Again and again and again: the unheralded beauty of repetition


Image: @jasonramasami

If you had told me a few years ago that today I would be writing a piece on why repetition is so important in the classroom, I would have been puzzled. Improving impact as a teacher has always for me been about trying to increase complexity, both in the technicality of classroom practice and the learning ‘product’ offered to students. Coupled with this is a personality trait of mine: I avoid repetition with a passion. I rarely re-read a book or re-watch a film and I have a personal target of visiting a new country each year. I am working at a deficit; at 34, I have tragically only visited 29. Similarly, I am always innovating in the classroom, trying to do things a little differently each time.

But is it worth it?

Perhaps I am just a mindless lemming, a victim of a Western consumer society in thrall to the lure of mass consumption. Some might argue that the progressive ideology of my ITT year, one that lauded constant creativity over the comfort of habit, has sunk its fangs into me to lasting effect. That’s probably unfair. What’s true, however, is that the most repetitive aspect of my practice has been that I avoid repetition like the plague. Habit, routine and repetition were, I thought, the darlings of behaviour management, with little essential use for learning itself. One example was my belief that every poem I teach should be taught differently: cut up this one, fill in missing words on that one etc, etc. Each time destroying the wholeness of a piece of literature in the name of variety.

My attitude has changed recently. I have read books by Ron Berger, Daniel Willingham, Graham Nuthall and Doug Lemov which all, through research or anecdote, place repetition (and I would include redrafting here) at the heart of learning. Lemov’s Practice Perfect has been the real clincher. Take this description of an experienced driver:

“Not only do unconscious habits you’ve burned into your memory determine many of your actions, but while all of this happening you may engage in some of your deepest and most reflective abstract thinking. While you are executing a series of complex skills and tasks that were at one time all but incomprehensible to you, your mind is free to roam and analyse and wonder. If you use practice to build mastery of a series of skills, and if you build up skills intentionally, you can master surprisingly complex tasks and in so doing free your active cognition to engage with other important tasks.”

Through repeating processes to automaticity, we may well create the space for new and innovative thinking. As teachers this is doubly important. We are practitioners ourselves, yet we also provide an environment for our students to practice in.

Here’s an example of a resource I have been using recently. Cobbled together in a modest five minutes, this was initially my attempt to get students to move from the phrase ‘this shows’ to employing a more tentative tone:


I have made my students – all of them, in every year –stick this in a visible place on their folders. By a combination of accident and design, it has become a focal point of my teaching of analytical writing. I remind them to check the sheet regularly, we employ the words explicitly in the models we write, I emphasise the words in my talk, they are encouraged to use them in theirs and, most crucially, they are beginning to use the language in their writing. Some students are clunky and artificial in their attempts, others more fluent, and others still have taken it and turned it into something much more exciting: Shakespeare’s description of ‘x’ is illustrative of his belief in ‘y’. The repeated use of the resource over weeks and months has not only helped students, but reminded me to repeat my core message about analytical writing. The sheet is imperfect – a Mark ll will be out next academic year – yet on its own it has had more noticeable impact than a whole gamut of ad-hoc strategies I have used in the past.

Another example comes from my new approach to teaching poetry. I get students to undertake this first, ticking off as they go:

Screenshot 2014-05-03 17.02.36

Each time they receive a new poem, they fill in the tick-sheet as they go – no instruction needed. The poetry lesson that follows also takes on a very set routine. In the past, in my desire to provide an interesting new experience each lesson, I have sometimes forgotten that new content is also a new experience. Might it be that my slavish adherence to variety has created more complexity than necessary? Students have been forced to learn both the task rules and the content. Another advantage of this approach is that, rather than starting from zero each time, I can subtly hone the strategy lesson-by-lesson. Repetition is often thought of as a traditional teaching method rather than progressive method. I think it might add value to both.

One last thought. I arrived at school this Friday in a post-parents’ evening fug. Year 8, period 1, came about with little planning beyond ‘consider Act 1, Scene 3 of Macbeth as a stage performance’. I started the lesson the way I start any lesson I have not planned in detail. (Let’s face it, this happens on many other Friday’s too!) The students wrote down at least three things they learnt about the witches last lesson. As they wrote, I circled prompting them: think about actions, think about motives, think about the words they used… Then they fed back; I questioned and probed, and they build-upon and challenged each other’s opinions. Within a few minutes on Friday, we were discussing whether the witches were proto-feminists or simply acting out of malice.

Only today has it occurred to me why this simple teaching strategy works so well. I have done it so many times before it has become automatic. Maybe that’s why my lessons always feel more productive on a Friday!

In all, a careful balance might be best. Too much repetition can have a negative effect on motivation; too much variety might make learning unnecessarily challenging for student and teacher alike.