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, as reported in this New York Times article, 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?” Read more…