How We Learn: The Brain Likes Patterns

06 Jul
2020

The brain looks for patterns and fills in the blanks. It uses patterns to understand the relationship between things—putting them in context. 

The human brain is a pattern-recognition machine. It evolved to identify related events or artifacts and connect them into a meaningful whole,” According to the NOVA article The Science of Smart: The Virtues of Confusion. This allows us to recognize “underlying themes in literature,” to understand “the deep structure of a scientific or mathematical problem,” or to anticipate “hidden complications” and see “their solutions in our work.

Pattern recognition is a key differentiator between experts and novices. According to the consensus study report How People Learn, Brain, Mind, Experience, and School published by the National Academies of Sciences “experts notice features and meaningful patterns of information that are not noticed by novices. Experts have acquired a great deal of content knowledge that is organized in ways that reflect a deep understanding of their subject matter.” Experts also can flexibly retrieve important aspects of their knowledge with little attentional effort. (chapter 2 How Experts Differ from Novices)

Dan Pink, author of A Whole New Mind says, “one cognitive ability distinguished star performers from average execs at 15 large companies studied – pattern recognition – the big picture thinking that allows leaders to pick out meaningful trends. They relied less on deductive if-then reasoning and more on intuitive, contextual reasoning.

According to the Ohio State University article titled This is your brain detecting patterns, findings that show “the brain processes pattern learning in a different way from another common way that people learn, called probabilistic learning.” With probabilistic learning, people learn by determining the probability of an event happening after another event. With pattern learning,”you know that a particular event is going to happen at a specific point and time. People in our study aren’t just predicting the odds of which photo will show up next. They are learning patterns and developing rules that guide their decision and make them faster and more accurate.” 

Since the brain is looking for patterns, designing learning solutions that identify and promote pattern learning is important. Let learners know what to look for and how to make connections.

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What is A Learning Journey? Since 1995 I’ve collected a vast amount of information from learning leaders, educators, scientists, etc. on the topic of learning and development. Consolidating these notes collected from conversations, books, conferences, articles and white papers, and sharing my learning journey as A Learning Journey made sense. Thus the series was born. I hope you find the information valuable.

Craig Dadoly
author

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