Discover more from Higher Ground's Friday Notes
Repetition without repetition
Happy Friday, everyone.
In Montessori classrooms, children repeat exercises with the materials. Sometimes dozens of times in one sitting and hundreds of times across the course of their education. Montessori often recounted the first time she saw a child engaged in such repetition, with cylinder blocks:
I watched the child intently without disturbing her at first, and began to count how many times she repeated the exercise; then, seeing that she was continuing for a long time, I picked up the little arm-chair in which she was seated, and placed chair and child upon the table; the little creature hastily caught up her case of insets, laid it across the arms of her chair, and gathering the cylinders into her lap, set to work again. Then I called upon all the children to sing; they sang, but the little girl continued undisturbed, repeating her exercise even after the short song had come to an end. I counted forty-four repetitions when at last she ceased, it was quite independently of any surrounding stimuli which might have distracted her, and she looked round with a satisfied air, almost as if awaking from a refreshing nap. (The Advanced Montessori Method)
Repetition, Montessori recognized, is a critical component of learning. It’s almost never adequate to do something just once if one really wants to learn it.
And repetition has always been part of schools, for centuries before Montessori. Over two thousand years ago, children in Hellenistic Egypt engaged in rote drills with Greek letters, over and over again, sometimes for years, to learn literacy. Schoolchildren have complained about boring, mind-numbing repetition in school for as long as school has existed.
What makes some repetition interesting and some repetition boring? What makes repetition in Montessori education different?
There’s the obvious fact that children choose to repeat exercises in Montessori, as the above illustration indicates. But why do they do this? Why is repetition interesting in a Montessori context, even though it’s so boring in many other contexts?
The great (and underappreciated) psychologist Nikolai Bernstein was very interested in this phenomenon. He came up with a notion that I find extremely useful: “repetition without repetition”. What he meant was that you do repetitions that aren’t exact repetitions and that aren’t mere repetitions. “Practice,” he wrote,
when properly undertaken, does not consist in repeating the means of solution of a motor problem time after time, but in the process of solving this problem again and again by techniques which we changed and perfected from repetition to repetition. (Dexterity and Its Development)
Consider the cylinder blocks. The goal is to get all of the cylinder blocks back into their place in the inset. Here’s my daughter doing it (blindfolded):
This is a sensorimotor sorting task, one with a specific goal and numerous potential points of failure. There are hundreds of specific ways you can go wrong in this exercise, and countless specific cues to look for in determining success or failure. There are questions as to how to start and how to presort the blocks. When one takes them out and mixes them up, they are in a different order each time. And then there are further variations, like the blindfold: you can do it just by touch, sensing the same phenomena by non-visual means.
“Repetition without repetition” means that one can repeat this material hundreds of times and still encounter novel challenges. At an abstract level, the problem and the solution are roughly the same. But in vivo, the solution demands slightly different specific attentional patterns and motions and corrections each time. She would find just practicing the motions themselves, like a muscle isolation drill, boring. Repeating “the means of a solution”, as Bernstein says, is neither an interesting nor helpful form of practice. But repeating “the process of solving this problem again and again” is both interesting and helpful.
This might sound like a small point, but it’s a major pedagogical innovation. Education requires repetition. But repetition in education is generally rote, fatiguing, and uninspiring. Many progressive approaches attempt to eschew repetition for this reason. They instead favor learning by doing in a more unstructured way. While unstructured learning can be great, it often doesn’t work well as a foundational learning exercise, precisely because more rigor and repetition are required.
Montessori figured out a way to make repetition more interesting, more valuable, and more choiceworthy for the child. She transformed artificial exercises that were boring for older children into more authentic, ambitious practice for younger children.
Work with Montessori materials are still highly constrained exercises, but they are real problems, problems that can be complicated just enough to make it interesting for young children to repeat. It’s repetition without repetition. It’s rigor without rote.
Have a great weekend,
Executive Director, Montessorium