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13 December 2017

On Classical Education: Repetition is the Mother of Memory

Memory work, recitation, and a classical Charlotte Mason education


This post is part of a series:

Character is the True Aim
Cultivation of Godly Character
What is a Student? 
Make Haste Slowly
Much Not Many
Ordered Affections
Repetition is the Mother of Memory (this post)
Repetition and the Habit of Attention
Embodied Learning
Songs Chants and Jingles
Wonder and Curiosity
Educational Virtues
Contemplation
By Teaching We Learn
Classical Education is Like a Table




Between the time I've been spending working on Scripture Memory Work ideas for By Study and Faith, and listening to various podcasts dealing with memory work and recitation, and also doing our first effort at having end of term exams, I've been thinking a lot about memory and memory work lately. In listening to Dr. Perrin's lecture, Education and Memory: Repetitio Mater Memoriae, one of the striking things he said, paraphrasing John L. Gregory's book, The Seven Laws of Teaching, is this:

The last law is the law of repetition, the Law of Review... he says, "knowledge has been thought into the minds of the pupils, and it lies there in greater or less completeness, to feed thought, to guide and modify conduct and to form character, what more is needed after we have taught children? The teacher's work seems to be ended, but difficult work remains, perhaps the most difficult. All that has been accomplished lies hidden in the minds of pupils, and lies there as a potency, rather than as a possession. What process shall fix into active habits the thought potencies which have been evolved? What shall mould into permanent ideals the conceptions that have been gained? ... The law of confirmation and of ripening of results may be expressed as follows: the completion, test, and confirmation of the work of teaching must be made by review and application." And he says that, unless we are reviewing, we're really not teaching. He says that we should be reviewing as much as one third of the time. That's how important it is, to make learning permanent.


When we had the kids in violin lessons, we were fortunate enough to have fantastic teacher who used a fantastic method: the Suzuki method. The more I learn about Suzuki, the more that I like it. I've been listening to a number of things that Andrew Pudewa says about memory, and one of the things he talks about is the time that he spent in Japan, studying with Dr. Suzuki. And he tells a story about an Australian student who came in, and was given a bowing exercise, and asked to do it 10,000 times. The student, of course, presumed this was hyperbole, and did nothing of the sort. But at the next lesson, Dr. Suzuki stopped him after he'd played only briefly, and asked him if he'd done it. Upon hearing the admission that it had not been done, Dr. Suzuki's response was simple: "Please do." Mr. Pudewa later asked one of the Japanese students if she thought that Suzuki was serious, and genuinely wanted a whole 10,000 times of practice on this little bowing exercise. The girl said that of course he did. I imagine that, if you did a bowing exercise -or anything, really- 10,000 times, you would have made that learning permanent. Inspired by this story, I started doing certain martial arts exercises and counting them, with an eye toward eventually reaching 10,000 repetitions. I've done more than 5,000 now, and this is a powerful way to really master the fundamentals!

Mr. Pudewa then talks about the difference between the Eastern approach to repetition and the Western approach. In English, we have a couple of sayings that deal with repetition:


If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. 
  -and- 
Third time's the charm.

So, third time's the charm, but after that, we tend to view things as drudgery. Unnecessarily beating a dead horse. In the Eastern cultures, they deal with repetition very differently. Mr. Pudewa shared a proverb he'd learned during the three years he spent in Japan studying with Dr. Suzuki:


一万回分かり始まります。
   -or-
10,000 times, then begins understanding.


The reason that we return to the classics -or to scripture- is that there's more there than can be learned in an afternoon. If, in looking at the Bible, we say, "Oh, yes, I read that," and then think that we are done, we have missed the most beautiful things scripture has to teach us: it is only through returning and rereading, pondering, and letting it soak into us, that we begin to understand its teachings. Likewise, it is foolishness to think that, after a single sheet of math facts our child has mastered them. Sure, he can show comprehension of a math topic in a single afternoon, but if we think we are done and never revisit the exercise then it's not going to stick. The learning will not be permanent, and he will not be able to call upon it to assist with later, more complected problems. Which is why our family does timed tests: 100 problems in 5 minutes takes a lot of repetition to work up to. The problems must be automatic, or they can't do them that fast. And automatic, permanently learned, perpetually available out of his own head, is exactly what I'm looking for with math facts. Interestingly, Hero(11) has learned a number of important character lessons in doing his timed tests. For instance, he will tell me now, as he's sitting down to take a practice test, about how if he stresses about going quickly, he knows that it will slow him down, so he just takes it as it comes, and tries to stay relaxed under pressure. I had no idea that making him learn addition and subtraction facts for timed tests was going to teach that, but it's a fantastic lesson. And he knows those math facts really really well.

As is the case so often in a Classical Education, the "academic work" is as much a vehicle for learning life lessons and character lessons as it is an end unto itself: being well prepared to meet adult economic goals is almost a fringe benefit. The most important parts of education all happen in the soul.

Here's a short clip from a moving talk that Elder Scott gave in Conference a few years ago: 


The same benefits that Elder Scott talks about from memorizing scripture, that of having it available to use, to be of comfort, to assist us in time of need, is also true of other things that we memorize.

Mr. Pudewa talked about how he would ask his violin students to continually be reviewing their old pieces, and that the result was that, once a student had completed the 10 book series, they had some 15+ hours of music memorized: they were constantly reviewing the old songs, with the result that if a Book 8 student (college level) was playing a Book 1 song, they would play it like a Book 8 student - much more beautifully and musically than what they had done when they were a Book 1 student. Additionally, having that much music internalized like that, he said, would give them an edge in activities like improvising and composing: it gives them a deep well to draw from when they want to become creative. After listening to this, when I was working up exam questions for my kids this week, one of the things that I am having them do is I'm having them play all their old Suzuki songs as well as all the folk songs they've learned. Although we haven't been perfectly diligent about review work, and certainly not systematic about it, when I had Hero play his Suzuki songs for me, he was able to get through all but one of them. I made note of the ones that were a little less polished, and we'll make those review songs that get focused on in the next term. I'll also have him play the folk songs he's learned before we complete our exams. Our usual practice routine for violin is that they should practice one new song, an old song, and an exercise, and that's the minimum that it takes to say they have "practiced". Perhaps it's not so surprising it's working so well: that that falls right in line with Dr. Perrin's suggestion that we ought to spend around a third of our time on review. Honestly, I wish that when I had been learning piano, I had done this. I spent years and years studying the piano, but if I don't have music, I can't play: I seldom memorized, and songs that had been "passed off" were seldom ever played again; in many cases, once they were passed off I returned the music to my teacher and never saw it again. The difference between that style of teaching and Suzuki teaching is already striking; I'm seriously considering working on memorizing more piano music, and it's definitely informing the way that I want to approach my banjo learning.

All this repetition, however, must be approached correctly: if we beat the information into the student, but in the process, beat the love of learning out of them, then we have failed. Miserably.


"The only way to produce a scholar is to produce a student who loves to learn!"
-Andrew Pudewa, "What Are We Really Doing Here?"


It's ok to use worksheets to practice your math facts, particularly if you have a child like Dragon(7) who asks for them. But if your child hates them, then it's ok to find other methods to practice math facts: we need to know our students well enough to be able to present things palatably for them. But we also need to know them well enough to recognize when they are not yet mature enough to realize, not just the value of a certain skill they will need later in life, but the beauty of a truth that we are presenting them.

Knowledge of truth, combined with proper regard for it, and its faithful observance, constitutes true education. The mere stuffing of the mind with a knowledge of facts is not education. The mind must not only possess a knowledge of truth, but the soul must revere it, cherish it, love it as a priceless gem. 
-Joseph F. Smith


Our use of repetition needs to be aimed to assist them to learn to love the truth that we are teaching, to assist them to see the beauty in the regularity of the patterns of mathematics, the wonders of the natural world, the heritage of beauty we share in the folk songs or classical music and art. It's ok if they don't start out loving math; part of the purpose of education is to order the affections, to learn to love the truth -- and math is full of truth. If loving the good, the true, and the beautiful  always came naturally we wouldn't need to be educated! So it's ok and even expected that there will be resistance at times. The teacher's job is to help the student see past their initial distaste.

Learning new truths is an exhilarating experience and a good teacher awakens that joy.
-Elder John A. Widstow, quoted in Teach Ye Diligently by Boyd K. Packer, p 194


Distaste for lovely, true things (such as math) is a problem with us, not the math. But how we meet that resistance, as we work through the teaching and reviewing that we do, it matters. In addition to overcoming distaste -teaching our students to love the lovely- we also need to help guard them against other pitfalls, such as pride.


When a tool we are using sends a child the message, "I know," and builds up that pride, and kills curiosity, and the desire to learn more, then something has malfunctioned. ... Something has gone wrong at that point. Even if it's just the interaction of that particular child with this particular tool of learning. 
-Brandy Vincel, The Late Great Memory Debate


I think that one way that we can try to avoid building up pride is to be choosy about what we memorize, and to remember the purpose for which we do it. It's not really about knowing all the Presidents or all the States and Capitols (though those may be useful); it's about educating the heart. We should choose how we spend our time with that in mind.

It's also interesting that Miss Mason didn't talk about memory work -the phrase actually doesn't appear in her volumes- she talked about "recitation", which she felt was accessible to all children. 

Memory work, recitation, and a classical Charlotte Mason education
Photo credit: David Vandagriff; used by permission.

I suspect that, not only is it accessible to all children, it's far more accessible to adults than we would like to think: we know, we have memorized, vast amounts of information. Every word you speak or write in your day has been not only memorized, but internalized to the point of being able to call on it mostly without thinking, at any point. Most of us can say what's on our minds with a great degree of nuance. There is a sizable body of memorized knowledge that you use to accomplish your usual daily tasks. Stories that you know, from the Three Little Pigs to the most difficult texts, if you can tell about them without looking at them, then you have them memorized. The same with the hymns you hum while you work, the songs on the radio, the sayings that your mother told you and that you now tell your own children. All these things are drawn from our memory: they are memorized. Most of them in the course of just living life. The trick, when intentionally self-educating, and in educating our children, is to harness those organic processes and use them intentionally. I think this is why Miss Mason chose to focus on recitation, rather than memorization: it pulls the things learned more towards the every day. She's signaling her intent that students should plan to use the things they are learning by heart.


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