Dick Clark: Transfer is an issue that has not come up often for decades 

Just the other day, I mentioned something on Twitter that Dick Clark had shared with me a couple of decades ago about learning out of context. I had written:

1/ According to Dick Clark (Richard E. Clark, EdD, professor emeritus at USC) who shared with me in the late 90s that only 5 to 15% of people can learn out of context and transfer those learning to a new context – we need to do much less generic and much more specific L&D.

2/ So I’m not sure that teaching people how to make the generic specific themselves is viable – but it would certainly flip the Value Proposition from negative to positive for all those libraries of Generic Content that have been sold over the past 30-40 years.

Joel Bird of Queensland, Australia, and I had an exchange where he commented: “I find the low number who are able to self-contextualise genuinely fascinating! Does that ability happen to grow with experience in the topic being learned? Can the ability to contextualise be taught?”

And I said I would follow up with Dr. Clark on the weekend about this. So that’s what follows.

From an Email Exchange on 2022-07-23 with Dr. Richard E. Clark, Ed.D.

Transfer … was hot in the 1980’s and 90’s then more or less disappeared – mostly because the research did not pan out.

It is generally called “Transfer” or “Transfer of Learning”.  It happens of course but the big issue here is – how similar must the domain and context of training and the setting where it is expected to be applied?  This issue is referred to as “near” and “far” transfer issue.  The more “near” the expected transfer, the more similar the training and application domains.  Android to iPhone is near transfer.  Chess to battle environments is far transfer.  The distance between near and far is a continuum of course.  

Much of our current training and instructional research focuses on near transfer though it is not characterized that way anymore.  However, almost no research now focuses on farther transfer.  The reason for that is that all attempts to achieve far transfer have more or less failed.  I struggled with this issue in a 1997 chapter with Syd Blake (attached) but I don’t know if anyone tried what we suggested.  The most recent review of far transfer research (2017), by the British psychologist Sala, concluded that far transfer does not happen.  And Will Thalheimer has a very nice review of near transfer research.  

Now to your question.  My comment to you was based on the finding (seldom published) that the higher one’s IQ, the farther their learning transfers.  So people with IQ’s in the top 1% to 5% transfer much further than those in the “normal” range.  Farther transfer is one of the capabilities that characterize higher levels of intelligence.  Syd and I were trying to analyze how brighter people achieve farther transfer and hoped that it would be possible to make it happen for everyone … but alas.  What our chapter did was focus me on analogies … for example, the power of the analogy I used to describe the impact of media versus instructional method … that media do not influence learning any more than the truck that delivers groceries to the local market causes the nutritional choices of the people who shop.  That analogy has been repeated hundreds of times in research reviews and remembered by people who read that article 40 years ago.  And my analogy of the importance of identifying the active ingredients of training (and separating them from the inert things that have to be present to “carry” instruction) by suggesting that it was analogous to the active ingredient of medications … aspirin’s active ingredient is a specific acid compound but it is delivered with inactive compounds that make up the aspirin tablet. Analogies make the key elements in what has been learned (grocery trucks and nutritional choices or aspirin tablets) to a far transfer contexts (computers and learning from instructional methods etc).  I had hoped that using analogies would facilitate farther transfer but could not get support for research on that issue.  

Intelligence is a key issue here and everywhere but seldom discussed.  I think it is one of the biggest reasons to focus on attention control – since increases in attention control may actually lead to farther transfer of learning. I’d also like to see more interest in the power of analogies to help farther transfer of knowledge.

Designing Training for Novel Problem-Solving Transfer – Richard E. Clark and Sydney Brooks Blake – University of Southern California

Does Far Transfer Exist? Negative Evidence From Chess, Music, and Working Memory TrainingGiovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet

Factors That Support Training Transfer: A Brief Synopsis of the Transfer Research – Will Thalheimer

Dick Clark Is a Treasure

And you can see all of the resources he has shared at HPT Treasures – here.


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