Transfer, in the education world, is where competencies, skills, practices, processes, and/or content from one discipline can be applied to another discipline or context. It is an important issue to consider as we work to give today’s students vital creative (novel idea) and innovative (applying the novel idea) thinking skills for academic success and strong workforce preparation. The concept of mutual transfer among disciplines underpins the Collaborative’s goals of promoting creative and innovative thinking for K-12 and out-of-school-time students by focusing on disciplinary practices, processes, and competencies as students learn the required content.
The Collaborative’s arts Research Thought Leader, Rob Horowitz, Ed.D. (See “Meet Research Thought Leader” article in this newsletter.) has done significant research on the concept of transfer, having explored this concept for over 20 years. He and his colleagues have developed a strong transfer model that has received significant recognition, including its dissemination by Arts Education Partnership (AEP), the national arts organization that supports arts practice through research and policy.
This model is found in Dr. Horowitz’ work, “Learning in and Through the Arts: The Question of Transfer” (https://scinapse.io/papers/2119313428 and https://www.aep-arts.org/wp-content/uploads/Champions-of-Change_The-Impact-of-Arts-on-Learning.pdf). It looks at the issue of transfer more broadly and deeply than before. It points to competencies acquired in arts learning that are applicable in other subjects and to life in general. The arts content and skills, Dr. Horowitz says, though important in their own rights, can provide these pathways for transfer.
The compentencies in this transfer model are cognitive development, social development, and personal development. Cognitive competencies include creative thinking skills such as fluency, originality, imagination, and elaboration, in addition to focused perception. These, then, facilitate the ability to change perspectives, express ideas, and create meaning. The social/emotional competencies include the abilties to collaborate, communicate, and empathize. The personal, or affective, learning competencies include risk-taking, persistence, self-confidence, and the student’s ownership of his/her learning. All of these, he points out, can be carried over to other disciplines and contexts.
As examples of this transfer in action, he points to the long history of science where famous scientists worked across disciplines. This includes the naturalist John James Audubon, who used art as a way to understand and record his scientific observations of birds, and Leonardo daVinci, who used art to understand scientific phenomena, including dissections of the human anatomy, and to conceptualize his engineering designs. These men transferred art skills and competencies into scientific fields to promote their own understanding and to communicate meaning.
As important as the transfer of arts competencies to other disciplines is, he says, it is important to note that transfer of practices or competencies also can be conveyed from other disciplines to the arts. His study on transfer went beyond the concepts from the 1980s and 1990s that saw transfer as unidirectional from the arts to enhance learning in other subjects, such as arts enhancing test scores. It noted that skills engendered in other disciplines, such as creativity and critical and divergent thinking, can transfer back to enhance arts learning. This can be promoted, he points out, by shared ways of thinking between disciplines so that transfer then could be multidirectional, interactive, and dynamic.
The implications from this research, he points out, resonate strongly with the Collaborative’s work. The Collaborative’s research has documented the importance of transdisciplinary learning where students integrate different disciplines’ practices, competencies, and content interdependently and simultaneously, seeing that one discipline cannot complete the task without the other. This, in turn, contributes to a deeper understanding of each discipline to achieve an overarching synthesis. This synthesis can help solve problems, explain phenomena, create a product, and more. “It’s important that educators think about these relationships and move out of our silos,” he points out, to provide our students even richer and more valuable educational opportunities.
An example of this transdisciplinary learning where different disciplines’ practices, competencies, and content are multidirectional, interactive, and dynamic occurred with 95 second grade underserved rural students (see image). They were given the problem of using the Elements of Art to invent a 3D wheel that could navigate Mars’ sandy and rocky surface. Through initial hands-on experiences integrating both disciplines, they combined their grade-level science concepts of texture, mass, rolling, and spinning with art concepts of line, shape, texture, and form (related to mass). They also integrated disciplinary practices such as (science) observing, asking questions, experimenting, developing a solution, testing, evaluating, using data to develop a conclusion, and (art) creating, presenting, responding, and connecting. They then used these science and art concepts to design and make their invention and write a team presentation that would show how well their invention solved the problem. One two-person student team creatively thought of their wheel having feet with magnets on them to “stick” to Mars’s magnetic soil that is high in iron oxide. They also added scoops to the wheel to scoop up the soil to test it. In their experiences, they didn’t separate the disciplines’ concepts and practices by thinking “I’m doing art now” or “I’m doing science now”. Their inventing process transcended each of the disciplines, driven by a strong synthesis that was richer than each individual discipline and that solved their problem, like in a real-world scenario. In the process, the students used many of the cognitive, social, and personal competencies outlined in Dr. Horowitz’ model. Assessments showed strong student integration skills and understanding of content. An increase in creative thinking was evident in 89% of the students. In addition, 100% of the teachers believed these experiences developed students’ critical thinking skills. One teacher said, “This enhanced my students because the kids got to use their own creative thinking and it brought them joy and they found a purpose they’ve never had before”.
This is evidence of an important takeaway from Dr. Horowitz’ study on transfer. He emphasizes that, while it is important that competencies engendered by arts learning can transfer from the arts to other subjects, it also is important to understand that important competencies used in a variety of other disciplines and can transfer back to the arts, and then go back and forth, with no one discipline having priority over another. This way, the strength of each discipline can flow to enhance other disciplines, and, ultimately, students’ learning and thinking for the present and for their futures.