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 centered 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.
Without building this “pyramid of repetition” first, later learning will always be time consuming and prone to failure.
Bartoli, J.S. (1989). An ecological response to Coles’s interactivity alternative. Journal of Learning Disabilities, vol. 22(5): 292-7.
Bassnett, S. (1999, October 14). Comment. Independent.
Bernard, S. (2010). Neuroplasticity: Learning physically changes the brain. Edutopia. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/neuroscience-brain-based-learning-neuroplasticity
Bremmer, J. (1993, April 19). What business needs from the nation’s schools. St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Dixon, R, & Carnine, D. (1994). Ideologies, practices, and their implications for special education. Journal of Special Education, 28(3): 356-67.
Faller, G. (2014, May 13). Rote learning is bad – and other myths about education. The Irish Times. Retrieved from https://www.irishtimes.com/news/education/rote-learning-is-bad-and-other-myths-about-education-1.1788653
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
Heffernan, V. (2010, September 16). Drill, baby, drill. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/19/magazine/19fob-medium-heffernan-t.html
Hornsby, B. (1984). Overcoming Dyslexia. Johanesburg: Juta and Company Ltd.
Kramer, R. (1997, January 15). Inside the teachers’ culture. The Public Interest.
Logan, G.D. (1997). Automaticity and reading: Perspectives from the instance theory of automatization. Reading & Writing Quarterly: Overcoming Learning Difficulties, 13(2): 123-146.
Suzuki, S. (1969). Nurtured by love: A new approach to education. New York: Exposition Press.
Swanson, H.L., & Sachse-Lee, C. (2000). A meta-analysis of single-subject design intervention research for students with LD. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 38; 114-36.