Learning Through Patterns

Posted on January 31, 2012

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I just stumbled across this article in the NYT:

Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas

The basic idea is that people are very good at recognizing patterns. If you show someone an equation and a few graphs and have them guess at which graph represents the equation then they won’t likely be able to accurately identify the correct graph. If you do this over and over again, though, with no additional help, the person will start to develop a sense, one they may not even be able to verbalize, that informs their choice. They’ll start to recognize patterns and, although they may not be able to explain them yet, they will enable them to make accurate choices. As they progress further they will become more able to figure out and verbalize the patterns.

The retention gains around this were shown to be quite significant, which I think is important. The technique is not calling for memorization of a technique. It is asking the student to make a discovery and is using the process of pattern recognition, a process that we, as humans, are very good at. It allows for greater autonomy  in that the student is not following instructions, but rather making figuring something out. They have to make theories and test them, and the only way to verify them is to apply them against the problem. They will likely feel a sense of progress as well as they start making more and more accurate choices.

The more we can encourage a sense of discovery, an autonomous environment that leads to a natural sense of progress with the learning, the more the learning itself will motivate them.

I think it could be a very valuable approach to education.

The downside is that it’s hard to create the right exercises to allow for the student to make frequent enough progress. If they don’t make progress, especially at the beginning of the exercise, then they’ll likely give up before ever discovering a pattern. The process isn’t intuitive enough for people to think, “If I just stick with this, I’ll discover a pattern”. If they can get a sense of progress before giving up then that should be enough to motivate them to continue, but it’s very difficult to get that flow down.

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Posted in: General, Puzzles