When viewing the OST world as an aggregate, it is probably safe to say that program directors and parents believe that kids reap valuable benefit from participating. Given the variety of programs, it is also probably true that some benefits are clear and immediate, while others are hypothesized to become manifest in some other context or at some future time. Immediate benefits may include such things as learning a new skill, keeping kids safe and engaging in such things as getting homework done or starting a new school assignment. Longer term benefits may be acquiring certain attitudes and developing a set of social-emotional skills that can be deployed in a variety of activities and contexts.
What is the meaning of transfer?
In essence both short and longer-term anticipated benefits have to do with beliefs about transfer. This notion is shown in Figure 1, and hypothesizes that experience in Activity A (e.g., OST Programs) has an effect on how well an individual can perform Activity B (e.g., shooting a basketball, getting superior grades in school, being socially competent with peers, obtaining a better paying job in the future). Actually, the potential exists for the effect of Activity A to be positive, negative, or null, but whether stated or not, program directors invariably believe that their programs have value and that kids will ultimately benefit in Activity B.
Figure 1. What are the effects, if any, of having done Activity A on performance in Activity B?
While it is hard to argue that most OST programs have a variety of actual and potential benefits for kids, it is much more difficult to precisely show the connectivity between what kids are learning and doing in Activity A and how this impacts how they perform in Activity B. Yet, given the time, money and effort expended on organizing and implementing OST programs, it is certainly worth thinking about this question and attempting to clarify why we chose to do what we do, how we do it, and what anticipated benefits will accrue to kids in our programs.
Perhaps, the concept of near transfer, is the easiest to grasp as it relates to engaging in Activity A that is very similar to what youth will ultimately be asked to do in Activity B. When a basketball coach has her team practice a specific offense in anticipation of playing a team that will play a specific defense the coach and players expect that when game time arrives what they practiced earlier in the week (Activity A) will help them perform certain plays that their opponents will have difficulty defending against. Activity A was theoretically designed and practiced to maximize offensive capability against the scouted opponents (Activity B). Surely, not everything during the game will be as anticipated. There may be some unruly fans in the gym, the game ball may feel different than the one used in practice, or defensive players may be a bit faster or slower than expected, but there should be more that was anticipated and prepared for than not anticipated so that game performance will have definitely benefited from preparation. Near transfer has a lot in common with Thorndike’s (1914) notion of transferring identical elements between tasks. These elements include such things as the perceptual, movement, and conceptual elements that the two tasks have in common, and the more similar these are between Activity A and Activity B, the more likely positive transfer will occur. Another way of viewing this notion is from a specificity perspective. Succinctly, the advice for those who wished to maximize transfer would be to make Activity A as similar in every detail to Activity B as possible, and performance and learning on Activity B will be maximal.
Besides examples from sports, in which coaches view films of opponents ad nauseum in order to prepare one’s team for every possible eventuality in an impending game, we also can point to pilot training in which million dollar simulators that mirror real world conditions, in meticulous detail, are used to prepare students for any conditions that might arise. Such training is so realistic and comprehensive that pilots can earn aircraft type ratings with most of their training done in such simulators. Another example of near transfer comes from the military in which navy SEAL teams create mockups of locales in which they anticipate missions. The notion again is to practice with as many identical elements as possible between their training activities (Activity A) and their mission requirements (Activity B).
From an OST perspective, programs with sports, theater, and musical core themes provide examples where near transfer would be expected to occur. That is to say, one would expect enhanced performance in a future contest or production from having practiced identical activities on a regular basis during program time. In a program such as Project Coach, practicing how to communicate with individual players and one’s team as a whole, or teaching a particular activity during practice pedagogy sessions have powerful performance benefits when teen coaches actually run practices and competitions with their players. Similarly, rehearsing scenes in a play, or repeating sections of a dance element or piano piece will show positive transfer in the targeted performance.
Assessing program effectiveness for near transfer is fairly straight forward as leaders can examine such things as whether practice sessions (Activity A) were delivered with fidelity, whether participants acquired the targeted knowledge and skill that they were intended to produce, and how well they perform on Activity B. Invariably, OST programs are not organized as an experimental randomized control design, but at a minimum, it could be hypothesized that if participants did not engage in Activity A they would not perform as well in Activity B, as those that did. This conclusion is often born out when natural circumstances (e.g., illness, transportation issues, etc.) prevent a youth from engaging in Activity A, while others are able to do so. The results are evident.
A second, more abstruse form of transfer is also hypothesized to occur from participation in OST programs. This might be labelled far transfer and is illustrated in Figure 2. Essentially, attributes that are included in this domain include an array of social-emotional assets along with a cluster of positive attitudes. These are thought to support the development of near transfer skills, as well as to generalize to other activities in participants’ lives that transpire in other important contexts, and, possibly, at future times. An example of a social-emotional asset is developing communication skills that impact the near transfer activities, but also contributes to success in such things as school, meeting people from backgrounds different than the participant, and being better able to advocate for one’s interests in a variety of situations. Developing emotional and attentional regulatory skills also affects how a participant performs in the OST program, and, presumably, in other contexts in which having self-awareness and self-control contributes to success. From an attitudinal perspective, perhaps no asset is more important than acquiring a growth mindset which is foundational in the tasks individuals choose to tackle, and how they process feedback and persevere in their quest to improve. Other general attitudinal qualities that OST programs hope to foster include such things as developing positive social values, valuing diversity, caring for others, and working as a team member.
Figure 2. Far Transfer occurs when exposure to certain activities in one context (Activities A) is hypothesized to transfer to other activities that can be executed in other contexts and at other times.
As one can probably surmise, the development of far transfer assets are conceptually more general and complex than near transfer items, as they are more amorphous and believed to permeate virtually all activities in which participants engage, or are predicted to encounter in the future. While it is one thing to practice specific skills for an impending performance, it is quite another to acquire communication skills that can be used in disparate contexts with people having diverse backgrounds. Similarly, conceptualizing the value of developing a growth mindset is much simpler than learning how to invoke it on tasks and situations that are difficult, and often not even identified until some time in the future.
Pedagogy of Near Transfer and Far Transfer?
Given the disaggregation of near and far transfer assets identified above, a critical question relates to how best to teach these to OST participants. Seemingly, one might argue that near transfer assets should be taught with identical elements in mind, in that the closer to the targeted tasks (Activities B), Activities A should be. In an athletic context drills are typically used in which skills are identified, explained, and demonstrated, and then participants spend time repeating them while being provided feedback about the discrepancies between what was modeled and what actually happened.
In sports one could also differentiate activities that are closed (i.e., activities like bowling, archery, diving, and gymnastics) in which the objective is to repeat movements precisely, and those that are open (e.g., soccer, basketball, and football) in which a particular movement form is partially determined by what others are doing. Seemingly, pedagogy for closed skills would require more repetitions that approximated the modeled skill than open skills in which variations on a basic movement class would make sense. In PC, since our activities are predominantly open in nature, we have opted for a games-based pedagogy in which various sports skills, such as shooting a basketball, or dribbling a soccer ball, are taught within game (or scenario) contexts. That is, skills are taught with the understanding that a basic form exists, but variations of that form need to be crafted as game situations evolve.
While near transfer pedagogy seems fairly straight forward, depending on the activity, the pedagogy for teaching far transfer assets is a bit more complicated. One could argue, for example, that the teaching of far transfer assets is not necessary or sufficient for success in an activity like sports, as technical skills and tactical knowledge are the key elements that determine athletic outcomes. Yet, it seems that such thinking is short sighted. The acquisition of high levels of technical skill and tactical knowledge, requires many hours of dedicated practice during which participants must cooperate with team mates and coaches, be able to communicate their observations about challenges, understand how to accept and operationalize feedback, set and operationalize short and long-term goals, control their emotions when frustrated, and behave appropriately after both victory and defeat.
Consequently, one might argue that although far transfer assets are not necessary or sufficient for success at any particular activity, they are essential for framing one’s psychological and social environments that support the acquisition of requisite near transfer technical and tactical knowledge and skills. Without having a growth mindset, why would one endure the frustrations and setbacks that invariably accompany higher level skills that are difficult to acquire and take years of sustained effort? Likewise, without understanding how one’s emotions can be regulated or attention sustained, over long practice periods, it is also difficult to understand how an individual can master the critical elements of a particular discipline. Being able to set and operationalize short and long-term goals along with an array of other far transfer assets that clearly supports a long-term process of learning and development cannot be overstated.
While the pedagogy for teaching near transfer knowledge and skill tends to conform to some version of identical elements, teaching far transfer assets is less clear, and very much open to debate. In general, they tend to be more abstract and more generalizable to more situations and contexts as illustrated in Figure 2. Nonetheless, a few ideas that can be helpful here, from several decades of trying to teach these, are offered.
First, it is important to clearly define in both conceptual and operational terms what the far transfer entity is. Again, using growth mindset as an example, it can be conceptually defined as the belief that knowledge and skill in any particular endeavor can be developed through dedication and hard work, and that brains and talent, although important, are just the starting point. But, teaching this as an abstraction is not enough. It needs to also be taught in the context of near transfer practice activities as shown in Figures 1 and 2. Coaches and teachers need to believe in growth mindset. When their players and students struggle with what they are teaching in their specific contexts, they must reinforce this belief in their students by providing not only specific feedback on how to close the gap between where they are at, and where they need to be, but to also convey that the gap will become smaller as he or she perseveres. Becoming one’s best self in any endeavor is not something that is fixed, but highly malleable, and controllable by the learner.
Second, most OST programs have a culture which can be operationally defined as a community of practice. In short, the group has a common interest, and, hopefully, a passion for the activities in which members participate. In such a community, interactions among members, including participants, staff, and directors, happen frequently, and are both formal and informal. When everyone is on-board, understands the values and assets promoted by the organization, lives these every day, and communicates them within and across groups it is more likely for them to become inculcated by all community members. As with so many things that involve social interactions and social learning, it is much easier to be swimming downstream together than swimming upstream alone.
Third, just as it is critical to operationalize how to embed far transfer assets in near transfer activities, it is also critical to practice how they might be deployed in situations and contexts that are beyond the OST program. Early on, we at Project Coach believed that such assets would transfer osmotically to what ever endeavors participants would encounter. While we have, on occasion, heard from current and former participants that what they had learned in PC all of a sudden began to click in the situation in which they currently found themselves, most participants often find applications beyond Project Coach problematic (i.e., the reason for the dotted lines in Figure 2). Here, I would suggest that we draw from what great coaches do in sports, airlines do to train pilots, the military does in planning a mission, and psychologists do to help patients with anxiety disorders. That is, they identify an array of anticipated scenarios that individuals are likely to encounter and have them practice and work through them until they understand how to deploy assets that they either need to develop or already posses. Using growth mindset again as one example, after a coach and a team’s community of practice in an OST context has reinforced the notion that the acquisition of knowledge and skill are related to the energy, enthusiasm, and guidance provided in practice, and not fixed by inflexible predetermined factors, the participant could engage in scenarios not part of the main themes of the OST program (i.e., Activities B, C, and D in Figure 2). For example, if a team participant is struggling with math in school, a scenario tailored to that student’s specific issues with math, say, solving quadratic equations, can be simulated, and a growth mindset invoked to demonstrate that just as she may have had trouble at first mastering the coordination required in making a lay-up in basketball, the same approach, which applied then, applies now. Of course, just as in the basketball example in which a coach helped a player master the technical aspects of lay-up shooting (i.e., near transfer), the OST program would need to provide a math coach to assist with the technical aspects of solving quadratic equations. Whereas growth mindset, a far transfer asset may provide the energy and willingness to persevere, alone, it is not sufficient. Yet, it, along with many other far transfer assets, is critical for success across a wide range of activities embedded in a multitude of contexts.
What I have attempted to convey in this blog comes from a combination of philosophical beliefs, psychological theory, educational practice, and several decades of experience observing and coaching young people in an OST setting. My primary goal was to attempt to untangle the many things that we attempt to teach in a way that also informs our pedagogical designs. Essentially, I articulated what programs like Project Coach teach into two classifications. The first, I label near-transfer elements, which relates to very specific knowledge and skill that a participant must master in order to perform a specific task, such as teaching a group of young children how to play soccer or basketball. For near-transfer, I propose that practice activities should come as close to game activities as possible, since it is this that players will ultimately be asked to do. The notion of identical elements was mentioned, as was the games-based approach.
While the teaching of near transfer elements are necessary, and perhaps, sufficient, for making it possible for young children to play the games that we utilize in Project Coach, I also contend that far transfer elements, while not necessary or sufficient for guiding game play, are critical to teaching near transfer elements. Far transfer elements are also critical to many other important endeavors in which the acquisition of knowledge and skill are required, and in which a similar learning journey, from novice to expert follows. Here, I contend that a pedagogy that is designed to specifically show how to operationalize the far transfer elements in near transfer context is critical, since how to deploy such general assets in specific situations is not always clear cut. As well, to foster inculcation of far transfer elements, I propose that the community of practice in which the OST program exists, be sensitized and reinforced for teaching far transfer elements both formally and informally in normal day to day interactions.
Finally, I hypothesize that if we want participants to generalize the use of far transfer elements to situations and contexts that are beyond the OST Program, a pedagogy that deploys scenario-based practice is essential. Again, while participants may conceptually understand what far transfer elements are, and why they are important, it is difficult for them to operationalize these elements in novel contexts. Scenario based practice seems like a powerful pedagogical strategy for deconstructing conceptual knowledge into actual behavior that can then be deployed to support learning across a range of activities that go beyond a participants OST life.