While early experience with moving stimuli is necessary for the development of direction selectivity in visual cortex of carnivores, it is unclear whether experience exerts a permissive or instructive influence. To test if the specific parameters of the experienced stimuli could instructively sculpt the emergent responses, visually naive ferrets were exposed to several hours of experience with unusual spatiotemporal patterns. In the most immature ferrets, cortical neurons developed selectivity to these patterns, indicating an instructive influence. In animals that were 1-10 days more mature, exposure to the same patterns led to a developmentally-typical increase in direction selectivity. We conclude that visual development progresses via an early phase of instructive plasticity, when the specific patterns of neural activity shape the specific parameters of the emerging response properties, followed by a late phase of permissive maturation, when sensory-driven activity merely serves to enhance the response properties already seeded in cortical circuits.