Teachers like to think that no matter how useless their lessons appear, they are “teaching their students how to think.”  Under the heading of “Transfer of Learning,” educational psychologists have spent over a century looking for evidence that this sort of learning actually occurs. 

The results are decidedly negative.  Learning is highly specific.  One decent summary:

[T]ransfer is
especially important to learning theory and educational practice because
very often the kinds of transfer hoped for do not occur. The classic
investigation of this was conducted by the renowned educational
psychologist E. L. Thorndike in the first decades of the 20th century.
Thorndike examined the proposition that studies of Latin disciplined the
mind, preparing people for better performance in other subject matters.
Comparing the performance in other academic subjects of students who
had taken Latin with those who had not, Thorndike (1923) found no
advantage of Latin studies whatsoever. In other experiments, Thorndike
and Woodworth (1901) sought, and generally failed to find, positive
impact of one sort of learning on another…

Thorndike’s early and troubling findings have reemerged again and again in other investigations…

Most educational psychologists are dismayed by what they’ve discovered about Transfer of Learning.  (Here‘s one eloquent example).  After reviewing the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, though, I realized that researchers’ moping is premature.  Despite everything, the glass is half full. 

How so?  Well, the NAAL finds that American adults’ literacy and numeracy is shockingly low.  Many high school graduates have trouble correctly interpreting a t.v. guide or calculating the total savings from $.05/gallon savings on 140 gallons of oil.  If knowledge reliably transferred, we would have to conclude that most American adults are simply unemployable.  After all, if people readily generalize from specific knowledge to general knowledge, their lack of general knowledge strongly suggests their lack of specific knowledge.

The reality is happily different.  Despite their low literacy and numeracy, Americans perform a wide variety of jobs competently.  How? 

Step 1: Specialize. 

Step 2: Practice, practice, practice. 

If they work for the post office, they learn how to correctly sort mail.  If they work at McDonald’s, they learn how to make fries and make change.  If they install automatic garage door openers, they learn lots of details about garage doors.  The result: We get mail, food, and convenient access to our garages.

Wouldn’t it be better if this task-specific competence naturally blossomed into across-the-board excellence?  Sure.  But that’s probably not on the menu.  Instead of bemoaning American workers’ mediocre literacy and numeracy, we should be grateful that millions of Americans who learn little in school still manage to learn useful trades on the job.  Seriously.