Friday, July 17, 2009

Conspiracy Theories: Patterns, Teaching, and Thinking

The human brain loves patterns so much it can take random puzzle pieces and construct seemingly coherent, if wildly implausible, pictures. “The CIA stockpiled lederhosen in case of an Alpine leg virus epidemic, causing the severe shortage of appropriate menswear for high school productions of The Sound of Music.” See? Random pieces strewn together to create a wild yet coherent picture—a conspiracy theory.

While interesting and entertaining, conspiracy theories reveal important principles for teaching, learning, and thinking.

The brain constructs meaning via patterns, even occasionally imposing patterns to make meaning from random data. As John Medina explains, “We…are terrific pattern matchers, constantly assessing our environment for similarities, and we tend to remember things if we think we have seen them before.”1 Patterns provide a gateway to prior experience, and prior experience provides reference points for constructing new understanding. “Patterns are paths for memories to follow,”2 explains Judy Willis. When patterns fail to emerge from sorted data, the brain either ignores the data or imposes a pattern on it—hence, conspiracy theories.

Researchers suggest teachers should develop students’ pattern-recognition capacities: “The idea that experts recognize features and patterns that are not noticed by novices is potentially important for improving instruction…One dimension of acquiring greater competence appears to be the increased ability to segment the perceptual field (learning how to see). Research on expertise suggests the importance of providing students with learning experiences that specifically enhance their abilities to recognize meaningful patterns of information.”3 Judy WIllis agrees: “Education is about increasing the patterns that students can use, recognize, and communicate. As the ability to see and work with patterns expands, the executive functions are enhanced. Whenever new material is presented in such a way that students see relationships, they generate greater brain cell activity (forming new neural connections) and achieve more successful long-term memory storage and retrieval.”4

By using patterns, the brain is able to connect ideas from disparate disciplines. The conspiracy theory in the opening paragraph features ideas from government, virology, economics, and musical theatre. Sure, the example is ludicrously wild, but it demonstrates the brain’s capacity to weave tapestries with threads from different spools. As the mind perceives patterns within a discipline’s content, it can seek, and often find, the same pattern within other disciplines. This enables the overlaying of one discipline with another, the identifying of connections between the disciplines, and the emergence of new ideas that combine concepts from multiple disciplines. A new tapestry is woven with thread from different spools.

According to Howard Gardner, such a “synthesizing mind” is now a “core competence”: “The ability to knit together information from disparate sources into a coherent whole is vital today. The amount of accumulated knowledge is reportedly doubling every 2-3 years. Sources of information are vast and disparate, and individuals crave coherence and integration.”5

Students who do not perceive patterns miss opportunities for beneficial interdisciplinary thinking: “In their English classes, young persons may learn how to write effective prose; but if they fail to transport at least part of those lessons across the hallway to history class or to biology lab assignments, then they have missed an opportunity to link compositional strategies. Adolescents may be exposed to causal reasoning in their physics classes; but if they draw no lessons about argumentation in history or geometry class, then this form of thinking needs to be retaught.”6

How, then, do we teach to foster multi-disciplinary thinking? I hesitate to suggest thinking like a conspiracy theorist, but to a degree, that’s part of the answer.

Consider an earth science unit—volcanoes, earthquakes, mountain formation, etc. As the teacher explores the content’s details, a few “conspiratorial” questions can help:
  • What are the major ideas in this unit?
  • How can I “connect the dots”—what are the relationships between those ideas?
  • What succinct, general statement communicates the relationships?
With the previously mentioned unit, the teacher may notice that internal forces/changes and external forces/changes are prominent ideas. How are these dots connected? Internal forces can influence external changes; external forces can influence internal changes. Succinctly? The internal (or inside) can affect the external (or outside), and the external can affect the internal.

Now, as the teacher teaches the material, she frequently references the pattern and engages students in thinking about how the material illustrates it.

Take another look at the pattern. Can you think of other places, other disciplines where the same pattern can be seen? How about characters in literature? Do internal forces (beliefs, values, motives) affect external elements (actions, dialogue)? Do external forces (character, events) affect internal elements (beliefs, values, motives)? Do the internal and external ever mingle and cause mutual change in other disciplines?

Instruction that emphasizes patterns creates opportunities for cross-discipline thinking. Concepts and skills get transferred (Constructing a geometric proof can help me write that persuasive essay), ideas merge to enable critical thinking (The inner turmoil at Company X seems like the pressure build-up along a fault line, which leads me to predict…), and new analogies empower “well-motivated leaps” (If I envision the website as a real estate agent’s showing of a new house…).7
With access to information on a constant and meteoric increase, knowing how connect data from disparate sources and disciplines—how to use patterns to recognize and use interdisciplinary connections—becomes equally constant and meteoric in its increasing necessity. Thinking a bit like a conspiracy theorist, connecting concepts into coherent patterns, can help us structure our teaching in ways that increase student ability and potential for interdisciplinary thinking.

  1. Medina, J., Brain Rules (Seattle, WA: Pear Press, 2008), 82.
  2. Willis, J., Research Based Strategies to Ignite Student Learning (Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2006), 15.
  3. Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R., eds., How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School (Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1999), 24.
  4. Willis, 15.
  5. Gardner, H., Five Minds for the Future (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2006), 46.
  6. Ibid., 64-65.
  7. Ibid., 66.

1 comment:

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

Check out this quote from Tim Hurson's THINK BETTER: "When it comes to learning and recall, patterns can be more important than data."