Learning and Teaching by Pattern Recognition

There is no longer any credible argument that a range of tech skills aren’t  important to 21st century literacy. Yet one worry/concern/unhappiness I often hear from public library staff is frustration with trying to teach folks how to navigate various databases and distinguish the user’s perceptions of databases from the World Wide Web. Maybe reviewing what we know about our own–and users’ –abilities to recognize patterns can lower that threshold of angst.

Pattern recognition is something we do all the time:

  • Knowing when various intersection signals will turn to give us the right to “go”–even at the intersections we pass daily where the pattern is not as simple as north-south goes and then stops while east-west goes. Think about an intersection you enter daily where signaling takes into account an extended left turn light or the meeting of three or four separate feeder streets.
  • Being aware that grocery stores tend to stock the most essential foods at some remove from the checkout point and that there will almost always be candy and gum near the register. That awareness certainly helps us cut to the chase when we enter a grocery store we haven’t visited before.
  • Feeling a sense of certainty when passing an unfamiliar playground of the approximate ages for which it’s been designed, by viewing the size and design of its equipment.  Low, spring-based riding options signal a toddler crowd while a swing set that has a two and half foot clearance beneath flat-bottomed, unsided swings suggests an older child, right?

How do we use this ability to learn patterns and put them to practical use translate into helping library users feel a sense of clarity and thus comfort accessing our databases?

  • Learn and teach databases’ commonalities, including the fact that all of them have “help” or “user tip” pages that can and should be accessed.
  • Overcome our shyness about using such terms as “search box” and “saving options” so that users can gain the power of recognizing that these key points exist practically everywhere online.
  • Walk users through a simple search that is relevant to what they are trying to accomplish. You can do this by standing with them at a computer station–letting them manipulate the mouse, of course!– or over the phone as you shadow the clicks they are making, or which you suggest they make, at a remote computer
  • Articulate references to analogs in the physical world you know they recognize: news articles tend to give readers the big picture first and the details later in the story; information from different sources vary in reliability and thus in usefulness, just as you might trust a three-year-old to tell you if she’s happy but not if she’s tired.
  • Remember that you are capable of learning every day. That doesn’t mean mastering something new every day, or even every month, but noticing something new and using that new information to build new pattern senses that will be useful  to you the next time you confront the same set of parameters.
  • Remind users that acquiring a new skill feels good but doesn’t happen overnight, that you are open to helping them refresh what they learn today when they next have a search question, while assuring them that next time it will be just a little bit easier at the start.
  • Offer guidance in multiple formats–screencasts, wall-mounted infographics, “prescription pad” customized search terms–so that users can choose the format they know works best for their own learning style, a pattern itself with which they are familiar.

Notice what you notice as a pattern in the physical world. How can you use that information about your own capacity to recognize patterns to help yourself become a better guide to users new to accessing databases effectively?

2 thoughts on “Learning and Teaching by Pattern Recognition

  1. Thanks for an intriguing post, Francisca. I was thinking along the same lines the other day when I read a piece by IDEO designer Matt Cooper-Wright, who talked about his transition from “wayfinding design” — the process of planning journeys through physical spaces — to online interaction design. What librarians do as they teach research strategies and support database navigation seems to me a similar process of “helping people get around complex spaces.” There’s more food for thought in Matt’s full post at http://j.mp/Yvlrre

    1. Thanks for pointing to this great post on wayfinding and supporting researchers, Laurie! The two concepts do seem complementary: identifying the commonality of path logics and becoming attentive to route (not rote!) learning.

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