Develop a classification system – analyze patterns, create a schema, evaluate where specific elements belong. Sounds like a very sophisticated exercise. Not really, young toddlers do it all the time – sorting out their toys and household stuff into groups of their own design. They may not be able to explain their thinking, but hand them another item and watch them purposely place it into one of their groups. They have designed a system.
Humans experience the world in patterns, continually trying to answer the question – what is this? Remembering where we’ve encountered things before and assessing new items for their similarities and differences. Someone once asked Picasso if it was difficult to draw a face. His reply, “it’s difficult not to draw one.” We see “faces” everywhere.
Filling out a Venn diagram isn’t analysis – it’s information filing.
It’s unfortunate that student don’t get to use their innate perceptual skills more often in the classroom. Instead of discovering patterns on their own, students are “taught” to memorize patterns developed by someone else. Rather than do the messy work of having to figure out what’s going on and how to group what they see – students are saddled with graphic organizers which take all the thinking out of the exercise. Filling out a Venn diagram isn’t analysis – it’s information filing. Instead of being given a variety of math problems to solve that require different problem-solving strategies, students are taught a specific process then given ten versions of the same problem to solve for homework. No pattern recognition required here – all they have to do is simply keep applying the same procedures to new data sets. Isn’t that what spreadsheets are for?
A recent article in the NY Times “Brain Calisthenics Help Break Down Abstract Ideas, Researchers Say” (June 7, 2011) suggest that teachers could benefit from harnessing student pattern recognition powers to deepen their understanding of more abstract principles.
Teachers, have the courage to be less helpful.
For years school curriculums have emphasized top-down instruction, especially for topics like math and science. Learn the rules first — the theorems, the order of operations, Newton’s laws — then make a run at the problem list at the end of the chapter. Yet recent research has found that true experts have something at least as valuable as a mastery of the rules: gut instinct, an instantaneous grasp of the type of problem they’re up against. Like the ballplayer who can “read” pitches early, or the chess master who “sees” the best move, they’ve developed a great eye.
Now, a small group of cognitive scientists is arguing that schools and students could take far more advantage of this same bottom-up ability, called perceptual learning. The brain is a pattern-recognition machine, after all, and when focused properly, it can quickly deepen a person’s grasp of a principle, new studies suggest. Better yet, perceptual knowledge builds automatically: There’s no reason someone with a good eye for fashion or wordplay cannot develop an intuition for classifying rocks or mammals or algebraic equations, given a little interest or motivation.
Educators – it’s time to stop all the modeling. Get rid of all the canned graphic organizers. Have the courage to be less helpful. Be patient and let students recognize their own patterns. It’s messy work, but its where the learning will take place. It’s also the key to the mastery of the Common Core standards.
Image Flickr/ doug88888