The Agenda

How Technology Can Improve the Quality of Instruction: Brain Calisthenics

Benedict Carey’s article on “brain calisthenics” is a pleasure to read:

 

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.

And so, as Carey reports, we’re seeing a number of new online programs designed to kickstart this pattern-recognition process in a number of different domains. The article starts with a vivid example:

 

For 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.”

This seems like a perfect complement to Khan Academy-style instruction. 

Reihan Salam is president of the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of National Review.

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