06 May 2011

Repeating to learn or learning to repeat?

Repetitio est mater studiorum, it has been said, or repetition is the mother of learning to put it in a way even I would understand.

I was on a train last week and dozed off.   As I woke up, I had a simple phrase stuck in my head: "repeating to learn or learning to repeat?"  It's a crystallisation of something that I've been thinking about for a while.

When I look at wordlists, I see the danger that you associate the words in them with the list rather than with the intended item.  (When I was in high school, I couldn't remember the names of any berries in French without recalling "strawberry = fraise" first and then continuing down the list from there -- everything above strawberry in the list I was given was a full-sized "fruit", so I must have mentally subdivided the list into two...)

When I look at recorded drills, I see the danger that repeated drilling of the same order leads to the same sort of "learning the list" as with wordlists.

But on top of this, there's something slightly different and slightly more insidious.

All too often, the tasks we set as teachers or that we are set as learners can be carried out without engaging in meaning or true language, which I term as working mechanically.  The result is that we can produce a correct utterance without actually meaning it.  In the immediate term, this gives an illusion of learning.  What I'd never really thought about was how learning tasks build on this mechanical ability.

In terms of language learning, these mechanical skills are a dead end because they rarely lead to fluency, so I didn't think you could build on them.  But then I started noticing how there is a certain skill to carrying out the mechanical tasks, so the tasks can become slightly more complicated, and the student learns to perform such tasks quicker and quicker.  In the long term, then, the illusion of progress is maintained, even as the student's linguistic competence improves very little.

So there's two things here: learning of scripts instead of learning language, and learning mechanical skills vs learning linguistic skills.  While it is important to remain conscious of the distinction, you can sum up both the erroneous strategies as "learning to repeat".

So teachers, when you set a task that focuses on repetition, ask yourself this: are your students repeating to learn, or merely learning to repeat?

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