The Romans had a saying: Repetitio mater studiorum est, or: “Repetition is the mother of all learning.”
These days, modern schools put less emphasis on repetition, for good reasons, but we should not lose sight of the importance of repetition. Think of something that you do very well, and then ask yourself: “how did I get to be so good?” If you’re an excellent chef, you have cooked many times, right? If you’re an excellent golfer, you have practiced a lot of golf, right?
Many parents complain about the type of education they received: “when we were kids, all we did was rote learning and mugging up. I remember spending hours and hours learning those formulas in trigonometry, and once the exam was over, I forgot everything!”
“Yes, yes,” I usually nod my head in agreement, “but don’t worry, at an international school we don’t do rote learning and mugging up — children are engaged in meaningful activities that relate to real life, and learning is fun!”
And then I feel a little twitch in my gut, or perhaps my conscience, because I don’t really believe what I’m saying.
It’s true that we believe that children should be active learners who learn by doing, not passive learners who learn by listening to teacher talk. However, if you agree with me that trigonometry is important, then you realize that for most children, there is only one way to learn it: they must do it over and over and over again.
Recently, my daughter Sophie was reading The Lorax by Dr Seuss. She asked me, “Daddy, will you read with me?” It was not easy for me to make 30 minutes to read with my child, but she was irresistible. The book was fun but it is a long book for a 1st grader! And there were some difficult words, and non-words, not to mention the villain, the Once-ler. When we finally got to the end, I breathed a sigh of relief — “aah, it’s done!” I exclaimed, “good job, Sophie!” and I silently patted myself on the back, too, for finishing it.
The next night Sophie was back. She wanted to read The Lorax, again. And the following night, it was The Lorax, AGAIN! Then I started to realize, my objective was to read the book, and to tick it off my checklist as something accomplished.
But Sophie wanted to understand the book. And for that she needed repetition.
People in high-pressure jobs understand the need for repetition. Once I had the pleasure of watching the U.S. Open golf tournament. Unfortunately, it was 38° C (100 ° F), but luckily I had tickets to the air-conditioned VIP tent which was next to the practice range. Instead of watching the pro golfers out on the course, I watched them after they played 18 holes. They came to the practice range and hit buckets of balls — each golfer hit hundreds of balls with the same club, just practicing a 6-iron over and over and over again.
Of course, practicing 10,000 hours is no guarantee that you will become a pro golfer, and even if you spend 10,000 hours sprinting, you won’t turn into Usain Bolt. But you cannot master something without practicing it over and over and over again. They key is to find the things that you like, whether playing violin, or doing trigonometry, or shooting baskets.
Once you learn to love the repetition, mastering a skill becomes much easier.
These days, there is so much emphasis on creativity, that we often forget the importance of repetition. Creativity comes from skilled practice: a painter isn’t making something new; she is copying something and adding a style or a perspective that makes it creative. A master chef isn’t inventing a completely new dish, he is taking an established recipe and adding a new spice. My drama teacher put it best:
“You actors always say you want to improvise,” he said, “first, learn your lines, then, you can improvise!”
Mick Purcell is the head of school at KC High IGCSE Board Cambridge International School, Chennai. He teaches mathematics, creative writing, elementary drama, disc sports, reputation management, and Rubik’s cube.
He has 3 beautiful children and a lovely wife, but he dreams about climbing mountains and getting away from it all. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.