DESPITE recent passage of the "America Competes Act," we can hope that the obsession with mathematics and science will abate somewhat. People as disparate as Rep. George Miller (DCalif.) and Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch (see "Not by Geeks Alone," Wall Street Journal, August 8) have addressed the need to get the arts, music, social studies, and history back into the curriculum. Maybe Bill Gates and the Business Roundtable will give it a rest for a while. More than that, I hope all of this means we can start paying serious attention to how schooling affects or influences students' experiences and lives outside of school.
I admit that's an un-American goal. Aside from Dewey and the progressives, Americans have overwhelmingly viewed education as instrumental--as something that leads to something else, rather than as a valuable entity in itself. Typically that "something else" is a job. I think if more attention were paid to making school relevant to later experiences outside of school and outside of the workplace, we might see Americans enjoying richer personal, social, and communal lives off the job, and we might see them less enthralled by "American Idol" and Britney.
Looking at the impact of schools outside the school setting gets into the realm of "transfer" of learning and knowledge. Space is too short for a general treatment of transfer studies--a tricky and subtle field. (I dealt with those to some extent in the May 1992 column.) Specific aspects of transfer, as they relate to the question of school affecting experience outside of school, were examined more recently by Kevin Pugh and David Bergin. They reviewed and summarized the research literature in the December 2005 issue of Educational Researcher.
Pugh and Bergin begin by noting the distinction between high-road and low-road transfer. Low-road transfer involves the automatic transfer of highly practiced skills, with little need for reflective thinking. High-road transfer requires conscious formulation of an abstraction that permits a connection between two situations.
A sad finding from the research literature is that students often cannot take either road. An 11-year-old baking cookies asked her father, "Do two one-quarters make two fourths? I know it does in math, but what about in cooking?" Pugh and Bergin write that learning must be deep and connected and must involve metacognitive activity if much transfer to new contexts is to take place. Alas, most research in this field has involved transfer from one setting to another within the school, not from the school setting to some other context. Thus we know even less about what conditions of learning in school facilitate the transfer of that learning to situations and events out of school.
How does in-school learning affect learning in other contexts? How, for instance, does learning science in a classroom affect learning experiences in a museum or a zoo? The little research that has been done suggests both that students need careful preparation for their zoo/museum experience and that they seldom get it.
Another area of research is out-of-school learning that is prompted by in-school learning. This is where experiences with a subject in school lead to continued interest in and pursuit of the topic outside of school. The rate of such interest appears to be low. One study interviewed students and found that 47% reported no instances of school-prompted interest, while 38% reported only one. Students in this study were asked such things as whether they ever examine their parents' bank statements because they have taken an accounting class or whether they draw people because they have taken an art class. In another study, researchers found that 45% of students never used things when they were outside of school that they had learned in school, never read during leisure about school subjects, and never talked with friends outside of school about school subjects. …