The word repetition and the closely related repeat come from the Latin word repetere, meaning “do or say again” — an action familiar to all people. There is most probably not a single person on Earth who learned to speak a language, learned to swim, skate, play golf, shift gears of a car — or read and write — without repetition.
Rote, which is the outcome of repetition, means to do something routinely or in a fixed way, to respond automatically by memory alone, without thought (Heward, 2003). Repetition thus leads to fast, effortless, autonomous, and automatic processing (Logan, 1997).
As far as one can go back in history, repetition has been considered the backbone of successful teaching and schooling. Although Hinshelwood (1917) seemingly did not have knowledge of cognitive skills training, he did not doubt that remediation of dyslexia was dependent on frequent repetition. But in the 1920s and 1930s, repetition and rote learning became to define poor teaching. Good teachers don’t fire off quiz questions and catechize kids about facts. They don’t drill students on spelling or arithmetic. Kramer (1997, pp. 65-66) summarizes the advent of progressive education:
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.
Repetition became “ghastly boring” and “mindless”
Dewey’s educational ideas were built on the bases laid by Herbert Spencer (Egan, 2002), an English philosopher who considered rote learning to be a “vicious” system (Cavenagh, 1932, p. 34). While Spencer’s name is rarely mentioned in educational writings today, Dewey’s educational ideas became and are still widely known.
Criticized by some and hailed by others, the fact is that one consequence of Dewey’s influence was that repetition, drilling, and rote learning became “out of style” (Bremmer, 1993), “ghastly boring” (Bassnett, 1999), and even “mindless” (Dixon & Carnine, 1994, p. 360). “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,” said Bartoli (1989, p. 294). Teachers were told that drill-and-practice dulls students’ creativity (Heward, 2003) and that rote learning in math classes is anti-right brain and therefore potentially criminal, as it robs all learners of the opportunity to develop their human potential (Elliott, 1980). The phrase “drill and kill” is still used in educational circles, meaning that by drilling the student, you will kill his or her motivation to learn (Heffernan, 2010).
Compare the attitudes and approaches to drill and practice by many academic teachers with the attitudes of educators who are held accountable for the competence of their students. The basketball coach or the music teacher needs no convincing regarding the value of drill and practice on fundamental skills. No one questions the basketball coach’s insistence that his players shoot 100 free throws every day or wonders why the piano teacher has her pupils play scales over and over. It is well understood that these skills are critical to future performance and that systematic practice is required to master them to the desired levels of automaticity and fluency. We would question the competence of the coach or music teacher who did not include drill and practice as a major component of their teaching.
As Heward (2003) points out, drill-and-practice can be conducted in ways that render it pointless, a waste of time, and frustrating for children. When properly conducted, however, drill-and-practice is a consistently effective teaching method and should not be slighted as “low level,” and appears to be just as essential to complex and creative intellectual performance as they are to the performance of a virtuoso violinist (Brophy, 1986).
Christodoulou (2014) argues that memorizing doesn’t prevent understanding but rather is vital to it. The very processes that teachers care about most, says Willingham (2009), — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory. Knowledge ready in long-term memory is often required as a stepping-stone to understanding something deeper.
Students with learning disabilities benefit from repetition
Whatever the case may be for the average student, repetition certainly benefits children riddled with learning challenges. A meta-analysis of 85 academic intervention studies with students with learning disabilities, carried out by Swanson and Sachse-Lee (2000), 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.
According to Brophy (1986), automatization of skills frees information-processing capacity for attention to the more difficult and higher-level aspects of tasks. One cannot, for example, become a good soccer player if, as you’re dribbling, you still focus on how hard to hit the ball, which surface of your foot to use, and so on. Low-level processes like this must become automatic, leaving room for more high-level concerns, such as game strategy (Willingham, 2009).
The same is true of reading. The child, in whom the low-level cognitive skills of reading have not yet become automatic, will read haltingly and with great difficulty. A child, for example, whose ability to discriminate between left and right has not been automatized, will confuse letters like b and d. Without drill-and-practice of left and right, the child will continue to confuse b and d, with the result that reading itself cannot be automatized. The child, in whom the skill of reading itself has not yet become automatic, will read with poor comprehension, as he will have to divide his attention between recognizing the words and understanding the message.
From a neuroscientific perspective, 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” needs to be constructed for the beginner learner.
Constructing a “pyramid of repetition”
This principle, derived from the works of Suzuki, 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.
In his book, Nurtured by Love, Suzuki (1993) shares the story of a little parakeet that was taught to say in Japanese: “I am Peeko Miyazawa, I am Peeko Miyazawa.” According to Mr. Miyazawa, Peeko’s trainer, it took three thousand repetitions of the word “Peeko” over a period of two months before the bird began to say “Peeko.” Thereafter “Miyazawa” was added, and after having heard “Peeko Miyazawa” only two hundred times, the little bird could say its full name. When Mr. Miyazawa coughed for some days due to a cold, Peeko would say his usual “I am Peeko Miyazawa” and then cough. With less and less repetition, Peeko learned more and more words, and also learned to sing. “Once a shoot comes out into the open, it grows faster and faster . . . talent develops talent and . . . the planted seed of ability grows with ever increasing speed” (Suzuki, 1993, p. 6).
No doubt it is the same with a human being, as the following story, also taken from Suzuki (1993, pp. 92-93), illustrates:
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. 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 (Hornsby, 1984). Two years later, the same child will probably need only one to a few repetitions to learn to say a new word.
In dyslexia intervention a “pyramid of repetition” can be constructed to develop a particularly weak cognitive skill, and it can be used in the teaching of reading itself, for example, to build what neuroscience has labeled the brain’s “visual word form area,” and even to teach spelling.
Individuality should be kept in mind
In regards to repetition in general and building a “pyramid of repetition” in particular, there are two very important factors that should be kept in mind: The first is that there is great individuality among different people, and even within the same person, in the amount of repetition required to learn something. The amount of repetition that is enough for one person, may not necessarily be enough for another. The amount of repetition that a certain person requires in mastering a certain skill, may not necessarily be enough to master another skill. Mrs. Butler might need ten lessons to master the skill of driving, Mrs. Brown might need twenty, Mrs. Lane thirty, and Mrs. Jones forty. Mrs. Jones, who struggled to learn to drive, may, on the other hand, need only ten lessons to become an expert at sewing.
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