Show Students How to See Patterns and Also Use Them

Help students learn about pattern recognition and how it helps solve problems.

Grades K-12 11 mins Resource by:
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Pattern recognition is the fourth pillar of computational thinking discussed in our AVID Open Access article collection, Demystify Computational Thinking. Pattern recognition is the act of finding similarities and trends. Sounds simple, right? Well, yes and no. Humans use patterns all the time to make sense of the world around them, staring at infancy. But how can patterns be used to help solve problems?

Before patterns can be used to solve problems—especially complex ones—the problem first needs to be decomposed. Essentially, decomposition is breaking things down into smaller manageable parts. Once those parts are broken down, those smaller parts can be examined for patterns. To better understand decomposition, consider reading the AVID Open Access article, Teach Students to Divide (Decomposition) and Conquer (Algorithmic Thinking).


However, we don’t just want students to be able to examine patterns, we want them to be able to use them to solve problems. In order to do just that, there are three important components, which are detailed below.

1.  Pattern Spotting

Patterns first need to be identified before moving on to solving the problem. There are several strategies to help students identify patterns. These strategies can be used across content areas and grades.

  • What Is the Same? What Is Different?
    • As a group, in small groups, or individually, have students look for and record similarities and differences. Once identified, those similarities and differences can be examined for patterns.
  • Notice and Wonder
    • As a group, in small groups, or individually, have students record what they notice, and then have them record what they wonder about. Once they have identified their noticings and wonderings, you can have them look for patterns as a result.
  • Pattern Visualization
    • There are many opportunities for students to find patterns in data when they are able to look at data in many different ways. In fact, Standard 1A-DA-06 of the CSTA K–12 Computer Science Standards focuses on having students present the same data in various visual formats and then analyze it. One way to easily represent data in different ways is through data visualizations. Students can create data visualizations on their own using different methods, like bar graphs, pie charts, scatter plots, bubble charts, and many more.
    • Computers can be used to allow students to quickly and easily create visualizations. For example, data can be put into a spreadsheet using either Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets, and with the click of a button (like the Insert > Chart option), data can be viewed in many different ways, and many patterns can be spotted. Microsoft PowerPoint and Google Slides, along with many other programs, can also be used to have students easily create data visualizations.
    • Consider providing groups of students with the same data set but have it represented in several different ways. Have students identify patterns based on the data, and then have them share the patterns that they spotted. Consider having students answer the following questions:
      • What patterns spotted were the same?
      • What patterns were different?
      • Why might representing data in different ways be important?
  • Using the Five Senses
    • Patterns come in all shapes and sizes. Beyond visualization, patterns can be spotted with ears, legs, the mouth, and even the nose. Yes, all five senses can be used to identify patterns. In fact, in many cases, multiple senses may be needed to identify patterns. For example, drummers have to not only hear patterns, they have to feel and create patterns with their body, and if reading music, they need to see patterns. A chef might identify patterns in a written recipe through taste, touch, and  smell, and they can even use sound to develop patterns around when things are cooked. Consider having students create a list around how they may use all five senses to identify patterns or consider providing an example where students identify different patterns using their different senses.

2. Pattern Matching

Once patterns are spotted, it’s important to identify how patterns are the same in different problems. Humans have been unintentionally pattern matching by identifying things that are similar across systems and problems since birth. For example, as a toddler is learning a language, they have to spot patterns in what word is being used and what object the word is being used to identify. Many times, the same word is used for a different object. However, there are clear patterns that need to be identified around the word and the different objects being associated with it in order for the child to make sense of, and engage in, the next step of generalization and application. Similarly, when trying to solve problems, it is essential for students to identify patterns that are similar across problems, so they can more easily and efficiently solve the problem. For example, if a problem was solved in a specific way and another problem has many similarities to the original problem, then the solution used to solve the original problem can likely also be used to solve the new problem. The problem-solving skills are transferable across problems.

3. Generalization and Application

Once patterns have been spotted and then matched, it is then possible to start making sense of the patterns, making generalizations across patterns, and making predictions based on the information. To continue using the toddler example, if the word ball is used to identify several different objects, the toddler first does pattern spotting, then engages in pattern matching, and finally, is able to make a generalization about what the word ball means and apply it to any object that fits within that generalization. When students are trying to solve problems or create algorithms, they need to be able to make generalizations and then create solutions or algorithms that can be applied across different problems. Pattern recognition has helped solve all types of problems—the most recent being around COVID-19. Without identifying patterns, we would never know that there was a specific type of virus, how it works, or how to create a vaccine to fight it. When a patient goes to the doctor and shows symptoms of a virus, data is gathered so that it can be shared across the medical community because it’s likely not a singular case. Once data is shared, patterns can be spotted and matched, and generalizations around symptoms, classification of a specific virus, and how the virus spreads can be made. That information can then be used to understand  the virus better and start creating vaccines for the virus. Without pattern recognition, we wouldn’t be able to solve the global pandemic.

When students are able to spot and match patterns, they are then able to take a solution to a problem and generalize it so that the same solution can be applied to other similar problems. Problems can be solved more efficiently and quickly when intentionally engaging in pattern recognition. Students are already using pattern recognition all the time to make sense of the world around them, but intentionally teaching it and calling it out as an important skill, planning it into student activities and problem-solving situations, and creating opportunities for students to truly recognize and understand patterns will allow students to be better problem-solvers. In the Abstraction and Pattern Recognition Chart below are some examples of how abstraction and pattern recognition could be applied across different content areas: