Monday, June 13, 2011

Perceptual learning by 'brain calisthenics'

Cognitive scientists have found that pattern-recognition exercises speed up learning by enabling students to develop a "gut instinct" for problem solving.
NY TimesFor about a month now, Wynn, 17, has been practicing at home using an unusual online program that prompts him to match graphs to equations, dozens upon dozens of them, and fast, often before he has time to work out the correct answer. An equation appears on the screen, and below it three graphs (or vice versa, a graph with three equations). He clicks on one and the screen flashes to tell him whether he’s right or wrong and jumps to the next problem.
“I’m much better at it,” he said, in a phone interview from his school, New Roads in Santa Monica, Calif. “In the beginning it was difficult, having to work so quickly; but you sort of get used to it, and in the end it’s more intuitive. It becomes more effortless.”
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.
“When facing problems in real-life situations, the first question is always, ‘What am I looking at? What kind of problem is this?’ ” said Philip J. Kellman, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Any theory of how we learn presupposes perceptual knowledge — that we know which facts are relevant, that we know what to look for.”
The challenge for education, Dr. Kellman added, “is what do we need to do to make this happen efficiently?
Yes, this is the challenge.  Using pattern recognition exercises to grasp principles quickly sounds reasonable, but only if preceded by background knowledge gained through "bottom up" methods of instruction and practice.  Otherwise, this new "top down" method used by itself would seem to create rote knowledge that lacks meaning.

Joanne Jacobs makes a good point.
Reading the comments reminded me of the parable of the six blind men and the elephant. Every reader seems to think the research proves their theory: Kids need more practice; kids need to construct knowledge, kids need real-world examples, kids need visuals.
Daniel Willingham:
Pretty interesting, and a fairly solid research base. . .it's a little early to get super excited about it. . .and "brain calisthenics" is kind of misleading. . .

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