Connecting dots of digital learning

Teachers should have the courage to be less helpful

Patterns are everywhere in this world, the brain is a natural pattern-recognition machine, once the brain has a goal in mind, it tunes the perceptual system to search the environment. Even young toddlers can sort out their toys and stuffs into groups of their own design, but inproper teaching style might ruin human’s innate perceptual skills, according to the research finding by cognitive scientists.

In a 2010 study, researchers at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania found that the comparison between two groups, one group learned the fractions by exploring through a computer module on their own, the other group was taught in a traditional way, the test result is 73% vs. 25%. Even more important is the result held up several months later when they re-tested them.

“I find that often students will try to solve problems by doing only what they’ve been told to do, and if that doesn’t work they give up,” said Joe Wise, a physics instructor at New Roads School, where the study was done. “Here they’re forced to try what makes sense to them and to keep trying. The brain is very good at sorting out patterns if you give it the chance and the right feedback.”

The following content is from Peter Pappas’ blog (Don’t Teach Them Facts – Let Student Discover Patterns, licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0) and New York Times (Brain Calisthenics for Abstract Ideas)


pattern-recognitionDevelop 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.

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, student 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.

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. 


Another good quote from another post : Solve the Problem

It’s a pity we don’t do a better job of teaching pattern recognition in school. Uncovering an underlying pattern is essential to constructing meaning. In school we typically “teach” patterns to students as “facts,” rather than ask students to discover the pattern for themselves. Of course this strips the activity of its real value as a learning strategy, and turns into just another thing to memorize. Asking students to file some pre-selected information into a graphic organizer isn’t analysis – it’s just moving stuff around. True analysis involves doing the challenging work of trying to make sense of information. Powerful learning occurs when students have to answer questions like - Is this a sequence? Is it cause and effect? How would I organize this material into categories? Could I explain my system to someone else? 


More thoughts : The consideration in classrooms might be “how to let students find patterns by themselves more efficiently” ? Technologies which provide well-designed programs could be the answer. There was a TED talk by Conrad Wolfram : Teaching Kids Real Math with Computers. Conrad sheds a light on our education transformation !

(Image  Flickr/ doug88888)

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