Deirdre Moore | September 2015

Art and Teaching for Transfer

I have a brother-in-law who is really smart.  It’s more than book-smart, it’s the way that he thinks.  He’s sharp, notices things, and can makes connections.  He’s a creative thinker and problem solver.  There are a number of us in my family who love Yahtzee – a game of dice.  The player with the highest total score is the winner.  One summer when I was visiting with him and my sister and their children, their family brought with them an electronic version of this game of dice.  While everyone else was playing to beat their own high score, Jeff was trying to beat his lowest.  Who does that?  Smart creative people, that’s who.

This memory came back to me when I was reading an article about transfer of learning by Martin Bartel, Ed. D.  In that article he writes: 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.  These highly creative adults Dr. Bartel writes about are people who know how to transfer their learning to novel situations and create novel situations for applications of their learning.

The Art And Teaching For Transfer

I remember commiserating with fellow teachers about my students failing to make learning transfers.  My students knew how to add and they knew how to round numbers.  However, when I asked them to check their work with estimation, they could have an accurate estimate but a wildly inaccurate sum and leave them sitting side-by-side on the paper.  Who does that?  People who have not been explicitly and repeatedly taught the value of transferring and applying learning.  People who have not been trained to thinking critically and flexibly, that’s who.

So what does art and teaching have to do with helping students to transfer learning?  Lots.   Artists excel at making unusual connections and juxtapositions.   They think critically,  abstractly and metaphorically.  By consistently using questioning and giving targeted assignments, teachers can help students start thinking in ways that foster that kind of critical, flexible and metaphorical thinking that can aid in transferring learning. Some learning transfers are fairly direct or “near” so the learnings are easily relatable.

Others are more complex or “far”.  Dr. David Sousa, an international consultant and author in educational neuroscience, explains in his blog: The transfer connection can also be much more complex, requiring the learner to make an abstract application of knowledge and skills to the new situation. Metaphors, analogies, and similes are useful devices for promoting abstract transfer.

So What?

If teachers are constantly having students create art and teaching to express learning, the students will be thinking abstractly about that concept which can help form habits of thinking that will aid in the transfer of learning.  When creating a song about the learning, would it be fast or slow?  Loud or soft?  Symmetrical or asymmetrical in rhythm?  Why?  What about a visual representation? Any specific colors would you use?  What types of lines?  How would you utilize space?  Texture?  Why?  How could you express that learning in the movement?  What type of energy would you use?  Would your movements be fast or slow?  Use high or low levels?  How many dancers?  How would they share the dance space?  Why?

When students are asked to think abstractly by transferring their learning to art and are constantly made to justify their artistic choices, they may start to habitually think in novel ways.  As Dr. Bartel explains: 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.

By having students express learning through art and teaching, teachers can help that “flow between categories” and train their students to constantly look for connections, to think about things in novel ways.  They can foster minds that are flexible and critical and ready to transfer what they already know to help them understand things they have yet to learn.  And isn’t that the ultimate goal in education?

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.