There is a widely-held theory that by learning an instrument, playing chess, or even swinging a Wii remote around in P.E, students’ cognitive abilities and academic skills will increase, which will help them be better thinkers across the subjects. This isn’t a new theory; people used to think taking Latin unlocked something inside you so that you could learn other things easier. As a teacher, I hear claims all the time that this puzzle app or that brain-training scheme will help my students to become creative, critical thinkers, problem-solvers, you name it. Research from Sala, Gobet and others (2016, 2017, 2017, 2019), however, continues to cast doubt on whether or not we should give credence to any of this.

The reason why music training won’t make you any better at solving math equations, and why playing chess won’t make you a better point guard, stems from the issue of near- and far-transfer. Some areas definitely share common elements and so learning the skills in one will help you greatly in the other. For example, learning to drive an automatic car will probably help you to drive a stick shift, as well as a golf cart or a driving simulation. This is considered an occurrence of near-transfer because the overlap between the elements in the areas is strong. When the relationship between two areas is weak, we are referring to far-transfer (Sala & Gobet, 2017).

“Transferable” Skills

As a rule, far-transfer is rare and it is difficult to achieve (Sala & Gobet, 2017). Nevertheless, because time is short with students, it is natural for teachers to want to kill two birds with one stone by teaching things that can be applied not just to one specific situation, but to a multitude of situations. Workshop “gurus” and non-educators in business settings have long assumed that placing an emphasis on “21st century skills” to the exclusion of domain-specific knowledge instruction will result in skilled, flexible performance across completely unrelated tasks and areas. In a way, the justification for teaching these putative “21st century skills” is similar to the appeal of teaching Latin or chess to make you a better thinker in other areas; If we just teach kids problem-solving and creative thinking strategies, they will be ready for anything that comes their way! They do not question whether generic-cognitive “transferable” skills can even be taught (Tricot & Sweller, 2014), and they ignore the critical role that domain-specific knowledge plays in the development of expertise (Tindall-Ford, Agostinho, & Sweller, 2019).

Trying to teach generic-cognitive skills such as critical thinking and problem-solving in isolation, such as through a course or a unit, by having students apply generic strategies to unrelated activities will likely result in poor learning outcomes (Huber & Kuncel, 2015) and limited evidence of far-transfer (Willingham, 2019). If we think more about it, and ignore the unsubstantiated arguments from business leaders and charlatans at education conferences, this makes logical sense. Stephanie’s father is a programmer who can think critically and creatively with the coding language of PeopleSoft, and would likely succeed at a near-transfer activity working with Java. But his problem-solving skills in programming will fail to transfer to a plea bargaining scenario if he were to practice law; He has not developed the domain-specific knowledge and skills of that domain. My dad, however, is a retired lawyer who demonstrated excellent problem-solving ability in the courtroom, but who has zero coding skills. Would teaching my dad generic heuristics to enable problem-solving and critical thinking help him to code? Of course it wouldn’t! He needs to be taught the domain-specific knowledge and skills of coding – the tools that he will think creatively and critically with. 

As appealing as instruction in generic-cognitive “transferable” skills feels, if we want students to learn the skills of math, we should use math instruction, not chess instruction, or any other kind of instruction. Teaching students to debug a robot will not result in generic problem-solving ability that can be transferred to the field of anthropology or carpentry or business management, only the ability to solve problems in robots. As teachers, we should be content with teaching domain-specific, biologically secondary knowledge and skills because, perhaps counterintuitively, this is what they need to be successful thinkers in the 21st century.

– Zach Groshell

I’m on Twitter, @mrzachg

References

Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2015). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 431–468. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315605917

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). When the music’s over. Does music skill transfer to children’s and young adolescents’ cognitive and academic skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 20, 55–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2016.11.005

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2016). Do the benefits of chess instruction transfer to academic and cognitive skills? A meta-analysis. Educational Research Review, 18, 46–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2016.02.002

Sala, G., Tatlidil, K. S., & Gobet, F. (2019). Still no evidence that exergames improve cognitive ability: A commentary on Stanmore et al. (2017). Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, (2017). https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.11.015

Sala, G., & Gobet, F. (2017). Working memory training in typically developing children: A meta-analysis of the available evidence. Developmental Psychology, 53(4), 671–685. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000265

Tindall-Ford, S., Agostinho, S., & Sweller, J. (2019). Advances in Cognitive Load Theory : Rethinking Teaching. Milton, UNITED KINGDOM: Routledge. Retrieved from http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/capella/detail.action?docID=5795791

Tricot, A., & Sweller, J. (2014). Domain-Specific Knowledge and Why Teaching Generic Skills Does Not Work. Educational Psychology Review. Springer New York LLC. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-013-9243-1

Willingham, D. T. (2019). How to Teach Critical Thinking. NSW Department of Education. https://doi.org/10.2753/RES1060-9393330549

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