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Patterns, the Brain, and Learning

Part of what makes us human is the need for our brains to search for meaning.

Hands of a child learning about patterns of size and color with colorful wooden blocks.
Source: myboys/Shutterstock

Part of what makes us human is the need for our brains to search for meaning. Good educators understand this fact and create learning opportunities that honor this reality.

Students who are given complex patterns to discover and interpret send their brains on this important search for meaning. At the same time, students are building connections so vital to higher learning and critical-thinking skills.

A Patterned Existence

Patterns are observations organized into meaningful categories by the observer. When students seek patterns in the world around them, they see order instead of chaos, which builds confidence in their understanding of how the world works and gives them a feeling of control.

Charles Darwin drew upon his understanding of patterns when he synthesized his evolutionary theory from observations of life pieced together from his voyage. Our laws of heredity are products of Gregor Mendel's careful recording of the patterns of inheritance of pea plant traits. Rachel Carson's observation of the patterns of bird die-offs led her to identify the misuse of chemical pesticides at fault.

There are patterns to be discovered in numbers, people, musical scores, and even one's thoughts. Mathematics is often described as the language of patterns. Patterns in numbers made possible the discovery of pi and the invention of Pascal's triangle. The identification of Fibonacci numbers (1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on) has led to the recognition of the presence of this serial pattern in pineapples, sunflowers, and pinecones.

Through computer analysis, patterns known as fractals have been discovered in music. These patterns reveal that only a few musical notes are responsible for the basic melody of some of the world's greatest works. Thought patterns become recognizable when a person focuses on thoughts and emotions that repeat themselves. Therapists use this technique to improve a patient's control over stress and circular thinking.

Patterns can also be found in languages. Linguistic researchers have long been fascinated by the similarities of the German and Dutch version for the English word fist: faust and vuist. Common features in a language such as these have been used to reconstruct the evolution of languages and the history of peoples.

Even when none are intended, patterns emerge. The ancients looked up at the stars, made spatial connections among them, and created the familiar nighttime constellations. On a more earthly plane, we know baseball is a game of hits, runs, catches, and pitches. Seasoned players have learned to read movements as patterns that show when best to hit away, steal second, or pitch a slider.

Courtesy of Kathleen Moran
Halley's Comet the most famous comet. It is a "periodic" comet and returns to Earth's vicinity about every 75 years.
Source: Courtesy of Kathleen Moran

Implications for Teaching

In view of how the brain learns, students should be given opportunities to discover patterns rather than memorize theories. Studying the night skies, the "Morse code" of fireflies, the patterns of energy and life on North- and South-facing slopes, students can rediscover important scientific concepts of adaptation, diversity, and energy for themselves.

This active seeking fosters the need to know as well as persistence, respect for evidence, and a sense of stewardship and care—which all characterize good science. After all, one way to define science is as a human attempt to account for patterns in nature.

Through planned and patient observations, anyone can learn the skill of recognizing patterns.


Barkman, Robert (2000). Patterns, the Brain, and Learning. Classroom Leadership: Volume 4, Number 3, November 2000. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

More from Robert C. Barkman, Ph.D.
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