Pattern Thinking Overview

Pattern thinking is at the core of all human thinking, in which the brain functions as a pattern recognizer (Anderson, J. R., Bothell, D., Byrne, M., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y., 2004; Weinberg, 1975/2001). However, even with this basic functionality, much of the way we approach thinking and learning does not take full advantage of our capabilities as pattern thinkers. Table 2 summarizes the overall characteristics, foci, thinking processes, and concerns involved in a more fully developed sense of pattern thinking. A fundamental operational view of pattern thinking involves a recursive approach to a loosely organized sequence of (a) recognizing patterns, (b) analyzing the functions and/or meanings of these patterns, (c) analyzing how these patterns are situated within one or more contexts, (d) finding these patterns in other contexts, and (e) using (applying, testing, analyzing, etc.) these patterns from one context in other contexts.

Table 1. Summary of pattern thinking.


Although we have known that the brain functions as a pattern processor for some time, very little work has been done to develop this area in terms of learning. Beyond the early classic works of Weinberg (1975/2001) and Bateson (1979/2002), the only emphasis in this area has been in research on categorization (Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991) and more recent work in a revision of schema theory (McVee, Dunsmore, & Gavelek, 2005). However, these research areas have not developed the idea of pattern thinking as an approach to learning. From the perspective of learning that focuses on patterns, we need to consider Gee’s (1997) assertion that,

Because the world is infinitely full of potentially meaningful patterns and sub-patterns in any domain, something must guide the learner in selecting patterns and sub-patterns to focus on. This something resides in the cultural models of the learner’s sociocultural groups and the practices and settings in which they are rooted. Because the mind is a pattern recognizer and there are infinite ways to pattern features of the world… the mind is social (really, cultural) in the sense that sociocultural practices and settings guide the patterns in terms of which the learner thinks, acts, talks, values, and interacts. (p. 240)

From this perspective, Gee is pointing to the notion of transdisciplinary, meaningful patterns and to the mind as a pattern recognizer. Certainly, the embodied nature of patterns in our biological and cultural minds lends itself to pattern recognition as a basic function of the mind.

The notion within pattern thinking that “tests” the applicability of functional patterns across contexts involves another frequently overlooked thinking process called abductive thinking. In other words, abduction is a reasoning process that examines how certain ideas “fit” across contexts. Abduction occurs all of the time and is fundamental to the transfer of learning, but is not addressed in most of the transfer literature. Although abductive reasoning has been utilized in anthropology and served as a major mode of thinking for Gregory Bateson (1979/2002; 1991), it has not been addressed to any significant degree in the psychological literature.


Figure 1. Model of Pattern Thinking.


Anderson, J. R., Bothell, D., Byrne, M., Douglass, S., Lebiere, C., & Qin, Y. (2004). An integrated theory of mind. Psychological Review, 111(4), 1036—1060.

Bateson, G. (1979/2002). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

Bateson, G. (1991). A sacred unity: Further steps to an ecology of mind. New York: Cornelia & Michael Bessie Book/Harper Collins.

Gee, J. P. (1997). Thinking, learning, and reading: The situated sociocultural mind. In D. Kirshner & J. A. Whitson (Eds.), Situated cognition: Social, semiotic, and psychological perspectives (pp. 235-259). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

McVee, M. B., Dunsmore, K., & Gavelek, J. R. (2005). Schema theory revisited. Review of Educational Research, 75(4), 531—566.

Weinberg, G. M. (1975/2001). An introduction to general systems thinking (Silver Anniversary Edition). New York: Dorset House Publishing.

© 2010 Jeffrey W. Bloom

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