a unit on argumentation, explore the way TED Talks are structured to be persuasive, ask students to consider the way rhetorical appeals are used when students are engaging in daily conversation, present the way that claims, evidence, and reasoning are used in political speeches or even the Tik-Toks that they are viewing. This isn’t new to most teachers, but since learning more about the power of expansive framing, I’ve become way more intentional about how I present and explore those other contexts and it pays dividends.

Presenting the concepts and ideas that you are going to be discussing in class in more expansive ways like this, creates what Engle calls a culture of transfer, where there’s a sort of expectation that what students are learning in class doesn’t just fit the bounded context of your course. It fits the expansive context of their world and their lives. I often have conversations with my students about what shows they are watching, video games they are playing, and music they’re listening to and, in that annoying English teacher way, I ask them about what concepts those texts explored and what design choices their creators used to communicate with the audience.

An example that I go back to is when all of my students were obsessed with the first Avengers movie that was coming out and we were talking about the thematic concepts of chaos and order. So I would ask them: How is Thanos’ plan to destroy half the universe to “save” it an exploration of order and control vs. chaos and freedom? The idea is you create this expectation that what students are learning has value and transfer and leverage beyond the walls of your classroom.

One of the more formal ways that you can set that up is by giving students opportunities to transfer in your class. If you teach students how to integrate evidence, don’t just do a one and done assessment. Don’t just be like okay I’m going to show you how to do this, you’re going to put this into your final paper, and then we’re done. By giving students multiple opportunities to engage in transfer, you are going to facilitate their abilities to do it.

There’s a kind of an easy mistake that teachers make, myself included, when I first started with this work where you treat transfer as an end goal as opposed to an ongoing and iterative process. When we don’t provide students opportunities to transfer throughout they won’t be able to do it at the end. They’re like “Whoa, you’re asking me to apply my understanding to a different text? Or demonstrate a skill on a new assignment?” If they’ve only understood the concept or skill in the context of that one assignment, it won’t transfer. 

So if you’re giving students opportunities to transfer in class, it can really help scaffold their ability to do it later. It doesn’t have to be a big elaborate thing either. It can be a conversation. We’ve talked about claims, evidence, and reasoning in your paper, but how does that look if you’re trying to persuade your mom to buy you a new phone, or something like that. By doing that constantly–even if it’s just dialogically–you are, from a bottom-up perspective creating this culture where students are expected to transfer their understanding and in a more top-down way where you as a teacher are modeling and providing opportunities for transferring.

MJ: So, you already touched on this when you said we need to have more expansive framing and not save transfer until the end, but let’s say I’m just about to begin a new unit. What can I do to design units that will lead to transfer? What are some of the other key design aspects of that? 

TA: So I’ve been very focused on transfer, but a setup or scaffold for that is developing students’ conceptual understanding. Especially within English language arts, there’s been a tendency in our effort to unpack and understand standards, where there’s been this fragmentation of our learning targets and the content is presented as this bulleted list of discrete skills, and it can be a challenge, not only for the students to track all that in their head, but I know even for me personally. When I would look at a new unit and I just see 18 skills that I’m hitting it was overwhelming. It doesn’t build or create a Web of Knowledge in students’ heads as much as it provides this little byte of knowledge or discrete skill that is put into their short term memory, regurgitated onto the formative assessment, maybe shows back up on a summative assessment later, but after that, it’s kind of gone.

So what I would recommend is thinking about those skills and standards that you have–they are important, I’m not preaching against skills or standards–and thinking about how you can situate and organize them within what we call disciplinary or anchoring concepts. For example, when I’m talking about using appositive phrasing or if I’m talking about making sure that you are using quotations correctly, we’re going to file these things under making sure that you are integrating evidence effectively. The goal is that when I ask students “Do you know how to integrate evidence?” they pull to mind this chain of associations: I know how to use quotes, punctuate, properly attribute the author… 

The idea of seeking anchoring concepts. Taken with permission from Learning that Transfers

A really big part of it is asking yourself what are those broader ideas. By situated and organizing all of the skills in a unit around bigger concepts I’m helping my students and myself focus on what is important, what the takeaway will be for them. Also, for me I know it’s been helpful when it comes to planning, because I don’t get lost in the weeds. I don’t have a scattershot of 18 different things I’m trying to tend to. It forces me to consolidate. It forces me to streamline in a good way, because I’m paying attention to the things that the students need the most and will help them the most when they eventually do have to transfer their understanding. That’s the biggest one: Situating all the skill work that you’re doing within broader concepts and principles.

MJ: I’m really interested in the idea that all the focus on standards that came with NCLB scattered our planning a bit. I’d never really thought about that, but it makes a lot of sense. 

TA: Yeah, the phrase that I’ve been using is that we outsourced our disciplinary sense-making to our standards. Instead of us considering and building those frameworks of understanding in our own heads or as a group, they just exist on these technocratic policy documents that organize it for us. So we aren’t thinking about how these things all connect because we’re just looking at the paper that they’re presented on.

That’s not to say the standards themselves are the issue. It’s more that, as teachers, it’s really important we take time to “Zoom Out” and think about the structure of the discipline. How do different concepts or skills relate to one another? What are connections that exist between and across standards? Those structures and connections can’t just live on a document as alphanumeric codes, we need to explore and internalize them as well.

MJ: So a lot of teachers are just holding on right now. If you’re somebody who is interested in transfer, but like so many of us, you are lacking time and bandwidth, what are some good first steps to take? 

TA: The lowest lift is on our website www.learningthattransfers.com we have a set of questions stems. These question stems are like magic. They were first in Julie Stern’s (one of our co-authors and the lead of our project) book Tools For Teaching Conceptual Understanding and are things like “What’s the relationship between blank and blank?” or “How does blank and blank impact blank?” And the key is that those blanks are broader concepts. For example, in the book we talk about my Power Paradox unit and my question for that unit is “What’s the relationship between individuals, groups, and systems and what role does power play?” 

By organizing and structuring your units around those questions, that is a really good way to take that streamlining that you did and then pose it to students in a really accessible way. My students know that no matter what we’re working on, it is bound up in the concepts within those questions. I’ve even gotten in the habit of having those questions on the board instead of learning targets. And instead of it being like a dozen standards, it’s like three or four questions. Each unit I’ll have a question that’s related to…

  • The Content: What kind of ideas we will be discussing and what kind of themes we’ll be exploring?
  • The Structure: What are the structures or patterns of the genre?
  • And the craft: What sort of writing moves will be employed?

When I think about the way that I used to teach writing, it used to be coverage based. I’d show them how to write a claim, then how to integrate evidence, then add reasoning, then I move on. Now, after acquiring understanding of claims, evidence, and reasoning individually, I pose the question–What’s the relationship between these concepts? And we look at several mentor texts to notice the trends and patterns. This helps students generalize their understanding so it’s not overly bound to one assignment or writing task.

Really, by asking students these questions, you’re inviting them to think about the broader principles so they’re asking the same types of questions as actual practitioners. They’re like invitations for students to notice deeper patterns and the way that these big ideas in the discipline interact with each other. And that’s what makes the difference between experts and novices. Novices see disconnected bits and fragments of information, whereas experts see broader principles. 

MJ: Yeah, they’re seeing the constellations, not just the stars, as you say in your book. So last question: Considering how much is being asked of teachers, I’m asking each guest this winter and spring what suggestions you have–and this could be transfer related or not–for how to work at the same or better level while also doing less? 

TA: I think that many people are experiencing the negative effects of this whole learning loss narrative. And that has led to this acceleration of things that need to be covered and things that need to be done, which has led to the things that garnered the most interest and engagement both from students and teachers being jettisoned in favor of the thing that will yield the proof that whatever school you’re at or district or in isn’t as far behind as the other districts.

I think that is putting a lot of pressure on teachers to move back to this more like coverage-based model. So what I’m trying to do is find connective tissue between what I’m being asked to do in terms of demonstrating students’ understanding of whatever will show up in the next assessment and things that I know have high interest for students–things that I know will help them in the world beyond school. 

As an example, argumentative writing is a big part of our curriculum. My students’ first task was a formal position paper, and instead of being like, “Well, you know, all we are allowed to do is this formal paper,” we followed it with a short mini-unit where students took the research they did and constructed a multimodal argument targeting a different audience. They created TikToks, short TED Talks, or 60 second documentaries. We were still focused on argumentation and they were leveraging all the research they already did, but they got to exploring them in more authentic, multimodal ways. I highly recommend checking out Angela Stockman’s “Claim Makers Toolkit” for a deeper dive into how to set that up.

The idea is that instead of me junking what I know is really going to have a positive impact on my students, I found a way to preserve it without it becoming this massive three, four or five week unit. Basically, think about what are the things that you have to tend to based on your curriculum and think about how you can use an expensive frame to give students opportunities to create and compose more authentic and multimodal forms. 

MJ: Thank you so much for coming on today! I really appreciate it.

TA: Thank you so much for having me.

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2 responses to “Learning to Transfer: A Discussion with Trevor Aleo”

  1. […] figure out the value and bigger picture themselves), they are more likely to engage and be able to transfer the information from class to other […]

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  2. […] and similes are tricky for my students, which I think might have something to do with transfer, as many students, even after they understand them, don’t really understand the role […]

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