The Demonization of Repetition: Education’s Biggest Blunder

My sister needed to take a science course to fulfill a college requirement. So she registered for a biology class. The only problem was that she had inadvertently chosen a biology course for medical students. She was in a class filled with aspiring doctors. Come final exam time, she couldn’t understand a single word in the required text. Let me repeat that in case you don’t believe me. She did not understand a single word.

What could she do? It was too late to drop the class. It was even too late to try to find someone to explain it to her. Her only choice was to read the required passage over and over and over again. Repetition. Why? She could think of no other course of action. Each time she read the passage, she didn’t understand any of it. She read if again. No good. Again. Nothing. Many, many more times. Still nothing. One last time. What? Wait a minute. It’s all clear now. Not part of it. Not most of it. All of it!

In my sister’s words, “It was like a light went on in my head.” It’s not a coincidence that most people who have a revelation of some kind describe it as a light going on. In fact, something electrical does happen in the brain when understanding occurs. Forget the science of it; why did it happen to my sister? Repetition. That’s right. Repetition: education’s favorite whipping boy. Teachers in training are actually taught that repetition is a “lower order learning operation.” It doesn’t require “critical thinking.” Some have even gone as far as to label repetition corporal punishment and therefore, abuse.

The result? Our schools are churning out illiterate, innumerate graduates who are in no way prepared for graduate work or the job market. Teachers are forever looking to engage their students in critical thinking when they should be employing the irreplaceable strategy of repetition. Of course critical thinking is appropriate for things like exchanging ideas and debating positions. However, it is not appropriate for a large proportion of what students need to learn in order to excel. Mental math and second language learning immediately come to mind.

The Russians have a saying: “Repetition is the mother of learning.” In my sister’s case, it was the brute force of repetition that actually caused understanding. In fact, she was the only student to get an A in that Medical Biology course. As a pianist, I was already quite familiar with the magic of repetition. So are athletes. As a language learner and teacher, I know that if I could choose only one technique in order to learn or teach a new language and I could not have recourse to any other technique, it wouldn’t take me as long as one second to choose repetition. Not only is it underrated; it should be the number one instrument in every student’s toolkit.

by John DePonte

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