17 Jul A Learning Principle of Great Importance: Building a “Pyramid of Repetition”
New knowledge and skills cannot be learned and mastered without repetition. There is most probably not a single person on this earth who learned to speak a language, learned to swim, skate, play golf, shift gears of a car — or read and write — without repetition. Repetition leads to fast, effortless, autonomous and automatic processing (Logan, 1997), and as far as one can go back in history, repetition — also called rote learning or drilling — has been the backbone of successful teaching. But this changed in the 1920s and 1930s (Kramer, 1997):
The jewel in the crown of American pedagogy has long been Columbia University’s Teachers College. Its patron saint, and of American education more generally, is John Dewey, whose idea of school as engines of social change led his disciples in the 1920s and 1930s to define their task as replacing the rigid, the authoritarian, and the traditional with a school centred on the child’s social, rather than his intellectual, functioning. The child would be freed from the highly structured school day, from testing, rote memorization, and drill. Books were to take second place to projects, reading to “life experience.” Cooperation would replace competition; the emphasis would be on the group rather than the individual. The elementary school pupil would learn about here and now, his neighborhood rather than places in the far-off past. The school was to be a socializing institute where children learned through active experience.
Criticized by some and hailed by others, the fact is that one consequence of Dewey’s influence was that repetition, rote learning and drilling became “out of style” (Bremmer, 1993), “ghastly boring” (Bassnett, 1999), and even “mindless” (Dixon & Carnine, 1994, p. 356). “Having to spend long periods of time on repetitive tasks is a sign that learning is not taking place — that this is not a productive learning situation,” says Bartoli (1989, p. 294). In educational circles, the phrase “drill and kill” is sometimes used, meaning that by drilling the student, you will kill his or her motivation to learn. “Drilling often conjures up images of late-19th-century schoolhouses, with students singsonging state capitals in unison without much comprehension of what they have ‘learned’” (Heffernan, 2010).
In her book Seven Myths About Education teacher and educationalist Daisy Christodoulou argues that memorizing doesn’t prevent understanding, but rather is vital to it (Faller, 2014):
“Saying all these negative things about rote learning [versus understanding] is very unhelpful,” [Christodoulou] says. “The two things are not in opposition. It’s not that we should spend time on conceptual understanding instead of spending it on learning times tables. It’s by spending time on times tables that you’ll develop the conceptual understanding. Having times tables, basic math facts, phonics, spelling and grammatical structures really well established will allow you to speed up later on.”
According to Christodoulou, education needs to take advantage of what we know about memory and how it works. People have working memory and long-term memory. Working memory can manage between three and seven bits of information at any one time. Long-term memory is not limited like that and committing things to long-term memory can be immensely useful.
“You can effectively cheat the limitations of working memory by storing things very well in long-term memory,” says Christodoulou. “If you have to think through 7 x 3 every time you meet it, you’re taking up space in working memory. Why that is a problem is that as soon as you get a little bit further in mathematics you’re going to hit problems where 7 x 3 is part of a much bigger problem and that is going to slow down or even stop your ability to solve that bigger problem.”
Research has shown that, when properly conducted, drill and practice is a consistently effective teaching method. For example, a meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities found that regardless of the practical or theoretical orientation of the study, the largest effect sizes were obtained by interventions that included systematic drill, repetition, practice, and review (Swanson & Sachse-Lee, 2000). Repetition is important in the “wiring” of a person’s brain, i.e. the forming of connections or synapses between the brain cells. Without repetition, key synapses don’t form. And if such connections, once formed, are used too seldom to be strengthened and reinforced, the brain, figuring they’re dead weight, eventually “prunes” them away (Hammond, 2015; Bernard, 2010).
Mere repetition, however, is not the end of the story. A “pyramid of repetition” has to be constructed for the beginner learner. This means that the beginner learner must start by repeating a limited amount of material many times over and over. Gradually, less and less repetition will be necessary to master new skills and new knowledge.
Japan’s Shinichi Suzuki, known for his contributions to music education and talent education, illustrated this principle in his book Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education (1969):
Since 1949, our Mrs. Yano has been working with new educational methods for developing ability, and every day she trains the infants of the school to memorize and recite Issa’s well-known haiku. [A haiku is a short Japanese poem, consisting only of three lines.] Children who at first could not memorize one haiku after hearing it ten times were able to do so in the second term after three to four hearings, and in the third term only one hearing.
The importance of this “pyramid of repetition” is also seen in the learning of a first language. According to Dr. Beve Hornsby (1984, p. 43), it has been found that a child who is just beginning to talk must hear a word about 500 times before it will become part of his active vocabulary, i.e. before he will be able to say the word. Two years later, the same child will probably need only one to a few repetitions to learn to say a new word.
James Hinshelwood, who is considered to be the founder and sponsor of the study of dyslexia, also noticed this “pyramid of repetition” in the teaching of reading. Hinshelwood was an eye surgeon from Glasgow and an advocate of the “old method” of teaching reading, not the “look and say” system. The “old method,” he wrote, occurred in three stages: first, that of acquiring the visual memories of the letters of the alphabet so as to recognize them by sight; second, learning to read words by spelling them out aloud letter by letter, and so appealing to the auditory memory; and finally that of acquiring the visual memory of words and so learning to read by appeal to the visual memory center alone, i.e. reading by sight alone. When stage three is accomplished, the individual reads not by analysing each word into its individual letters, but by recognizing each word as a separate picture. “Each word is regarded rather as an ideogram, picture, or symbol which suggests a particular idea. The individual now recognizes a word, just as he recognizes a landscape or a familiar face, by its general outline and form without resolving it into its constituent details” (Hinshelwood, 1917, p. 55). To acquire this art of reading by sight alone is a formidable task, and requires for its accomplishment a much longer period of time than the other stages, since it “requires the storing up in the visual memory of an enormous number of visual images of words” (Hinshelwood, 1912).
This has been confirmed by recent neuroscientific research. Glezer et al. (2106) confirmed that skilled readers can recognize words at lightning fast speed when they read because the word has been placed in a sort of visual dictionary. The dual-access theory, first described in the 1970s, suggests that visual word recognition in skilled readers is not based on visual processing alone, but that we access both the phonology and the visual perception of a word (Frost, 1998). However, using rapid adaptation functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI-RA), Glezer et al. discovered that once we’ve learned a word, it is placed in a purely visual dictionary in the brain.
“Beginning readers have to sound out words as they read, which makes reading a very long and laborious process,” Glezer explains. “Even skilled readers occasionally have to sound out words they do not know. But once you become a fluent, skilled reader you no longer have to sound out words you are familiar with, you can read them instantly… the brain has regions that specialise in doing each of the components of reading. The area that is processing the visual piece is different from the area that is doing the sounding out piece” (Georgetown University Medical Center, 2016).
Glezer et al. tested word recognition in 27 volunteers in two different experiments. They were able to see that homophones, like “hare” and “hair” activate different neurons, akin to accessing different entries in a dictionary’s catalogue. If phonology played a role, the same neurons would have been activated, but this was not the case — “hair” and “hare” looked just as different as “hair” and “soup.” This suggests that in this region of the brain all that is used is the visual information of a word and not the sounds. When children become skilled readers, they draw on word representations in the so-called “visual word form area,” which allows for direct, rapid identification of frequently encountered written words (those represented in the child’s sight word vocabulary) without the need for phonological decoding. This facilitates reading fluency, which in turn is thought to lead to increased reading comprehension (Glezer et al., 2016; Georgetown University Medical Center, 2016).
For the congenitally word-blind (today known as dyslexic) to reach stage three (reading by sight alone), Hinshelwood wrote, requires great determination, patience and perseverance, and very frequent repetition. However, “As instruction advances, it will be found as a rule that the rate of progress gradually becomes accelerated, and obstacles, which at first seemed insuperable, are gradually overcome” (Hinshelwood, 1917, p. 108).
Without building this “pyramid of repetition” first, later learning will always be time consuming and prone to failure.
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