Repetition Repetition Aids Aids Learning Learning

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I think repetition has got a bad press, and so we don’t notice how much of our lives are repetitive. We put our clothes on in the same old order (underwear underneath), walk with the same predictably dependable steps, and show kindness with the same hug.

This saying was invented by some friends of mine at uni, when they were told that repetition aids retention. They were sceptical — they remembered much dull rote learning. They didn’t think this repetition had helped them remember much at all. In this post I want to examine a little repetition and learning.

Anyone who has spent time around young children will remember the phrase, “Do it again, do it again!” Said as something between a demand and a plea. Children love repetition of some things. In Australia there is a game called ‘Duck, duck, goose, goose’: the children sit in a circle, and one child walks around the circle tapping each child in the circle on the head saying “Duck” until they tap one child on the head and say, “Goose”. The child tapped with ‘goose’ has to get up and race the other child back to their place in the circle. It is predictable, incredibly repetitious, and the kids will play it for hours if you let them.

Repetition can be part of play and lots of fun. Schooling (sometimes humorously called ‘education’) seems different. From schooling we often remember much dull repetition that was no fun at all.

Is the difference that repetition at school was about learning rather than playing?

I don’t think this can be right. Children will repeat words and actions for ages in order to learn their language or an activity. I remember my mother tossing a tennis ball and telling me when to hit it with a cricket bat. We spent all afternoon, my mother saying “Now” and me flailing the cricket bat. Eventually, I got the idea; but it took lots of repetition.

I think repetition has got a bad press, and so we don’t notice how much of our lives are repetitive. We put our clothes on in the same old order (underwear underneath), walk with the same predictably dependable steps, and show kindness with the same hug. Repetition is reliable and can even show genuine kindness — it is far from being bad and boring, sometimes.

So, why is repetition such misery sometimes?

I think the answer is: when it is separated from our needs and desires. Repeated boredom or dislike is no fun at all — and is very memorable indeed. Perhaps one way of knowing if our real needs and interests are engaged in an activity is to know whether we are happy to do it — over and over again. (Not forever perhaps, but for a good long time.)

Lots of people have hobbies and crafts that they pursue. No one forces them to — they are done voluntarily. And they usually involve huge amounts of repetition. Knitting the same stitches, reading one murder mystery after another (Louise Penny is my latest discovery — if you like Agatha Christie I think you’ll love her) or even playing a sport. These activities are engaged for the pleasure of doing them, for the pleasure of doing the same thing over and over.

I’d like to circle back to repetition and learning. My father is a repetition turner. This means that he works on lathes turning out small metal objects that go on to make up parts of machines. He can make hundreds of effectively identical objects in a day. This never appealed to me, so I asked him about it. He said, “People ask me about doing the same thing over and over; but that’s how you get better at something — doing it over and over”. Which I think is right — practice is a part of learning anything.

The trick I think is to have the practice be linked to activities that people are interested in. A tennis player may find a night of bridge intolerably tedious. A bridge lover may find an afternoon of tennis a kind of refined torture.

Another element I think is a sense of progress — a sense that we are learning and gaining mastery. This means that what we do is in some kind of sequence. Crafts and hobbies are usually arranged as a sequence of increasingly complex tasks. The tasks gradually integrate a wider range of skills — a new stitch for the knitter is learned from a knitting a new type of pattern. This can be quite formalised — as in some kinds of musical education or martial arts training — or less formal — the practitioners passing on tips and tricks among themselves (like the user groups from the early days of computing).

It seems to me that it is time to give repetition the good press it deserves: it can be fun and help us learn — when linked to our needs and desires and ordered in a useful sequence.

What are the things you enjoy repeatedly? Are there favourite drills you have from a hobby? Is there a particular thing that you never get tired of doing — even if it puzzles other people? I’d like to hear if you enjoy repetition in the comments. If you just loathe it and despise repetition I’d like to hear from you too!

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