Thinking in Patterns: It’s not all that hard. But what more can be learned by looking at the relationships between things?
CHARLOTTE, NC. As we continue to examine what we know (and what we don’t!) about 21st-century learning, I’ve recently stumbled back upon a foundational element of our cognitive process: the search for patterns.
As adults (including those parents helping kids with homework!) we might not even call them “patterns”. But look back. The trail is clear ..
Since our school days in math class we traced relationships, from number lines to fractions to geometry and beyond, gaining our first inkling about how our world relates. Positive and negative. Numerator and denominator. Slope and intersect. Sine and Cosine. A bit abstract for some, of course; many were happy to leave it all behind. But have we truly left it behind? In your mind, sneak back into art or music class. The language of patterns literally leapt from THOSE class rooms. So often we were learning about relationships (across a color palette, say, or discerning nuances among different styles, or notes, or textures) .. and ultimately .. it came down to learning how to navigate similarities and differences.
Thinking in patterns lies in stark contrast to rote memorization model, where everything is classified, discrete, and frozen. We can learn that way too, of course. But relying upon a heavily structured, pre-defined taxonomy of knowledge (or brush strokes, or notes on a staff) can get top heavy quickly. And it is, I think, fundamentally convergent and limiting ..
Contrast that with the alternative. There is a flow of options available when we learn through pattern matching. In this learning mode, the flow of insights is often continuous, providing us with a steady supply of raw materials, as options. Our thinking here is expansive and more open ended, as we seek not to classify but to connect, not to name but to relate.
It is easy to label these thinking models ‘left brain’ vs. ‘right brain’ because there has been so much historical debate. The CW then (and sometimes more recently) would hold that left brainers seek to reason and be rational, and right brainers favor imagination and creativity. The debate hasn’t always been friendly. More recent f-MRI scans tell a more holistic story, but the diverse brain functions are still there. I often refer to Iain McGilchrist’s very excellent 2010 RSA piece on the topic as more recent thinking on this. It’s as good a stake in the ground as any I’ve seen, and worth a look.
My most recent personal epiphany (and the one that inspired this post) came from my piano teacher, Natalie. I was complaining about the number of notes she was asking me to play in arpeggios, and my complete inability to memorize all those keys. Her response: “Ah yes, grasshopper” (ok, not in so many words, but I digress) “.. look closer: the interval between the 1st, 3rd and 5th of each chord repeats. It’s a pattern, and if you can learn that ..”
And so I did. My arpeggio playing skills have improved rapidly.
Maybe we can score some more breakthroughs on the topic of “thinking in patterns” .. as we explore the implications. Seems it’s a topic with broad application. Let’s tackle these questions:
- Q1. How does thinking in patterns differ from learning by classifying?
- Q2. Can we introduce pattern thinking in domains historically given to structure, taxonomies and rules?
- Q3. Is the left-brain vs. right-brain debate still relevant?
- Q4. Which discipline thrives in teaching patterns? Art? Math? Music? Do English and Science have a chance?
Hope you will join us for #cdna on MON 6/16 8p EDT. We’ll discuss, reflect, and even brainstorm a bit .. in hoping we might learn a few things. Seems we often do!
Chris (aka @sourcepov)