What allows some learners to excel not only in a single career, but also in a wide variety of situations? Why do some individuals succeed in so many different environments?
Consider the case of Atul Gawande, one of America’s most famous surgeons. Professionally, he trained to be a general and endocrine surgeon. In the early 2000s, Gawande began publishing books based on his professional experiences, beginning with Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. Later, in 2009, he published his first book targeted at a more general audience, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right, which brought together lessons learned from not only his own medical background, but also the crucial lessons honed by the airline industry that help practitioners operate within uncertainty amidst high-risk environments. In 2012, he repurposed material from The Checklist Manifesto for a very different rhetorical situation: his extraordinarily popular TED Talk, “How do we heal medicine?”. In 2014, he wrote Being Mortal, a searing critique of America’s end-of-life healthcare with his own father’s death as an example.
Throughout all of this, Gawande has remained a highly skilled practitioner of medicine.
To become a successful, specialized practitioner, Gawande needed to complete the proper education, first by attending the right medical school, then by completing the subsequent residencies that allowed him to further hone his craft. This specialized training obviously transferred over to his eventual career. But what allows him to truly stand out, with his books, articles, and speeches, is his ability to re-purpose and generalize certain tactics from other contexts. The idea of checklists was repurposed from one specialized industry to another. And nearly all of Gawande’s publications reflect on his own personal experience to consider what kinds of strategies work for others more generally. Finally, his success in a broad array of contexts (writings published for other surgeons, those published for the healthcare industry more generally, and his writings and speeches targeted towards a general audience) relies on certain rhetorical strategies, such as telling poignant anecdotes, skills that tend to be honed in writing and communication courses rather than medicine.
As an educator might say, Gawande’s success relies heavily on his ability to cognitively transfer knowledge from one area to another. But how? How do people like Gawande perfect the ability to transfer?
Reflective Practitioners and Transfer
The idea of a “reflective practitioner” was developed by Donald Alan Schön, culminating in his book, The Reflective Practioner (1983). His early research and writing on reflective practitioners pioneered an entire approach to learning, especially in writing programs, in part because it clearly demonstrates the link between theories of cognition and the importance of certain writing practices. Kara Taczak and Liane Robertson define a reflective practitioner as
[s]omeone who is continually exposed to different writing situations and develops, through those situations, a repertoire of knowledge that can be integrated and repurposed. This characterization allows for reflection as a theory, as a practice, and as a means for encouraging transfer.
If a reflective practitioner learns to re-purpose certain kinds of knowledge for other contexts, this kind of “learning-to-learn” strategy can be distinguished from the default form of learning that many courses encourage. When students commonly prepare for and eventually complete an assignment, they view the prompt as a set of prescriptions that explain how to succeed in that particular task within the course. A “reflective” assignment, however, will explicitly encourage a student to think beyond a certain part of the course, linking it with other Units, with other courses the student may be taking, and ultimately with highly disparate contexts and environments. Truly reflective assignments ask students to bridge academic and non-academic situations.
But where does this sort of transfer begin?
Prior Knowledge, Metacognition, and Reflective Writing
The key to successful transfer is the ability to integrate knowledge the student already has with new knowledge. A traditional persuasive essay assignment, for example, will prompt a first year writing student to recall what they already know about making arguments and deploy those strategies within a highly formal academic essay. The prior knowledge in this example is the student’s familiarity with debate and argumentation. The new knowledge might be the ability to persuade an academic reader by deploying “they say / I say” rhetorical strategies or successfully integrating research to help prove a claim.
In an effort to foster transfer, a writing instructor might then ask the student to not only attempt a persuasive essay, but then, after the assignment has been drafted and revised, to write about the process of writing the essay. The goal in such a reflective assignment is to prompt the student to recognize the prior knowledge, the new knowledge, and what might carry over (transfer) into other contexts and future situations. “At the heart of the contention is the issue of generalizability,” suggest Kathleen Blake Yancey, Liane Roberston, and Kara Taczak. Certain forms of writing are particularly suited to cultivating this knack for generalizability, repurposing, and remixing. These more reflective writing situations require metacognition, the ability of a student to “to reflect on their process and their knowledge.”
Megacognition is a buzzword associated with reflective learning. Crudely defined, it means something like, “thinking about thinking.” What’s key about metacognition is that it’s a habit of mind—something that has to be practiced. Here’s an informal video introduction to the idea of metacognition:
One of the most important goals for a writer is to learn how to use reflection to help further their educational and career practices. In the very broadest sense, all burgeoning writers must remain attuned to the following questions:
Who am I as a writer? What do I believe about writing? What do I understand about writing? What do I know about writing from previous experiences? How do I write/compose in different situations? Do I write the same way in all situations? How can I use what I learn from one context to the next?
Such metacognitive reflections can be cultivated at various stages within the process and within a writing course. Prewriting exercises, the revision process, and final draft cover letters often prompt students to exercise metacognition. In addition, however, certain reflective writing situations place metacognition center stage. In such assignments, students should keep in mind the bigger goal: to facilitate transfer and become a better learner.
The following chapters will offer a few different strategies for both practicing metacognition and transferring knowledge.
- "Metacognition and The Reflective Writing Practitioner: An Integrated Knowledge Approach," from Contemporary Perspectives on Cognition and Writing, ed. Patricia Portanova, et al, WAC Clearhouse, 2017, p. 221. ↵
- Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, University Press of Colorado, 2014, 6. ↵
- Taczak and Robertson 215. ↵
- Taczak and Robertson 223. ↵