Slice of Life: Have You Experienced the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon?  Now You Will! #SOL19 #TWTBlog

Slice of Life: Have You Experienced the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon? Now You Will! #SOL19 #TWTBlog


Have you ever had someone mention a car, word, book, or song to you that is unfamiliar? Then you find yourself repeatedly encountering this exact thing everywhere? There is term for this phenomenon: the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. Baader-Meinhof is the phenomenon where one happens upon some obscure piece of information–often an unfamiliar word or name–and soon afterwards encounters the same subject again, often repeatedly. So how does this work?

The reason for this is our brains’ prejudice towards patterns. Our brains are fantastic pattern recognition engines, a characteristic that is highly useful for learning, but it does cause the brain to lend excessive importance to unremarkable events. Considering how many words, names, and ideas a person is exposed to in any given day, it is unsurprising that we sometimes encounter the same information again within a short time. When that occasional intersection occurs, the brain promotes the information because the two instances make up the beginnings of a sequence. What we fail to notice is the hundreds or thousands of pieces of information that aren’t repeated, because they do not conform to an interesting pattern. This tendency to ignore the “uninteresting” data is an example of selective attention. But when we hear a word or name that we just learned the previous day, it often feels like more than a mere coincidence. This is because Baader-Meinhof is amplified by the recency effect, a cognitive bias that inflates the importance of recent stimuli or observations. This increases the chances of being more aware of the subject when we encounter it again in the near future.

A friend introduced me to this phenomenon one day when I was running. I had recently been introduced to a new model of a car. I had never heard of it at that time and then I saw four of these cars during our run  – the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. This got me to thinking about how this phenomenon works in learning.

The importance of feedback and specifically naming what a learner is doing has been demonstrated in growth mindset. When we notice what a student is doing and name it for them, they are more likely to notice when they are employing the strategy in the future. This process of noticing, naming and recognizing the strategy helps students internalize and independently apply the metacognitive process they are learning. Peter Johnston describes this in his book Choice Words : “Through our noticing and naming what students do as readers and writers we bring about an awareness of the thinking work involved, what it looks, sounds, and feels like, and even what it means to be a reader and a writer. Noticing isn’t just a preliminary quickstep on the way to a teaching point but is an essential part of a teaching mechanism in and of itself.” 

Many of the terms we use in teaching could be described as obscure or unfamiliar pieces of information. Schema, cross checking, evidence, inferring, predicting, multi-syllabic, image, monitor, and close reading to name a few of these terms. If we do not repeatedly demonstrate what these terms mean and how we use them as readers, it is not surprising that our young readers may not select to attend to the information. When we stick with a goal for an extended period of time the gradual release of responsibility allows our students to have repeated exposure to learning, practicing, revising, and effectively using a strategy. When they do not have repeated exposure, the learning may not “stick.”

It is important to slow down and stay with a concept for an extended period of time. Our students need repeated exposure and practice to learn how to flexibly and efficiently employ reading strategies. I will now think more about how the recency effect might impact the brain’s awareness and increase the chance that students will recognize the situation and know how to employ the most effective strategy in that moment in time.

I now notice when students are noticing the phenomenon – they love the result! There is a power in knowing how the brain works and why repeated practice pays off!

Thank you, Betsy, Beth, Deb, Kathleen, Kelsey, Lanny, Melanie, and Stacey for this weekly forum from Two Writing Teachers. Check out the writers, readers, and teachers here.

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