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September 17, 2009

E-Coaching Tip 70  (#1 Fall 2009)

Course Beginnings - Finding the Patterns in Your Content

"Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern recognition."   Marshall McLuhan, 1969.

Have you looked at the patterns and cycles in your course lately?  What are the basic two or three patterns that you would like your students to discuss?

Dealing with information overload on an hourly and almost minute-to-minute basis, McLuhan’s assertion highlights a critical skill that we need to be developing and nurturing in our learners — a skill at detecting patterns, cycles and relationships.  Independent and individual pieces of knowledge are too disembodied and uncontextualized to be very useful.  Surrounded by data we need better thinking strategies for navigating and making information useful. 

What I think is intriguing about McLuhan’s statement is the idea that faced with information overload, our brains appear to adapt by necessity to being more efficient at pattern recognition.  If we can chunk course content into fewer disparate segments, the whole is more readily seen. In other words, information overload might be viewed as a positive development because it is messaging our brain to adjust.  Brain researchers refer to this capability as brain plasticity, the ability of the brain to “not only to create new neurons throughout life, but to modify networks of neurons to better cope with new circumstances.” (Society for Neuroscience, 2007)

The first phase of a course is an exciting and enthusiastic time.  It is a time that learners and faculty gather together with core course resources and plan out the learning that they want to achieve.  The first phase of a course is similar to the launching of a new project initiative. Spirits are high, ideals expansive and opportunities seem limitless.  But of course this phase passes, and reality sets in.  

How can you increase the probability that learners will retain this initial spirit of excitement and take more away from the course?  Here are a few ideas.

Think Patterns.  Think Cycles.  Think Relationships.

Ask yourself, “How can I encourage my learners to discern patterns, and link ideas across papers, discussions and personal reflections?”  How do we dig deeply into core concepts such as power, leadership, culture, and organizations and detect patterns that provide new insight about these core life concepts and how they work or manifest themselves in different environments.  

Ask your students some version of the following kinds of questions:

  • What traits, characteristics or thought positions do the members of your learning community share?
  • What are the predictable patterns within society, power, and culture, XX?
  • What patterns regarding health care reform (Insert course topics here.) are emerging?  What can be predicted from those patterns?  What might cause the pattern to change?  
  • Can you create an image, or metaphor that illustrates a core concept or clarifies a key course article? How might that image change in other expert positions?  
  • What cycles in XXX are repeating themselves? 

Library of Tips

Don’t forget the full library of ecoaching tips is available at http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/inventory.htm


Background Notes

  1. This tip had its genesis in early August when I had the good fortune to participate in the 25th Annual Teaching and Learning at a Distance conference in Madison WI.  One of the many interesting speakers was a social technologist Teemu Arina, from Finland. Teemu used the beginning quote above that is widely attributed to Marshall McLuhan, the well-known Canadian media theorist and critic who coined the phrases “ The Medium is the Message,” and the “Global Village.” 
  2. While searching for a good bibliographic reference for the McLuhan quote above, I also found a variation of the quote — "Information overload equals pattern recognition”  —used by Mark Federson, Chief Strategist and head of McLuhan Management Studies from the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto. By the way, my search for the source of the quote used by Arina was unsuccessful, even though one source attributed it to the year 1969.  However, it is something that McLuhan might well have said.
  3. If you are feeling curious about what a social technologist thinks, be sure to look at the six concepts identified by Teemu Arina on his blog as key themes for future learning. These concepts are already at the root of many changes in our current learning and work environments.  In particular the concept of Social Experiential Learning reinforces the importance of the role of reflection and abstraction in learning.  The power of the emerging social technologies for learning is that they allow reflection and abstraction to happen in an increasingly shared context, enabling individuals to learn from each other’s experiences, and I would add, patterns of thinking.  Note:  The six concepts for future learning success identified by Arina are: Organic Enterprise, Extended Events, Social Experiential Learning, Digital Ecosystems, Age of Real-Time, Serendipic Learning
  4. For more about the usefulness and need for skills in pattern detection, check out the resource by Daniel Pink, a former speechwriter for Al Gore.

References and Resources

E-Coaching Tip 27 (Fall, 2006): A Rubric for Analyzing Critical Thinking.Retrieved September 7, 2009 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip27.html

E-Coaching Tip 58 (Spring, 2008): Reaching the Heights of Learning -- Authentic Problem-Solving.  Retrieved September 7, 2009 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip58.html

Guide to Rating Critical & Integrative Thinking. Washington State University, Fall 2006. Retrieved June 26, 2009 from http://wsuctprojectdev.wsu.edu/ctr_docs/CIT%20Rubric%202006.pdf

Pink, D. H. (2005). Revenge of the Right Brain. Wired, 13, 70-72. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/13.02/brain.html or his 2005 book, A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age Or his video on motivation and reward at the TED conference — http://blog.ted.com/2009/07/dan_pink_at_ted.php

Course Beginnings - Finding the Patterns in Your Content



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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013