Pattern recognition is a life skill

Three apartment floor plans identical except for colors
A single floor plan is used in three apartments, each of which has a different owner.

The ability to recognize patterns is an essential life skill. Whether a pattern is learned by association, the way a very young child learns to associate certain sounds with being fed, or at a sophisticated level using spreadsheets and graphs, the ability to see and derive meaning from patterns in data is vital to humans’ existence.

Not all students come to school able to recognize patterns. Absent direct instruction, some of them will remain unable to recognize patterns throughout their schooling. I’ve had students in their thirties who couldn’t recognize patterns. Most students can develop pattern recognition skill simply by having their attention called to patterns in the class content they need to learn. You need to deliberately, habitually, draw students’ attention to patterns in the class content they must learn.

Deliberately look for patterns.

If you’re going to teach successfully, you need to be sensitive to the presence of patterns in the material you teach. If you can see patterns in a large number of individual cases, you can—and should—condense that vast number of cases to a fraction of its original size. The condensed version—the pattern— can be more readily taught to students than the dumpster-sized loads of individual cases.

Patterns don’t produce replicas.

It’s very important to note that individual examples of a pattern are not replicas of the pattern. A paper pattern may be used to produce objects made from fabric, sheet metal, or cardboard boxes. In the hands of a skilled workman, a single pattern can produce objects with very different appearances and very different functions.

A visitor to the apartments of the Blacks, the Greens, and the Browns, shown at the top of this blog post, might not be consciously aware of the common floor plan even though all three were built by the same construction crew from the same blueprint. The owners put their individual stamps on their homes with different furnishings and distinctive decorations. Similarly, writers put their own individual stamp on writing they built following a pattern.

Patterns simplify.

Part of your teaching job is to impress upon students that being able to see patterns simplifies their lives.  Something as simple as putting your house key in the same place every day or putting your mask in the same place every day is a pattern that saves you from a frantic turn-the-house-upside-down search before you can make a 10-minute run to the grocery. Identifying a new place to put your keys/mask every day wouldn’t be efficient; it would be dumb.

In just that same way, having a pattern for planning a piece of nonfiction writing lets students concentrate on what they need to accomplish, instead of trying every day to invent a new way to organize their writing. If you can teach students that patterns automate routine procedures, they’ll have time and attention to devote to the task at hand. When there’s already a pattern available for organizing most nonfiction writing—thesis and support—it isn’t efficient to expect students to identify a new way to organize their writing every day; it’s dumb.

Identify course concepts.

For convenience—I’m a big fan of convenience—I suggest starting with one course for which you have what you think is a pretty good textbook. Use that text’s table of contents to help you identify the essential concepts within its subject matter. There are usually a lot of concepts, but far fewer of them than there are individual facts.

Identify concepts that are also patterns.

If possible, reduce the list of concepts by identifying those that are also patterns. For example, when the Common Core State Standards were compiled, they realized that all the different ways of organizing short, nonfiction writing—that long list of “types of essays” in English books—boiled down to just three patterns:  narrative, argument and informative/expository texts.That was a stroke of genius. They distilled what students needed to learn to about 20 percent of its prior size.

When you have a list of essential course patterns, you have all the information students will need to memorize before they can begin to work with individual data points.  (Actually, you’ll have more than just essential course patterns, and you’ll have to put the other stuff aside to concentrate on the patterns.)

Teach concepts via descriptions.

Most of the time, we can start teaching using descriptions to identify objects or concepts rather than taking time to teach course vocabulary. Were you required to learn the correct names of the parts of a shoelace before you learned to tie your shoes?  I’ll bet you weren’t. I’d also bet a small sum that you can’t tell me right now the name of the hard things on the ends of shoelaces. There are many objects and processes and other thingies you engage with daily that you can’t identify by their proper names. The world doesn’t come to a screeching halt if you don’t know an aglet from a piglet.

You can plunge into having students work with specific examples rather than presenting abstract and theoretical content and they will pick up the correct terminology as they work. Working with examples—even if the examples are written descriptions—is more like hands-on activity than listening to your lecture, stimulating as that may be. Even students who think they hate your subject would rather do something—anything—than listen to a teacher lecture.

Related post: Boys need help to see patterns.

© 2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Packed sentences to be unpacked as writing prompts

Good writers have an uncanny ability to pack a great deal of experience into a single sentence. Today I’m going to offer writing teachers three quotations from three very different sources from which mature teens and adult students can choose one to unpack and share how the truth of the quoted passage can be applied to some living person (or group) or to some situation in the world right now.

similarly shaped black blocks of varying sizesHere are the three items with a note about the source of each one.

A dad’s advice

In John Galswothy’s novel To Let, Jolyon Forsyte says this to his son, who is 20 and in love:

Wishes father thought but they don’t breed evidence.

A widow’s observation

Mrs. Cartwright, an elderly widow who has just lost her husband, says this to Barnaby Gaitlin, the central character of Anne Tyler’s novel A Patchwork Planet:

Isn’t it ridiculous how even in the face of death it still matters that the price of oranges has gone up, and an impolite produce boy can still hurt your feelings?

An historian’s question

Who can say how much a man believes when he has an actor’s temperament and a demagogue’s faith in numbers?

Literary historian Van Wyck Brooks asks this question in his  1936 book The Flowering of New England 1815-1865, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937.  The man of whom he is speaking is  George Bancroft, whose multi-volume History of the United States began to appear in 1834.

What students must do

Each of the three sentences conveys more than its words literally mean. They convey something of the attitude of the speaker and his/her relationship to the person or persons alluded to in the quotation. Students need to take into account the context in which the words are spoken.

With an assignment like this, I often have students pair off and take 10 minutes of class time to discuss first impressions of each of the options. Hearing a different voice than their own sometimes sharpens a student’s perspective. 

I suggest giving students a limit of 300 words to explain the meaning of the quote they chose and the contemporary person or situation to which they think the quoted passage bears a kinship.

Value of this assignment

This assignment is a good segue from a writing course that’s been focused for a half year on nothing but nonfiction reading and writing to a course that pulls in both literary nonfiction and fiction as writing topics. Used in that manner, the assignment could be used as a benchmark to allow students to track their progress in understanding literary writing. (By benchmark, I mean that you record the grades to show entry-point skill. Course grades should be determined by end-of-course performance and should drop early score when students are figuring out what to do.)

©2020 Linda Aragoni