Reception to key stage 1: Achieving transfer of learning

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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Reception, key stage 1 and beyond – learning transfer is a crucial part of effective education. Juliet Mickelburgh considers the EYFS Characteristics of Effective Learning and how we might transfer this key learning from the early years into primary

In his presentation at the World Education Summit in March this year, Professor John Hattie spoke about learning transfer. His definition of learning is: “The process of developing sufficient surface knowledge to then move to deeper understanding such that one can appropriately transfer this learning to new tasks and situations.” (Lock, 2021)

Hattie describes three aspects to learning: surface learning (the content and knowledge); deep learning (the how, connections between ideas); and transfer of learning (the move from surface to deep learning, consolidating and transferring to other domains).

He explains that the surface level knowledge is needed for children to move to deep learning and transfer. He associates words such as “discovery”, “enquiry”, “patterns” and “problem-based” with the transfer of learning.

It seems to be widely agreed that although the transfer of learning is an important goal of effective education, it is not easy to achieve.

While the early years is not exempt from this challenge, the Characteristics of Effective Learning within the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) provide guidance for just that – effective learning. And Hattie’s language around learning transfer is reflected in how they are described.

Characteristics of Effective Learning and learning transfer

The Characteristics of Effective Learning are about how children learn. The new EYFS framework (DfE, 2021) coming into effect from September, details three board areas for its Characteristics of Effective Learning:

  • Playing and exploring: Children investigate and experience things, and “have a go”.
  • Active learning: Children concentrate and keep on trying if they encounter difficulties, and enjoy achievements.
  • Creating and thinking critically: Children have and develop their own ideas, make links between ideas, and develop strategies for doing things.

There are two new non-statutory guidance documents available for schools and settings from September 2021: the new Development Matters (DfE, 2020) and Birth to Five Matters, published earlier this year. The Characteristics of Effective Learning are expanded upon in detail within both documents (with some differences in wording).

Birth to Five Matters explains that: “These learning dispositions, behaviours and habits of mind are particularly important in the EYFS because they build the foundations needed to support children to become strong lifelong learners and independent thinkers.”

Here are some examples from both documents:

  • Know more, so (children) feel confident about coming up with their own ideas (Development Matters).
  • Make more links between those ideas (Development Matters).
  • Planning and making decisions about how to approach a task, solve a problem and reach a goal. Flexibly changing strategy as needed (Birth to Five Matters).
  • Taking a risk, engaging in new experiences, and learning by trial and error (Birth to Five Matters).

Play opportunities

In Reception classes and early years settings these learning dispositions are developed through play opportunities as well as guided and direct teaching as appropriate. Teachers and practitioners can use a variety of pedagogical approaches which help to develop the Characteristics of Effective Learning. For instance, scaffolding and sustained shared thinking can be effective and can facilitate the transfer of learning.

Scaffolding provides steps towards doing something new independently, building on what a child knows or can do. Using their knowledge of the child, and of child development, the teacher supports and guides, perhaps by modelling something, asking a question, or providing a particular resource.

Sustained shared thinking is “an episode in which two or more individuals ‘work together’ in an intellectual way to solve a problem, clarify a concept, evaluate activities, extend a narrative, etc. Both parties must contribute to the thinking and it must develop and extend” (Siraj-Blatchford et al, 2002).

Independence is a key aspect of learning transfer. While these approaches involve the educator offering different kinds of support to a child, they also work towards a child independently making links, solving problems and discovering – in other words learning transfer.

The encouragement to “take a risk” gives children the confidence to apply what they know to a new experience without worrying about it “going wrong”. Teachers and practitioners model seeing their own “mistakes” as opportunities for something else to happen. From this space comes the flexibility to adapt, to think about what you already know and apply a different strategy.

Learning transfer in key stage 1

When children transition from Reception to year 1, very often the classroom environment and methods of teaching move away from learning through play. Is this the moment that we lose sight of the Characteristics of Effective Learning? Do we move towards a more knowledge-focused curriculum and away from the depth that supports learning transfer?

On deeper learning, Dr Julian Grenier, author of the new Development Matters, writes: “Depth in early learning is much more important than covering lots of things in a superficial way.” (Grenier 2020; see also Grenier 2021)

This resonates with the consolidation of deeper understanding that is required for learning transfer.

A good place to look for relevance at key stage 1 is the concept of “mastery” in maths. Charlie Stripp, director of the National Centre of Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics, has explained that: “If understanding in any mathematical area is deep (not superficial) then it will mean the learner has recognised and grasped connections between the concept in question and concepts in other areas of maths.” (Stripp, 2016)

This is the deep learning and transfer described by Hattie. But for this to happen, Mr Stripp adds: “It is necessary for the learner to have acquired rapid and accurate recall of fundamental mathematical facts and concepts.” The knowledge provides the foundation for the depth and transfer of learning.

Five reflections on learning transfer for key stage 1

So, using the Characteristics of Effective Learning as our guide, what approaches can support learning transfer at key stage 1?

1, How are the children feeling? We know that for any kind of learning to happen, children need to feel safe and secure. In addition, positive feelings can actually facilitate understanding and deeper learning. Adeyemi Stembridge suggests that when considering transfer of learning, teachers ask themselves: “What do I want my students to feel? What students understand deeply enough to apply in a range of contexts is always that which has been embedded in a rich, emotional narrative.” (Ferlazzo, 2017). How can you make the learning meaningful and relevant for children?

2, How do you approach mistakes? We all know that learning from our mistakes is a way to grow and deepen our understanding. Reflect on how this is modelled by all the adults in your school.

3, How do you give feedback to children? Feedback can be a powerful tool for supporting learning transfer and requires a whole-school approach. If you are reflecting on how feedback is offered to children, then you will already be thinking about key aspects such as accessibility, relevance and making it meaningful to the individual child.

4, How do you encourage independent learning? Think about the accessibility of resources, the use of routines, time for children to talk to each other and share their learning and understanding in paired and group work, as well as staff knowing when to step in to guide a child, and when to step back and let them try on their own.

5, How do children make connections with learning that happens outside school? Children continue to make links in their learning when they are at home. How can you involve families in the learning that happens in school and support engagement at home?


A few years ago I was lucky enough to hear the University of Cambridge’s Dr Sara Baker talk about flexible thinking in the early years. She opened with a list of what employers say they look for in their employees, including resilience, initiative, adaptability and problem-solving.

Similar to Hattie’s words, these are the learning dispositions that are embedded in the Characteristics of Effective Learning. So, focusing on learning transfer helps foster the skills and qualities children need for school, employment and, I would argue, for life.

  • Juliet Mickelburgh is education advisor at Tapestry, an online learning journal. She is also a former primary school teacher and writes for the Foundation Stage Forum. Visit

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