Towards a Theory of Transferable Knowledge: helping students to build meaningful mental shapes

Adam Robertson suggests a way towards a theory of transferable knowledge that does more than simply ask students to reuse directly taught knowledge in a new context. Building on Counsell’s (2000) notion of students working as ‘similarity spotters’, he suggests that students need to build ‘meaningful mental shapes’ so as to be able to quickly make sense of newly encountered material, fitting it into pre-existing patterns constructed from previously learned knowledge.

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There are two familiar facts that shed light on what transferable historical knowledge could be: the fact that teachers are able to gloss over a new topic entirely unfamiliar to them and quickly familiarise themselves with it, to a degree that it would take their students many hours longer to achieve; and the fact that presenting a student with an analogy for the topic or story under discussion can prompt a ‘eureka’ moment in which everything suddenly makes perfect sense. Both are instances in which knowledge is being transferred, of transferable knowledge enabling people to make sense of newly met topics and to ‘get better’ at history, and both point towards how we might begin to harness the power of transferable knowledge in the classroom.

A good starting point to examine how this might work is Kate Hammond’s article in Teaching History 157 outlining the manner in which strong subject knowledge improved her GCSE students’ writing. Hammond’s observation was a simple, but powerful, one: that those students that knew more, whether it was about the theme under discussion, the broader topic or period of history in which it sat, or in history in the most general sense, wrote the best essays. But it is the diagram that she produced to illustrate this theory that is particularly useful for our attempt to define how knowledge might become transferable.

Hammond uses these three scales, of the topic, period, and generally in history, and splits each of these three scales into three thematic areas of knowledge, of political and economic systems, or social and cultural systems, and of people’s ideas and thinking, to provide a framework for all of a student’s potentially useful knowledge on which they could draw when writing an essay.

It is this outermost scale, knowledge about things ‘generally in history’, which holds the key for transferable knowledge – indeed, is chiefly the product of knowledge of one topic becoming functional within another topic.

When we teach students historical knowledge we do so in chunks. We introduce a new topic, or some new factual information, and however we choose to go about doing it, we try to get our students to learn it. That is to say, we want them to be able to recall the factual information that we have just taught them. This could be considered the most basic level at which knowledge exists: inert, isolated, unemployed, sitting in our students’ memories only as the answer to a specific question. What is a plebeian? An ordinary citizen in Ancient Rome.

Usually, as history teachers, we find ourselves teaching these chunks of knowledge that would belong in Hammond’s innermost circle – knowledge in this topic. But we also directly teach these chunks at larger scales. What happened between 324 and 476 AD? The Roman Empire declined. What happens to Empires after they have gone through a period of expansion? They begin to collapse.

This knowledge becomes transferable when it ceases to be inert, an answer to a specific question, and starts to make connections with other chunks of knowledge. Students begin to see links between things they know, they become Counsell’s ‘similarity spotters’ (2000). Once knowledge is linked, and similarities spotted, that knowledge is no longer isolated. As this process continues, students begin to spot more and more similarities between things that they know. Chunks of knowledge become linked in an ever more complex web. When newly met knowledge doesn’t seem to have any similarities with this existing web new branches form around this new knowledge and the web expands.

These interconnections between chunks of knowledge that we have taught students become meaningful. They are, to misappropriate Sarah Gadd’s words, ‘meaningful mental shapes’ (2009).  This is why analogy produces eureka moments: the analogy directs a student to link an inert chunk of knowledge into an already existing ‘meaningful mental shape’, which enables the student to make more sense out of the previously inert new chunk. By being related to the pre-existing mental shape the new chunk ceases to be a simple answer to a simple question. The word ‘acolytes’ ceases to be the answer to the question “What sort of people was Hitler surrounded by?” and, when linked to the existing shape of the story of Becket’s murder by Henry’s knights who were so eager to win the king’s favour, it becomes part of a rich understanding of how absolute power and patronage work together.

Sometimes these will exist within Hammond’s first level, of the topic specific, but these will not be able to be transferred very far. Knowledge of several different Nazi propaganda posters, say, creates a shape that makes sense of the sort of things the Nazis exhorted Germans to do which will enable students to quickly make sense of newly met Nazi propaganda posters. Indeed, any individual story could be considered to constitute such a shape.

But more often, and more powerfully, these shapes will begin to form across Hammond’s levels of knowledge. In the case of Hitler’s and Henry’s acolytes, the eureka moment that the analogy brought about represents a mental shape forming between two separate concrete examples in Hammond’s innermost circle which are linked via a more general piece of knowledge about structures of power in Hammond’s outermost circle. The shape is created in the eureka moment.

In many ways this seems to simply be a case of the meaning of the word acolyte being learned. But I think it points the way towards something much richer taking place. It’s not that students have learned the meaning so much as constructed an explanatory framework around the word. This encompasses an abstract understanding of what it connotes which is formed out of two concrete examples – a framework to which more can be added as further appropriate examples are discovered and mobilised to make sense of newly encountered knowledge.

In the parlance of history teachers, this is not merely a question of depth informing overview (Banham 2000). The question of depth and overview, of deep knowledge of a short period of time and broad knowledge of a longer period of time, and their interrelationship is one of the differences between two slightly different types of directly taught chunks of knowledge. They are of differing natures, but when history teachers talk about this they are talking about the scale, in terms of time, of the knowledge that they are directly teaching their students.

Instead, this is a question of what students do with the knowledge that we teach, regardless of its scale, after they have been exposed to it. It’s about them taking these chunks, be they deep or broad, and fitting them into existing ‘meaningful mental shapes’, seeing where they don’t fit with existing mental shapes, and using them as the basis for the construction of new mental shapes. It is about the manner in which our students use the concrete that we teach them to self-construct abstract rules to better understand the place of the newly-learned concrete in their understanding of the world.

It is this use of existing mental shapes, as an explanatory tool to make sense of things newly met, to sift through one’s bank of mental shapes until one finds the shape with which the new example best fits, which explains history teachers’ ability to gloss over a new topic and grasp it quickly. The new topic is not a morass of names and dates and moves and relationships that need to learned by the history teacher from scratch, by rote. As a teacher begins to read links start to be made with already learned topics, the new information is linked to an already existing mental shape and the outline of what is going on is quickly grasped.

This should be taken as a model for progression for our students’ transferable knowledge. We as history teachers are extremely well equipped with transferable knowledge and able to quickly make sense of a very broad array of new information by making use of that knowledge, and we should be trying to move our students as close to our own position in those terms. We should strive to help our students to cultivate as many and as powerfully explanatory ‘meaningful mental shapes’ as we can during the brief time they spend in our classrooms.

While this would certainly be a case of students ‘getting better at’ the discipline of History, it would also obviously equip them to apply this knowledge outside of the classroom as well, to make sense of their own worlds. In the idiomatic sense, it represents learning lessons from history.

Teaching transferable knowledge, then, doesn’t consist in tackling a topic or period in KS3 that will reappear on a GCSE syllabus, or even in teaching a huge bank of subject specific vocabulary. Instead it involves equipping our students with an explanatory framework which enables them to quickly grasp and make sense of what they will encounter later in their school careers, and out in the world beyond our classrooms. This might involve something as simple as teaching stories that are similar to those that are going to be encountered later. It could also involve a slightly speculative process of sitting down as a department and trying to work out which ‘meaningful mental shapes’ are going to hold the most explanatory power for our students, and which are going to enable them to grapple with their GCSE or A Level syllabus with the most ease. It will be a messy process, requiring significant trial and error taking place over several years, but it represents a chance for us to really rigorously plan for our pupils’ progress in terms of the knowledge they learn, and to enable them to succeed in History.

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Banham, Dale (2000), ‘The Return of King John: using depth to strengthen overview in the teaching of political change’ in Teaching History 99 pp. 22-31

Counsell, Christine (2000), ‘Historical Knowledge and Historical Skills: a distracting dichotomy’ in J. Arthur and R. Phillips (eds) Issues in History Teaching, London: Routledge

Gadd, Sarah (2009), ‘Building Memory and Meaning: supporting Year 8 in shaping their own big narratives’ in Teaching History 136 pp. 34-41

Hammond, Kate (2014), ‘The Knowledge that Flavours a Claim: towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales ‘ in Teaching History 157, pp. 18-25

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3 thoughts on “Towards a Theory of Transferable Knowledge: helping students to build meaningful mental shapes

  1. Interesting post – my one question would be about what the ‘mental shapes’ are. Are these themselves part of the knowledge we want pupils to learn? A large array of possible ways of putting the past together in meaningful ways have already been create by historians, and as such is this a case of learning their interpretations? One of the problems I often have with attempts to have additional constructs about the level of knowledge is an Ockham’s Razor kind of problem – do we need an additional category to describe these?

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    1. I think it’s less an attempt to add an additional construct as an attempt to account for how the same piece of knowledge can begin to work in new ways in students’ minds. It’s not so much a way of putting the past together in a new way as thinking about how students are able to apply knowledge to interpret the worlds around them, or to make generalisations about the world around them. Thinking in terms of Michael Young’s ‘powerful knowledge’, the ability to recall a fact as an answer to a specific question doesn’t necessary mean that students are able to use that knowledge to make generalisations about the world around them – but knowledge of the same topic can become powerful in this sense once students begin to connect it up in their minds, to have it as an explanatory schema ready to compare against other events or topics.

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  2. I really like this post as it has very much helped to clarify my thinking.
    My interest in Willingham’s arguments about transferability prompted a further question. What is the degree of transfer of types of knowledge? What preconditions are necessary for transfer to be likely to occur? For example you can quite quickly get a GCSE student to build a meaningful mental shape around the word democracy or communism that they will spontaneously use in future study even if it is initially limited. However, some of the aims of modern history teaching presume transfer is possible for ‘meaningful shapes’ that actually require enormous expertise in a range of historical periods such as spontaneously identifying patterns of change.
    I think we need to consider likely transfer when deciding on our sims in history teaching.

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