Is practicing the same thing over and over really the best way to learn a new skill? The American public education system sure seems to think so, with its heavy emphasis on rote learning. Research has shown that not only does hammering facts, figures and skills home result in students who are less creative and less engaged, these effects can carry through into adulthood and affect students in college and on the job.
Time magazine recently published an interesting article suggesting that while practice can make perfect, not all practice is created equal. The interesting science behind learning an instrument suggests that practicing a song over and over won’t make you better at it. Practicing a song, noticing your errors and working on those areas where you make the most mistakes, does, however, result in a dramatic improvement in skill.
And this makes sense. Gifted education advocates have long pointed to “perfectionism” as a hallmark of intellectual youngsters – rather than being a sign of neuroses, they say, it’s the reason why many brilliant people are so successful. Yes, focusing on your errors excessively can damage self-esteem. Yes, a fear of failure can be crippling and prevent someone from trying to improve at all. But noting mistakes and repeating problem areas until you get them right can only help you improve. In fact, according to Time, it’s the only way to improve.
It’s not just learning an instrument where this is the case. These findings about learning can be applied to any subject. A student who doesn’t make an effort to find and correct errors in their own writing will never become a good writer. If a teacher doesn’t help them with strategies to find and correct those errors prior to turning an essay in, it seems there’s no point to assigning it to begin with.
The problem is that schools often don’t teach children to spot and correct their own errors. Instead, teachers will assign the same types of questions over and over, hoping that students will eventually absorb enough of it to pass standardized tests. Do children actually remember that information once they’ve regurgitated it on a test? Or do they just forget it and move on to the next unit?
The other problem with rote learning is that it kills natural curiosity – without it, students aren’t going to be motivated to improve. Why bother trying to correct errors they know are there, when they’re going to be doing the same thing in class the next day no matter how well they do?
I don’t know the answer to this problem, but I do know that the science of learning is increasingly bearing out what seem to be intuitive strategies for education. Keep students engaged – make learning interesting and fun. Give students reasons to be motivated in class beyond a grade on an assignment. Use children’s natural curiosity to instill a love of learning. Help children understand the satisfaction of learning to do something well, instead of just doing “good enough.”