R is for Repetition

| May 5, 2014

Repetition and rote memorization: the dullest and most arbitrary form of learning, or the most fundamental and essential? Certainly it’s the oldest; in eras before codified writing developed as a communicative practice, education was passed on through the oral tradition, and students literally learned at the foot of the master by repeating his or her words until a concept could be committed to memory. When reading ancient epics such as “The Odyssey,” we see the hand of such traditions in the repetition of certain words, phrases, and story structures. Common rhetorical devices (e.g., repetition of phrases such as the “wine-dark sea” or the “fresh and rosy-fingered” dawn) were used as mnemonics for the poet and aided in the memorization process. Even still, when listening to or reading such stories’ long catalogues of ships, battle descriptions, and characters’ ancestries, it’s incredible to think of how much the storyteller must have had to rehearse and repeat this information in order to recite it by heart, and keep doing so in order to properly transmit it to the next generation of students.

Even in the present day, with more integrative styles of teaching and learning, we still employ repetition to hone a skill: children recite their ABC’s and multiplication tables, actors drill lines, musicians play scales. Rote though it may be, this process codifies the information into our neural pathways until it becomes second nature. Repetition thus plants the field from which creativity and improvisation may grow. We must, however, value it beyond its own sake, lest it become mindless and disengaged.