Teaching for Transfer of Learning

Note: Transfer of learning practice and thinking habits may develop brain neurons that catch similarities in divergent categories. Similarities catching is one of the traits of highly creative people. Note: These points have been reprinted in
Big Ideas: an authentic education e-Journal.
May 27, 2008


[retrieved Nov. 26, 2010]

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. © 2005 - biography of author

the Problem

Too often, what is practiced in one lesson fails to carry over into other lessons. 

These two comments from art teachers illustrate the point. The first is from a high school teacher and the second is from an elementary school teacher .

. . . I need a better lesson for sighting (and many other skills and concepts)  . . . . the students seem to forget all of it as soon as we move on to something else.  --  Pam Wellington, Art Dept. Chair, Boiling Springs High School, Pennsylvania

Sighting is commonly used by artists to determine size relationships, angles, etc. Some art teachers have found that using two crossing sighting straight edges (pencils, rulers, or just stips of matboard) help students see angles and perspective. One is held vertical or horizontal while the other sighting device is placed at the angle being observed.

Catie Froese uses a ruler to make sightings to determine proportions of a vase.

I just don't get it.  My students can do wonderful drawings by observation, but when they work by imagination it often goes downhill!!  They go back to stick figures! What is happening, and what can I do to help them? -- Betsy Braun, Art Teacher, OxBow Elementary, Concord Schools, Elkhart, Indiana

While these two teachers give examples related to transfer of learning in art, every teacher notices similar things happening. Transfer is at the core of creative thinking in every area.  Facile transfer is a key ingredient in imagination.  Imagination comes from minds that have fussy or leaky boundaries.  These minds allow searches to flow between categories until relevant knowledge and creative ideas are discovered or invented. These minds expect to look beyond the typically mundane immediate instructions.

Why Be Concerned
Studies of highly creative adults have long shown that they are better at Similarities Catching, they are more Flexible thinkers, and they are more likely to consider Opposites. These are individuals that have proven themselves as inventors, composers, scientists, artists, and innovators. 

Knowledgeable individuals that are also imaginative thinkers have the highest effective intelligence. They use the contents of their minds from any context and adapt it to problem or opportunity at hand.  This is the essence of invention, problem solving, and innovation in every field - not just in art. Einstein said that imagination is more important than intelligence.  The 9-11 Commission concluded that the failure of the United States to anticipate planes being used as weapons was a failure of the imagination. Lack of preparation and response to Katrina was a failure of the imagination.

It took me 40 years to notice that my last name had the word "art" in it. Apparently, my ability to do similarities catching was not well fostered in my own education.

How can a classroom be more deliberate in the nurture of this kind of transfer thinking?  How can we become more proactive in our expectations for transfer of learning from one lesson to the next?  While we need order and categories in order to make sense of what we know, we also need to learn the value of ignoring all conventional categories when we move into a creative mode.  It takes imagination for our students to see these connections.  Transfer of learning implies the ability to make connections between totally different situations and categories.

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Many jokes are based on similarities catching. The following is a comedic quote from Oscar Madison in Neil Simon's play: The Odd Couple

I can't take it anymore, Felix, I'm cracking up. Everything you do irritates me. And when you're not here, the things I know you're gonna do when you come in irritate me. You leave me little notes on my pillow. Told you 158 times I can't stand little notes on my pillow. "We're all out of cornflakes. F.U." Took me three hours to figure out F.U. was Felix Ungar!


http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0063374/quotes [copied 11-26-2010]











Now Available:

Drawing to Learn DRAWING
by Marvin Bartel © 2010



TEACHING for Stronger Thinking Habits

These are written for art teachers, but teachers in other areas will think of similar applications in their own disciplines. Many art teachers will think of additional ideas.

  1. Make use of past lessons in unexpected ways 
    What if our projects, lessons, and assignments make a point of referencing prior learning? Most teachers do some of this. The more we do it, the more students will learn to have the basic expectation to make new applications of what has been learned earlier in order to make their current work better?  What if we make a point of mentioning some prior learning that is not obviously relevant? Would this cultivate thinking habits that search a broader base of prior learning?

  2. Awareness building 
    Could we use more questions during media work time that reference prior learning?  What if we include some zingers (absurd, unrealistic, and fantastic connections)? Creative thinking habits can be nurtured. The critique process has fallen out of favor for may teachers because of negative experiences. There are positive critique strategies that can foster amazing awareness and discovery strategies.

  3. Expectation building
    What if each new skill is practiced and each new concept is learned with more emphasis (before, during, and after the experience) on how this experience will help us in the future? The teacher asks,"What are we learning today that will make every artwork we create in the future better?"  We list responses on the board. Hype it more.

  4. Recognition 
    What if we try harder to point out the surprising and possibly rare examples when a student does improve the work by noticeably using something learned in a previous lesson? We ask, "What do we see in this work that grows out of what we learned last week (last month, or last year)?"

  5. Reflection
    What if open questions are formulated and written down before, during, and after the media work? Both students and teachers could do this. What if some of these are used in a discussion so others begin to see and understand the type of thinking that is needed?

  6. Identify Processes
    We display work, but what if we also ask students to tell us how they came up with unique ideas? This allows us to affirm good methods and help the whole class. Others in the class may begin to imitate innovative thinking if they recognize successful methods of finding ideas in unexpected places in the mind. Can we ferret out and spread the secrets of artistic thinking?

  7. Push Categories & Cross Boundaries
    What if teachers in a school ask each other about the topics they are teaching so that they can encourage their students to look for ideas from other parts of their school day? What if students are asked to generate content and subject matter for their artwork that comes from a part of their lives that is generally not included in their artwork? What if they start by listing things about themselves they have never used before as subject matter? Post these categories of ideas for all to see.

  8. Assessment 
    What if our rubrics acknowledge transfer of learning? Item: "Uses skills and knowledge gained in earlier assignments and other school subjects to noticeably improve the work of this assignment."

  9. Written Assessment
    What if tests are scored to give more credit to the most unique, or least frequently mentioned correct answer? What if tests include items that ask for new applications of materials and concepts studied? What if tests ask for opposites of the the correct answer - the most wrong answer? What if tests are given more credit when reasons for the answer are well stated.

    Students who cannot write good responses may be unaware of the what a good response looks like. What if the most creative responses are posted (with permission from the writers) for the rest of the class to read?

    Nurturing and changing thinking habits is perhaps the most significant thing a teacher can do. Unfortunately, thinking habits that facilitate good transfer of learning may be slow to change and difficult to influence. Too often we fall into practices that give quick results, but nurture thinking that is narrowly specialized, depends on imitation, on rote, or on following specific instruction. Is this education or some sort of training?

self portrait photo ©  2001, Marvin Bartel

At first, I was stumped.  Not until I was able to make a transfer from another category in my mind was I able think of a good way to decorate this piece of pottery. When I was open to asking the category of my immediate familiar surroundings for an answer, did I notice the beauty of the shadows falling on my work from overhead hickory leaves. It was suddenly compelling and beautiful. This work may not have a huge effect on the history of art and the world, but it is original and it represents a moment of crossing boundaries and similarities catching. I now know that each situation is connected to every other situation and inspiration is often near at hand but unless I can lower the barriers and cross the boundaries in my brain, my transfer and creativity will not occur. -mb

The following portion is taken from "Teaching Creativity". It describes ways of encouraging the transfer of learning

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As an artist I spend lots of time contemplating next projects - sometimes months or years before doing the project. For me, some sketching is a good way to focus the issues and get this process started. Additionally, much of this brain work seems to be subliminal. My mind can be working on things behind the scenes. Every part of daily experience has potential for an art project. When I actually start working I have a gathered lots of new insights - some recorded and some without knowing it.

In organizing the sequence of lessons, are there ways to ritualize advance preparation, discussions, questions, practice sessions, and sketching sessions that promote thinking, looking, more sketching, dreaming, and idea development for lessons that are coming in the future? Are there ways to encourage and reward the keeping track of art ideas that come to mind at When I leave my studio my hands-on work is interrupted, but my mind keeps working - this is when my homework starts? When students leave class, are their ways to engage the mind so this habitual homework of the subconscious mind has been assigned?

The creative process includes preparation, incubation, insight, elaboration, and evaluation. Classrooms that include preparation, incubation, and insight might need to juggle several projects at once. What are the class rituals and concept questions that get the wheels turning so that dreams and imaginations are ignited? I have often been tempted to use shortcuts such as showing examples of other art to get quick inspiration and information as a substitute for relevant self-referential thinking. But what are the ways to define artistic challenges in ways that to give the students the courage to develop and express their own ideas?

This takes time. It means practice sessions, question sessions, and list making rituals. This means setting aside time days or weeks in advance of the actual production to get students involved. It means programming their minds to do the subconscious incubation homework that helps bring insight to the table when the production starts. We know that homework works best when we develop rituals of accountability and when we make a point of rewarding successes. What are the classroom rituals that give credit and honor to the students when they show evidence of subliminal ideas that have been recorded and brought to class and infused in their creative work?

On the other hand, what are the teaching habits that are too quick to give out suggestions, too quick to give expert answers, and too quick to show examples when students could be learning to think, to experiment, and to make their own choices? Yes, students do need to learn to reinvent the wheel. Only by practicing the process of invention, do we learn to invent. The world has plenty of wheel makers, (even robots can do it) but we will never have too many inventors and problem solvers. Too often we think we are teaching art, but we are only teaching how to make more wheels like those already made. What looks like art, can also be made by robots. Are schools supposed to be factories, or are they supposed to develop minds?

Would it be so bad to do one less project each semester in order to do all our projects with integrity, using transfer of learning and creatively? Can quantity be so important that we are forced to compromise the quality of the thought processes we nurture? What can be more important to the future success of our students than for them to discover the secrets of self-sufficiency, knowing how to think, knowing how to learn, knowing how to imagine a better life, knowing how to imagine a better world, and knowing that they are empowered to do something about it?

For additional ideas on this topic, visit: "Teaching Creativity", from which much of the above essay was taken.

Here two of Eric Kaufmann's high school ceramics students are clay prospecting while on a field trip to a nearby stream on a friend's farm. These students not only made pottery from the clay.  They built a kiln and wood fired the pots in the kiln. Mr. Kaufmann, was teaching art at Bethany Christian High School, Goshen, Indiana, USA.  

Experiential learning requires creative processing of what is learned.  Reflective journals are required in many experiential learning venues. 

The author invites your comments and questions.  Contact the author

If you are an art teachers interested in doing some research on creativity, on transfer of learning, on learning to draw, or on the relationship of art and learning to think, or some other issue, send me a note.  Click here for a list of issues of particular interest to the author.

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Drawing Instruction - Does it Transfer?
Creativity Killers in the art room

Conversation Game generating creative ideas for artwork while teaching relationship skills
Teaching Creativity

Creativity Links

Art Education Essays, Lessons, and
many other resources for teachers and parents
from Marvin Bartel, Ed.D. Emeritus Professor of Art, Goshen College

  Marvin Bartel Home Page
All rights reserved.  This page © Marvin Bartel.  
this update November 26, 2010

For permission to make copies or handouts, contact the author. Teachers may print a copy for their own use so long as the copyright information is with the copy.  You may make links to this page from other web pages.

biography of author

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Drawing to Learn DRAWING

by Marvin Bartel - 2010 - is Now Available


This is a book written for kids who can read who want some good ways to practice their drawing skills. Us older folks who still want to learn new stuff can also use this book. It is also great for artists who want some ideas on how to help children learn to draw better. If you are an artist, you could start a Drawing Camp or some after school art classes using the ideas in this book. Parents can use this book plan a really cool and creative kids art party. Many art teachers will find new ideas and inventions never before published.

It is a low-cost online pdf downloadable book. You can read it on the computer or print it out.

See the order page for a
Table of Contents and more about this book