Anomaly = Not Normal
Patterns exist in the universe with or without humans to perceive them; we just happen to be especially fond of perceiving, describing and creating them. At its most rudimentary, pattern recognition starts as an innate recognition of and keeping to memory “if, then” scenarios. For example, it only took a few trials for my friend Anna Jane Grossman of School for The Dogs NYC, to train my two month old Jack Russell to learn that if he sat down and looked intently at his master, he would be rewarded with a tasty treat. Is your pup especially brilliant if it learns “x behavior = food” patterns quickly? Probably not, and she need not understand the teachings of Pavlov (classical conditioning or associating one thing with another) or Operant conditioning (behaviors elicit positive or negative reinforcement) in full detail to navigate successfully through life. That is the power of habit, its effects on behavior are mostly invisible.
Take into consideration how quickly one learns that if she touches something hot it will cause severe pain to the skin. Pattern recognition can be a survival mechanism, but it can also be as elegant as a symphony or unbreakable military code. As my 5th and 6th grade students finish up their second unit in Problem Based Science on Patterns, they learn the importance of pattern recognition as well as the significance of an anomaly, or break in a pattern. In class we discuss anomalies as being the sign of potential danger, disease or damage. For instance, random genetic anomalies, more often than not, result in deleterious genes, not the next great evolutionarily advancing trait (read/watch the Blind Watchmaker by Dawkins). We also discuss the importance of death, disease and other seemingly bad anomalies as playing a vital role in overall change that is good, such as social revolutions and adaptation to a changing environment. I also watch my 10-12 year old students struggle with the potential of being an anomaly amongst their peers. Acceptance by peers is a top priority for the adolescent, and it can pivot on maintaining strict patterns of speech, gender roles, and clothing choices in middle school. At the same time I can also see the budding interest by some of my students, to fan the embers of individuality a la Steve Jobs. For the open-minded, an anomaly becomes a novelty. Interestingly, the differences in my students’ tolerance for differences may be explained by studies done by Dellu et. al., which suggest that novelty seeking may be at least partially genetically determined.
Why is novelty important?
While an anomaly can have a negative connotation, novelty is defined as something new or innovative. Novelty reveals something, well, novel, that we weren’t expecting to see. It triggers some ancient part of our brain that should fear or examine novelty for potential use or threat. Like the anomalies in this wOrd, novelty tends to catch our eye and create a sense of interest or intrigue. Exposure to novelty can be its own intrinsic reward, as it has been found to help produce dopamine and increase learning potential. Furthermore, novelty illustrates that there is an ever growing frontier to what we can know and understand as individuals. Novelty, therefore, can generate hope that there are solutions to problems, technological or behavioral, that we haven’t yet thought of.
Pattern or Novelty in the iLab?
In the iLab, the only regular pattern we keep is in the placement of the tables and chairs while in reset mode, which roughly translates to a blank slate for the next user. Upon entering the iLab, students know that they have a fresh palette each day to create their work space in. There are no familiar name tags on desks that remain stationary to signal to a student they have entered “their space”. In the iLab there is no sense of “mine” in that regard, but somehow students behave even more proudly and possessively towards the spaces they create each new day. Ironically, I have noticed that even with the freedom to recreate their work space each day, some students still chose to create familiar patterns. For example one of my students loves to work within the angular privacy that can only exist in a tri-fold of three mobile whiteboards. Another needs to be at a full rectangular whiteboard table pushed against another mobile whiteboard for maximum drawing surface area. Once a student feels she has optimized her productivity in the design of her space, she can go right to work. In this sense, perhaps students are relying on the comfort of pattern while staying engaged by the potential for change. The only significant difference between the patterns that the students generate and those that we as teachers provide, is that the student was the designer/owner of their pattern, and that is a powerful initial condition that we hope to learn more about through our studies this year in the iLab.