Monday, September 20, 2010

Repetition is the mother of learning.

Think about the things you remember from school. We remember our friends, our teachers, how the hallway looked, where we played at recess and dozens of other non-academic experiences. Most of us do not actually remember the moment we learned anything in school. If you think back you can probably identify the moment you learned some specific skill or some unusual fact, but the overwhelming majority of what we learned in school we learned through repetition. You probably don't remember any isolated moment where you learned 6 x 7, but you do know the answer.

You know the answer because you practiced your times tables over and over and over again. You used them in context while solving other, more difficult problems. You saw them, you heard them, you wrote them down. It may have been brutally boring, but repetition was the process that helped transfer the answer "42" from your short-term (working) memory into your long-term memory.

While there are a number of ways people the learn things, the basic process boils down to two steps. Step 1: You are introduced to new stuff. Step 2: That new stuff is transferred from your working memory to your long-term memory. I would describe step 1 as "exposure" and step 2 as "retention".

If I watch a concert pianist play something by Rachmaninoff, I am not really learning how to play piano, I am simply being exposed to that knowledge. I can see fingers hitting keys, I can hear the sounds that correspond with those keys, but all of that information is stored for mere seconds in my working memory. If you ask me years, or even hours later what keys he hit with what fingers in what sequence, I will not be able to tell you. I won't be able to tell you because I did not retain that information.

On the other hand, if I learned how to play piano and got the sheet music to that same piece of music, I could practice Rachmaninoff every day. Over time, I wouldn't even need to look at the sheet music any more because I would be able to pull the next sequence from my long-term memory. In other words, I would be learning the piece. Repetition helps us retain skills and knowledge and frees up our working memory for other things. When information is stored in our long-term memory whatever process we are trying to recall becomes automatic. Cognitive scientists call this "Automaticity." Once a person achieves automaticity, they are able to critically think, problem solve, gain a deeper understanding and create on a higher level than someone who is burdened with juggling new information in their working memory. If Rachmaninoff had to Google the answer to the question, "What key do I hit next?" before each note, we would never even know his name.

As a technology teacher I come across a famous quote from Alvin Toffler quite a bit: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn." Many people in the Educational Technology world misuse this quote as a justification for substituting Google searches for repetition. Based on this concept, some people believe that retaining information is an obsolete facet of education. I think Toffler's quote has truth to it, but only if we understand how important retention of information is to our ability to "learn, unlearn and relearn."

If you believe that the words "learning" and "retention" are synonymous, take a look at that quote with fresh perspective: "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot retain, forget, and recall from long-term memory." When viewed from this angle, Toffler's quote is in many ways an indictment of substituting Google searches for genuine retention. The more we retain, the richer and more complex our schema becomes. We learn more quickly and easily when we can attach the new information to information we already have. That's why a rich, complex schema is vital to learning new things.

It logically follows that if retention is vital in the 21st century and repetition is vital to retention, then repetition is vital for 21st century education. The reality is that repetition is vital to 20th, 18th and 22nd century learning as well. Repetition is the mother of learning, period.

The trick for educators is figuring out ways to make that repetition enjoyable. I think people with the educational technology mindset and people with a traditional mindset can learn something from each other. Traditional educators understand how important repetition is to learning, but in my opinion, the methods they use to achieve automaticity are not only dull, but inefficient. I can remember sitting in class reading the times tables aloud with my classmates over and over again. I can remember writing the times tables on loose leaf paper over and over again. The good news is that it worked; I learned them. The bad news is that I hated it, I hated school and I resisted learning very step of the way.

Educational technology is most valuable when it offers enjoyable ways for teachers to help students transfer skills and knowledge into their long-term memory. Sometimes it can be as simple as letting younger kids play an educational game like CarrotSticks, where they are competing head to head with other kids (and the clock) to see who can get more answers right. I use games like this when I tutor and it is shocking to see how many more problems a struggling 3rd grader will solve when the repetition is delivered as a game rather than a more traditional worksheet. They frequently ask if they are allowed to play this game at home too. That never happens with worksheets.

There are hundreds of games like this that help make repetition fun, but over time even these games can lose their appeal, especially for older students. Today’s teachers need to think up other ways to leverage technology’s power to make repetition fun. Here are a few ways I have used technology to help students inch closer to automaticity through repetition:

Hip-Hopurriculum: Our 8th grade students wrote hip-hop songs about what they were learning in their classroom. During the course of crafting lyrics that rhymed and fit the cadence of the song, students read and re-read the important elements of how the circulatory system worked, how photosynthesis happens, what the order of operations is, and numerous details about the explorers. They got even more repetition while they recorded and re-recorded the tracks. Then they got more repetition while they lip-synced for the video. Not only did they listen to their own finished product over and over, but they listened to all their friends' finished songs over and over again as well-- all without being told to do so. Technology helped make repetition the students' choice.

Student created digital textbook: Our 7th grade students were assigned the task of teaching other students something from their math textbook. They used Voicethread to upload a picture that they could draw over while narrating their explanation. During the course of this project, students researched various explanations that were already online. They then wrote their own script and thought about how to best explain the concept to someone else. During the course of these first steps, students were deeply thinking about math problems and how to understand them. They then recorded and re-recorded their explanation. When they were finished they listened to themselves over and over. Just like in the Hip-hopcurriculum, they listened to their friends' lessons over and over without being told to do so.

Those are two examples from my experience. What are some creative ways you have used technology to help students leverage repetition and aid in their learning process?

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