2 Key Ingredients for Making Transfer Matter for Kids

COVID was a vivid reminder to all of us that we simply can’t keep the real world out of the classroom.  Nor should we try.  The more we design units of study in a way that enables students to see the walls of the classroom as permeable the better students will see the relevance and rigor, or complexity of what they are learning. 

When we engage in a design process that begins with a real-world problem or what I call “situations that need attention” (SITNA), the more engaged we will see students in building knowledge, making meaning, and ultimately applying their understanding.  

When we start with giving students a SITNA on day one we establish a sense of gentle accountability for both students and teachers to learn core content and pursue a solution or set of solutions to the problem.  

Perhaps plans are to teach students about ecosystems.  We expect students to learn core definitions, core underlying principles of ecosystems, and then some level of application.  Imagine we started with an application by front-loading all of our teaching I with a SiTNA.  For example, we could ask students to engage in the following SITNA or a range of SITNAs

  1. To what extent can we curb the population of invasive green crabs in the US?
  2. Where can we best support reviving the Tasmanian Devil population?
  3. When is the ideal time and place to mitigate the number of microplastics in the oceans?

When we design for SITNA problems, there are a few steps that can be helpful along the way. These steps include:

Step 1: Contribution - Design a set of SITNAs for students to make an impact on real-world problems

While it is always fun to create a SITNA on the zombie apocalypse or build a space colony on Mars, the suggestion here is to put students directly into a SITNA that is happening now and that they can be a part of in some small way.  

Try this:

  1. Scan
    1. Local scanning: Ask your parents, principal, or (time permitting) local leaders what the SITNAs they are working on right now, in real-time.  Use this as fodder for a SITNA that you could link to current work.
    2. Global scanning: Review publications and podcasts on current SITNAs. Reach out to agencies to see if you and your students could take on a small part of the project.  You will be surprised how many people will say yes
  2. Leverage Formative Evaluation
    1. Identify ways for students to actively contribute rather that showcasing a solution. For instance, having a student attend a board meeting and participating, talking with experts, and receiving feedback from community members during their learning is more impactful than a summative presentation. Let them contribute through the unit rather than just the end.
Ask this
  1. During your unit design process ask the following:  To what extent are my students contributing to solving real-world problems that matter? 

Step 2: Contexts- Ensure that students explore multiple situations in which the SITNA exists. 

When possible, consider giving your class more than one SITNA to solve.  Suppose you are teaching students how to write an argumentative essay.  To provide students with the opportunity to apply their learning, you provide a number of SITNA options for students including

  •  School safety protocols related to lockdown drills
  • Allocation of tax dollars to fund public education,
  • a new proposed law that makes texting and driving a more severe offense. 
  • Removal of confederate monuments and murals 

Try this:

  • Brainstorm a set of SITNAs and offer them to students as an option for their work.  Remember you are not teaching the SITNA.  You are teaching the content.  
  • Let students generate their own SITNA.  Whenever possible, give students the option to go after a SUTNA that matters to them.  This could be done by having students make a pitch to you and a few classmates.  
  • Have students compare and contrast SITNAs with each.  When they engage in this discussion have students Andee the following questions:- what is similar across contexts?  How are the contexts different?  Do you notice a recurring pattern within and between contexts?

Ask this:

As you are designing units for students, consider asking the following questions:

  • To what extent am I encouraging students to evaluate different situations? 
  • To what extent am I using ideas and tools from different situations?  
  • To what extent can I apply my learning in other situations?

    About the Author- 
    Michael McDowell, EdD has been a public school educator for the past eighteen years serving in the roles of the classroom teacher, academic and athletic coach, school principal, assistant superintendent of personnel and instruction, and superintendent.  He is an author, presenter, and facilitator working with educators around the world.  




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