Jay McTighe: Power of Long-Term Transfer Goals

As a full-time education consultant, Allison Zmuda works with educators to grow ideas on how to make learning for students challenging, possible and worthy of the attempt. Over the past 19 years, Zmuda has shared curricular, assessment, and instructional ideas, shown illustrative examples, and offered practical strategies of how to get started.

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Jay McTigheJay McTighe brings a wealth of experience developed during a rich and varied career in education. An accomplished author, Jay has co-authored 12 books, including the best-selling Understanding by Design® series with Grant Wiggins. He is a showcased speaker at national and international conferences and regularly provides professional development sessions for schools and districts. In this featured interview, McTighe recommends that educators keep long-term transfer goals in mind when they design curriculum.

Zmuda: What is a long-term transfer goal?
McTighe: Grant Wiggins and I have described transfer goals as the effective uses of understanding, knowledge, and skill that we seek in the long run; i.e., what we want students to be able to do when they confront new challenges – both in and outside of school. If we take that goal seriously, we propose that it has huge implications for how we plan curriculum, what we teach, and what tasks we give to our students.
The Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts do a good job of identifying long term transfer goals and these are specified in their Anchor Standards for College and Career Readiness. For example, in Writing and in Speaking one of the long term transfer goals is for learners to make a cogent argument and support their argument with valid reasoning and appropriate evidence. In Mathematics, we want students to be able to apply the mathematics that they know to solve real world problems that they have never seen before; i.e., transfer. Embedded in that transfer goal are the important elements of mathematical reasoning, strategic thinking, and habits of mind such as persistence. We propose that a small number of similar goals be targeted in every subject area.
In addition to long-term transfer goals in academic subjects, we should also consider such goals linked to the broader mission of schools. For example, the capacity to be a life-long learner – to learn new things in your life and on the job without having to be “told” what to learn or be overtly directed. Another long-term transfer goal is that we hope that students will lead a healthy life as a result of the decisions and actions that they make on a daily basis. In summary, long-term transfer goals specify a small number of the most important performance outcomes: what we want students to be able to do with their learning both within and across subject areas.
Many schools and districts have Mission statements proclaiming such long-term goals for their students (e.g., critical thinker, collaborative team member, creative problem solver, responsible user of technology, etc. Yet these important outcomes they can easily fall through the cracks given the pressures of content coverage and test prep, exacerbated by high stakes accountability testing. Indeed, too much of today’s testing, and concomitant teaching, seems to be fixated on the means (knowledge and skills) not the ends.
Educators can easily lose sight of their long-term aims, and meaningful learning and student motivation are the casualties. Most students don’t relish a diet of test-prep teaching, yet all too often that is what the curriculum has become. The ever present student question, “Why do we have to learn this?” is generally not answered satisfactorily by a test-prep curriculum. As Grant Wiggins is fond of saying “the goal of schooling is not to get good at school.” The goal of school is to get good at the demands of life and those are invariably embedded in transfer goals and related performance tasks.
Zmuda: So, how do we enable those long-term transfer goals to flourish within and across subjects? How do we make “room” for long-term transfer goals by design?
McTighe: Identifying a small number of long term transfer goals will require a rethinking of traditional approaches to curriculum design, assessment, instruction, and even the structure of schooling. A focus on important long-term transfer goals calls for educators to shift from a content “coverage” mentality to a performance orientation, like in the arts, athletics and extra-curriculars.
The term, curriculum, is derived from Latin, “the course to be run.” A course implies a destination, and the destination should be autonomous performance; i.e., the ability of the learner over time to apply their knowledge and skills to worthy tasks they have never seen before. The implication for curriculum design is straightforward: We need to plan the curriculum backwards from a small number of long-term transfer goals within and across subject areas. Think of soccer as an example. The “game” is clearly known, and everyone works toward effective performance, from youth soccer coaches to World Cup professionals. Metaphorically, then, we need to ask ourselves, “what is the ‘game’ we want students to be able to play with the knowledge and skills we are teaching?”
Operationally, we need to construct a series of recurring performance tasks across the grades to give students opportunities to practice and learn and improve their performance related to the transfer goals. As we move up the grades, we should see the tasks becoming more sophisticated and complex. We should also see that teacher support and scaffolding is reduced over time, so that autonomous performance by the learner becomes the norm. By the time students are in their later years of high school, these student performances should be authentic and valued in the world beyond the school.
It is the authentic and genuine performances that we are after in the arts and athletics that helps students see the purpose of learning the skills and makes it more likely that they will put forth effort in practice. Kids know they are learning their lines because they are performing the play in three weeks. They know they have to work hard on the drills because they have a big game on Saturday. If we frame our curriculum around transfer goals and authentic performances, they will be more likely to see the value of the requisite content and skills as necessary for success at worthy tasks.
Zmuda: Training students for autonomous performance on real world, complex tasks comes with inevitable failures and the need for rethinking and revising. What suggestions do you have for educators on how you can support students when they struggle?
McTighe: There are several important facets to consider when helping students deal with inevitable failures in learning. The first order of business is to make clear to students, parents and others what our long term goals are. Without clear and worthy goals, what motivation does anyone have to persist in the face of failure? We only persist if it’s worth persisting toward, we need to have worthy goal. Just covering content for its own sake (to pass a teach made or state test) is insufficiently robust and motivating goals for learners.
Secondly, we need to be very overt about a truism in learning and in life – that mistakes are inevitable and necessary for improvement. You are not likely to achieve a high-level, authentic transfer based performance the first time out. You may not achieve it on your tenth or twentieth try. The road to improvement requires persistence and learning from mistakes.
Third, learners need feedback in order to learn from mistakes. Giving students a “B+” or a “good job” is not feedback. All teachers need to think like coaches of sports, music, and drama and provide clear, specific, and timely feedback on performances that matter.
When it comes to feedback, learners have an important responsibility as well. They need to seek and pay attention to the feedback, instead of getting defensive when someone makes a suggestion or offers an observation. Over time, we want students to be able to self-assess so that they can learn from mistakes without having to wait for someone else to tell them what they need to do. In conjunction with self-assessment, students should be expected to set goals based on feedback and monitor their progress toward those goals. This is what self-directed, life-long learners do!
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