Best Practices and Bad Habits (Part 2)

Transfer of learning appears to be a simple concept. What you learn in the family or learn in school  can be applied in different situations outside of the family and the classroom. Learning Spanish, for example, helps later in learning Italian. Learning to get along with an older brother or sister helps in learning how to get along with others later in life. Learning math in middle school helps one in high school physics. It doesn’t always work that way, however.


In Part 1,  I described how I taught a two-week unit on specific critical thinking skills useful to understand history and use in daily life in the early 1960s. My theory was that teaching these thinking skills directly one after the other at the very beginning of the semester would lead to students applying them when I began teaching units on the American Revolution, Immigration, Sectionalism and the Civil War, and the Industrial Revolution.

The response of students to the stories and subsequent discussions and debates almost made me swoon. I was energized by students’ enthusiasm as we went from one specific skill to another using contemporary stories drawn from newspapers,  student lives, and Glenville high school. The two week unit was from all indications a success with student engagement high and even scores on the unit test were higher than I had expected.

Then, when I began my U.S. history units on the American Revolution through World War I, the skills I believed that I had taught my students weeks earlier were missing in action. Root canal work was easier than getting students to distinguish between a biased source and one less so or explain why certain statements were opinions, not facts. I was puzzled.  What had happened?

Years later, I discovered from reading psychologists a great deal about the ins-and-outs of transfer of learning (see, for example, here). Teaching specific critical thinking skills and expecting students to apply what they learned to different situations depended upon many conditions that were, I learned later, missing in my lessons. Even the concept of teaching these skills isolated from the historical content–as I did–undermines the very goal I wanted to achieve (see CritThink).

Nonetheless, puzzled as I was by the absence of students applying what they had learned in the later history units I taught, for the next few years I continued to teach that two week unit on critical thinking at the beginning of the semester, marching through the lessons one skill after another. I repeated again and again this unit because the students were engaged, loved to apply what they learned to their daily lives, and I felt good after each of the five periods I taught. An uncommon experience for a veteran teacher.

Even had a colleague I trusted grabbed me by the shoulders then and told me how I was way off in thinking that my students would transfer the skills they learned in the two-week unit to subsequent history units, I would not have believed that colleague.  I would have continued with what I considered a “best practice” that, in reality, had become a “bad” habit.


Like Dr. Danielle Ofra, I would have given reasons to myself why what I was doing helped students. As I look back, I kept doing the same unit year after year and ignored the signs–the mysterious tug I felt every semester seeing repeatedly that students failed to apply the skills in subsequent history units that they had supposedly learned weeks earlier. I persisted even in light of the evidence of little transfer of learning.

Such “bad” habits, of course are common. From over-eating to smoking to excessive Internet surfing to watching far too much television, “bad” habits–destructive to one’s health and well-being–persist among substantial numbers of youth and adults.


Such habits are like ruts in road that get deeper and deeper through repetition of the behavior. It is hard to get out of the well worn groove. Yet people do break “bad” habits by replacing them with “good” habits that begin a new groove, and get practiced over and over again. It can be done and does occur.

As for me, my “bad” habit of ignoring evidence of my students not applying what they learned in that two-week thinking skills unit, eventually changed. The baffling lack of application got me to read more and talk to colleagues about what occurred in my teaching. I stumbled into new knowledge about transfer of learning. I made many attempts, some failed badly, to build new units in history where these thinking skills were embedded in the historical content. Eventually, I got into a new groove and created different units and taught them (e.g., Colonization, American Revolution, Causes of the Civil War, The Industrial Revolution, The Kennedy Assassination). See here.

But understanding transfer of learning was a hard road to travel in getting out of that rut I had made for myself as a history teacher many years ago.

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Filed under comparing medicine and education, how teachers teach

11 responses to “Best Practices and Bad Habits (Part 2)

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  4. Jeff Bowen

    Thank you for the additional Part 2 insights. Although you don’t detail how the research on transfer of learning applies, I suspect it involves making sure students have the constructs and contexts in their heads to enable new content to seem relevant or applicable to their own life and time. In part this is a cumulative developmental process. In short, to get excited about a particular time in history, it helps if you have lived in it and really FELT it. A second point is that teachers tend to succeed if they develop their own curriculum rather than having one delivered by some company. However, the time and motivation to do this is hard to find, so borrowing and adapting and sharing are the only practical route

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for the comment, Jeff.

    • EB

      Jeff, I agree that it helps to have “lived in” a historical period. Since we can’t live in any more than the ones we have personally experienced, a second-best is to have read historical fiction, or memoirs of people who lived in the past, with added movies set in the time. Otherwise, we are limited to our own historical period, which defeats the purpose of learning history!

      Larry, I think all teachers struggle with the issue you described, but not all work their way through to the solution you devised. A few students, in my experience, can do that “transfer” from one discipline to another (in your case, from current events to history). But that ability is rare.

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