Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns

4794114114_dd895561bf 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

13 Replies to “Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns”

  1. It’s sort of interesting to see Piaget, Montessori, and the constructivists rediscovered. And to think that maybe, just maybe, someone might realize that the child does the learning!

  2. How true – I guess we learn the simplest things last.

    I was asked by the Smithsonian to demonstrate my “student as historian” approach using some objects from their collection. My goal was to let the student be the observer and in this case discover continuity and change in historic designs of bicycles. No graphic organize to limit them. Kids can figure it out for themselves

    I put it together as a Prezi – a very cool zooming presentation platform. Here’s the result The History of the Bicycle: A Prezi DBQ

  3. Kim Sutton, who is one of the better math PD teachers, has a slogan she encourages teachers to chant and internalize.

    “All mathematics is based on patterns.”

    She teaches this strategy to help students and teachers remember that it’s all about being aware. She has you put in a poster within arm’s reach and all year, like a yelleader at a football game, you pluck it off the wall and help them remember…”all mathematics is based on patterns.” (there are several other ideas she likes you to use).

    When I started teaching math, this made sense to me. But then I’m mostly a science teacher and science is all about patterns (concepts) that are applied in different ways. Lynn Erickson calls it finding the threads that bind the world together. In my classroom once they understand the idea of convection currents and density….we have the whole 6th grade year of earth science de-mystified and they love it when we study something new and underneath what’s going on is one of those concepts.

    I couldn’t agree with you more. And it’s a powerful way to teach middle schoolers. They feel empowered as “smart” kids.

  4. Mratzel,

    I love that chant – it should become a universal practice.

    Not long ago I did a post that illustrates the problems our students face because we don’t require them to observe and recognize patterns. Stop Worrying About Shanghai, What PISA Test Really Tells Us About American Students

    I used a sample sequencing question from the PISA test.

    We spend a lot of time in school getting students to learn sequential information – timelines, progressions, life cycle of a moth, steps for how to. Typically the teacher teaches the student the sequence and the student correctly identifies the sequence for teacher on the test. Thus we treat a sequence as a ordered collection of facts to be learned, not as a thinking process for students to use. This memorization reduces the student’s “mastery” of the chronology to lower order thinking.

    When students are asked to observe a process and develop a sequence they have an opportunity to use a full spectrum of higher-order thinking skills – they must recognize patterns (analyze), determine causality (evaluate) and then decide how they would communicate what they’ve learned to others (create). Sequencing can be taught across the curriculum at a variety of grade levels – we simply have to ask the students to observe and do the thinking

  5. “Instead of discovering patterns on their own, student are “taught” to memorize patterns developed by someone else.”

    This resonates with something I’ve been thinking about since the Nat’l Chinese Language Conference 2011, that language learning is pattern recognition, and that we should show rather then tell. In Chinese there are lots of sentence structures that students usually memorize, given a pattern like subject+verb+object. I’ve been trying to move away from having them memorize the structures; rather I try to give them lots of examples then ask them to tell me the patterns they’ve recognized. I really hope this builds a stronger foundation and a more authentic “sense” of the language.

    I’ve also gotten the more advanced students involved. They make videos demonstrating how to use certain expressions in Chinese, and I show them to novice students.

  6. Jingwoan Chang,
    Thank you for sharing how the central message of this post applies to your work with Chinese language students. I’m fascinated by how ideas can be applied in different settings.
    Cheers ~ Peter

  7. Frank,
    Thanks for sharing the links to the website – “Action-Reaction.”
    Great stuff!
    I especially like the “Angry Birds Physics Lesson”
    Best ~ Peter

  8. Do you have an email Peter? One of my goals for teaching third grade this year is to increase the level of critical thinking in my classroom. I loved the model i saw . Do you have a book? so many questions….

  9. Hi Peter,

    Thanks for the blog especially the post “Have the courage to be less helpful” How would you do this in a MS Social Studies class? I am thinking of presenting students with primary sources from a time period and having them draw their conclusions. But frankly, I’m not sure if they have sufficient background information to come up with “the appropriate” conclusions, so I’ll add some secondary sources, but if the students are to “do history” I’d like them to draw their own conclusions. Any advice? Also, you said stop modeling/have them figure it out? Are you saying don’t show them how to find the main idea, to look at the title, or how to annotate? How about framing the learning with an essential question like What causes change? and having students use the documents to figure that out. Is that too much because I’m already telling students that these document show change? Or maybe, the problem is the question: what causes change?


    1. Hi GA,

      Glad you liked the post and thanks for writing.

      First off, the point you make about students lacking background info is an important one. many primary source docs require too much background to allow a ll students to “do the history” therefore they need to be selected with some care. Of course you can also have kids working in teams with differentiated sources. The over reliance of background knowledge is explored in this post Students Doing History Beats Test Prep

      Homefront America is a sample of how you can mix different types of source material. This does scaffold the work with a selection of graphic organizers, and uses an essential question.

      For a series of historic units I created using essential questions see: Essential Questions in American History: The Great Debates

      In contrast, Analyzing the History of the Bicycle: A Prezi DBQ is an interesting of example of asking students to historic analysis without relying on graphic organizers – instead actually invited students to develop their own continuity and change model based on designs of historic bicycles

      You should also download my SlideShare Student as Historian for many more resources and lesson ideas.

      Hope this helps!

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