Design Principle

Teach for Transfer

Reflecting on the transferability of concepts and principles across contexts in biology and society

One can say that a primary aim of education in general is to achieve understandings in students that will transfer out of the classroom into the real world and to novel phenomena.

One set of tools that educators use to cultivate these transfer skills is the engagement with analogies, metaphors, models and narratives. These are equally important and prevalent in scientific inquiry and science communication. Important in the engagement with and reflection on analogies is the explicit mapping of similarities and differences between analogous phenomena, particularly in terms of principles, processes and behaviors as opposed to mere surface features (Glynn, 2008; Harrison & Treagust, 2006).

Continuous engagement with analogy mappings across content material helps train students’ understanding of the nature of higher-level principles studied in models, experiments, or across case studies in biology and society, and to understand that a diversity of context-specific instantiations of these principles may be across these contexts.

Therefore, one of our overarching teaching tools used across lesson materials is comprised of scaffolded analogy mapping activities that should help students link specific example phenomena to generalized principles (i.e. conceptual relationships between) in evolution, behavioral ecology, and sustainability.

Examples include:

  • the interactions between conditions, behaviors, and outcomes (Ciarrochi et al., 2016; Hayes et al., 2017; Ostrom, 2009),
  • principles of and conditions for (human) cooperation (Ostrom, 2009; Wilson, Ostrom, & Cox, 2013),
  • principles of information processing and collective decision making (Heyes & Huber, 2000; Kahneman, 2011; Seeley, 2010; Sweller & Sweller, 2006),
  • behavioral dynamics guiding human social interactions (Bowles & Gintis, 2011; Bowles & Polonía-Reyes, 2012; Gintis et al., 2005),
  • principles of moral and social psychology (Haidt, 2007, 2012),
  • processes of psychological flexibility (Kashdan, 2010; Hayes, Strosahl, & Wilson, 2012).


  • Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). A Cooperative Species. Human reciprocity and its evolution. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.
  • Bowles, S., & Polanía-Reyes, S. (2012). Economic incentives and social preferences: Substitutes or complements? Journal of Economic Literature, 50(2), 368–425.
  • Ciarrochi, J., Atkins, P. W. B., Hayes, L. L., Sahdra, B. K., & Parker, P. (2016). Contextual positive psychology: Policy recommendations for implementing positive psychology into schools. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(OCT), 1–16.
  • Gintis, H., Bowles, S., Boyd, R. T., & Fehr, E. (2005). Moral Sentiments and Material Interests. The Foundations of Cooperation in Economic Life. (H. Gintis, S. Bowles, R. Boyd, & E. Fehr, Eds.). Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press.
  • Glynn, S. M. (2008). Making science concepts meaningful to students: Teaching with analogies. In: S. Mikelskis-Seifert, U. Ringelband, & M. Brückmann (Eds.), Four Decades of Research in Science Education: From Curriculum Development to Quality Improvement (pp. 113–125). Münster, Germany: Waxmann.
  • Haidt, J. (2007). The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology. Science, 316(5827), 998–1002.
  • Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York, NY, USA: Pantheon Books.
  • Harrison, A. G. & Treagust, D. F. (2006). Teaching and Learning with Analogies: Friend or foe? In: Aubusson, P. J., Harrison, A. G., & Ritchie, S. M. (eds.). Metaphor and Analogy in Science Education. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Springer. p. 11 - 24.
  • Haskell, R. E. (2001). Transfer of Learning. Cognition, Instruction, and Reasoning. Academic Press.
  • Hayes, S. C., Strosahl, K. D., & Wilson, K. G. (2012). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. The Process and Practice of Mindful Change (2nd ed.). New York, NY, USA: The Guilford Press.
  • Hayes, S. C., Sanford, B. T., & Chin, F. T. (2017). Carrying the baton: Evolution science and a contextual behavioral analysis of language and cognition. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 6(3), 314–328.
  • Heyes, C., & Huber, L. (2000). The Evolution of Cognition. Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press. Retrieved from
  • Kahneman, D., & Klein, G. (2009). Conditions for intuitive expertise: a failure to disagree. The American Psychologist, 64(6), 515–526.
  • Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York, NY, USA: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
  • Kashdan, T. B. (2010). Psychological Flexibility as a Fundamental Aspect of Health. Clin Psychol Rev., 30(7), 865–878.
  • Ostrom, E. (2009). A General Framework for Analyzing Sustainability of Social-Ecological Systems. Science, 325(5939), 419–422.
  • Seeley, T. D. (2010). Honeybee Democracy. Princeton, New Jersey, USA: Princeton University Press.
  • Sweller, J., & Sweller, S. (2006). Natural information processing systems. Evolutionary Psychology, 4, 434–458.
  • Wilson, D. S., Ostrom, E., & Cox, M. E. (2013). Generalizing the core design principles for the efficacy of groups. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 90, S21–S32.