Repetition vs. Rote: The Routine Enjoyment Of Learning


“Practice makes perfect. After a long time of practicing, our work will become natural, skillful, swift and steady.”

                                                                                                 – Benjamin Franklin

Do you remember the first time you saw a painting by Picasso, Leonardo da’Vince or Georgia O’Keefe? Can you picture that image in your mind, it’s focus point and the colors they used? 

Learning is like a good piece art, there’s a composition we follow that sends us a message we can interpret in so many different ways because it’s made to be impactful. The way we make learning impactful is a lot like painting a beautiful picture, by focusing on its composition. Any good composition has a mixture of two elements: repetition of the pattern and unity of the images.

Educators attempt this communication every day in class, often with less memorable results. When we repeat things, we are attempting to make them clear to our listeners. Educators are constantly repeating themselves in class: repeating instructions, repeating questions, repeating the general rules, etc. So how is it that artists have perfected the use of repeating patterns with little variety, meanwhile educators get chastised for it with things like ‘rote learning’?

The answer is actually quite clear: It’s all in our heads.

Origins: Trivium model of education

The history of education started with philosophers and tutors who believed that listening to long and very complicated stories was the best way to learn. Now, the concept of attention spans wasn’t widely discussed back then, but there was a very common belief about how people learned: We learn through association.

Associative learning has been the standard in education since ancient times. Aristotle preached the virtues of its simple and effective nature of learning! You observe the natural world, you talk about it to your friends, and you slowly commit it to memory. This included teaching students reading and writing, memorizing the laws of the land and basic facts of life, all through direct experience.

This later transformed into what we now call “Classical Education”, the early versions of schools that aristocrats used to send their children to become master scholars and irritating know-it-alls. Classical Education focused on associative learning and scaffolded their curriculum using the Trivium model: Grammar to Logic to Rhetoric.

Grammar schools focused on learning the broad range of knowledge and committing it to memory. You were expected to sit through lectures taking notes and memorizing long epic poems to the point you could recite it directly from memory in front of the class with a scary looking headmaster glowering down at you.

Logic schools were slightly more fun in that you were doing the exact same thing as in Grammar school, except now you got to go outside more. You were taking your book learning and finding ways to apply it to the world around you – getting the direct association of math and science and history all within your local environment.

Rhetoric schools were the final stage of this Trivium education. You were taking everything you learned and applying critical thinking skills to form opinions. And you were doing it while having debates, giving lectures, writing essays that were the length of a small encyclopedia. You had to apply all of your associations that you made and then give a qualitative opinion of them.

Associative learning is the oldest model and we’ve come a long way to make it more and more complicated. How? We developed it into a format that would attempt to quickly teach a massive amount of students a lot of information in a short amount of time: Rote learning.


repeated lines pattern

The development of “modern” higher education

Rote learning isn’t just a new phenomenon, as Noah Webster defined it in 1850 as “to commit to memory by means of frequent repetition”. It was also a synonym for a form of “unnatural learning” that focused more on developing the memory of the learner without thinking about improving their intelligence.

 Rote came about during a time when the study of psychology and experimenting on animals was all the rage. We had words like “conditioning” and “stimulus sampling” thrown around by European scientists like Pavlov and Guthrie. Their theories all boiled down to the same answer: We learn through association, but we remember what we learn the more we repeat it.

When their theories were applied to general education, they began adapting it to focus on general knowledge skills such as literacy and numeracy. They focused on the key skills of memorizing the basic symbols, focusing on structured formulas and reinforcing them by having their students practice chants, songs, writing drills and speaking exercises over and over again. And it worked.

Repetition reinforces what we learned and the practical skills we’re taught, but how is that different from rote learning? Because of our natural obsession with patterns and repetitive structures: Are we designed for rote learning?

Young learners and executive functioning

Children are the easiest examples of why rote works well. Young learners have the amazing ability to repeat a continuous activity over and over again, doing it so much that they engrave the routine in their own minds. Strangely enough, they even enjoy it! How?

Our brains crave routine naturally, we want to create a predictable sequence of events that we can expect to happen. Children enjoy repetitive tasks and activities because they know what to expect and enjoy it. This is because their developing executive functioning skills absorb information from repeated tasks, all supporting their early learning skills and ingraining their early associations to memory.

Our mind is like a muscle that needs to be exercised, the only way to keep remembering what we’ve learnt is by repeating it. And we have done so over and over again, with very real results: Learning the alphabet. Our times tables. Spelling words that change every week. We commit a new Top 20 song to heart along with its choreography every couple of weeks, then preform it in front of all of our friends at KTV on Friday. Maybe rote learning has more benefits than we thought it did.

The idea of repetition is that it will reinforce what we just learned by changing its context or environment. The issue with rote learning is that it’s constant, sustained repetition without variety. Learning methods change as we grow older. Just like in classical pedagogy, we are meant to push our students mental skills as they age and direct them to their higher thinking skills.The idea of repetition is that it will reinforce what we just learned by changing its context or environment. The issue with rote learning is that it’s constant, sustained repetition without variety. Learning methods change as we grow older. Just like in classical pedagogy, we are meant to push our students mental skills as they age and direct them to their higher thinking skills.

Is there too much knowledge to pack in to one education?

Rote is good for practicing our basic, broad information skills and a good introduction to the building blocks of higher thinking. What rote does not do is promote the “higher cognitive ability skills” that modern education is supposed to emphasize. These are the creative collaboration skills in basic information analysis, problem-solving and critical thinking.

While you may be able to commit a text to memory by reading over and over again until your eyes bleed, you won’t be able to understand the deeper meaning behind the texts’ subject unless you explore it in a variety of different patterns. This is the skill of association, turning your basic knowledge into deeper learning and adapting it when you’re presented with new information. It turns general association into critical thinking.

That is why creative repetition activities in the classroom are an import route to developing these proper associations that lead to meaningful learning. We do it through spacing our repetitions, engaging in groups activities, class discussions and generally scaffolding our learning by levels and skills. Yet now that we’re pushing to improve our education by making it more all encompassing with technology development, multilingual education and critical thinking skills; are we pushing our students to learn too much?

What do you think? When it comes to the rote versus engaging learning route; which do you think is better?

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