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I was going to write about repetition using Ignaz Semmelweis as an analogy but Carl Hendrick got there first. Which was annoying.

But then I thought, screw it: because, you know, repetition.

Ah, repetition: the great velvet-gloved hammer of the teacher. Ah, repetition: the slow-burner, bubbling away in the background. Ah, repetition: but Sir, we know this now – why do we have to keep doing it?

We all realise, I hope, that just doing something over and over again will only embed imperfections. Didn’t Einstein say something about repetition and madness? I’ve been focussing my lens this last term on what I’ll call protean repetition. I’ve no idea if this is an actual phrase, or whether I’ve just coined it, or whether it indeed means something else in another field.

This is a process whereby I repeat a central stem of actions, events and ideas by shifting the approach each time over a period of five or six weeks. It’s a deliberate attempt to create liminality in the way students approach and discuss the facts without compromising (hopefully improving) their ability to recall what actually happened. In essence I want my students to be able to do a lot with a little, to be versatile and knowledge-heavy.

Why is this so tough? Well, we tend to forget things, hence Ebbinghaus and his famous curve. Repeated, low-stakes testing appears to increase the chances of successful recall as long as mistakes are corrected through feedback, at least according to a study by Robert Bjork cited by Daniel Willingham here. (1) However, this recent paper seems to suggest that the benefits of testing disappear as the complexity of learning increases. (2) So, testing’s OK as long as it isn’t too difficult?

But hang on: isn’t the act of trying to remember something also beneficial? Daniel Willingham again:

‘… trying to remember something can actually help cement things in memory more effectively than further study …

‘A tentative interpretation is that you get the benefit because the right answer is lurking in the background of your memory and is somewhat strengthened, even though you didn’t produce it.

‘This account is speculation, obviously, and the authors don’t pretend it’s anything else. I wish that they were equally circumspect in their guess at the prospects for applying this finding in the classroom. Sure, it’s an important piece of the overall puzzle, but I can’t agree that “this line of research is relevant to any real world situation where novel information is to be learned, for example when learning concepts in science, economics, politics, philosophy, literary theory, or art.”‘

But I want students to remember and then be flexible in their redeployment on paper. This is breadth versus depth, they can’t both win. To help my students be better historians I could argue that they need to know a little in a lot of detail; on the other hand I might argue that knowing less about more gives them a more rounded appreciation of the subject.

(For what it’s worth I’ve moved between the two and am currently residing on the depth side. However, Harry Fletcher-Wood did get me thinking about another approach …)

Hmmm. Here’s my tentative interpretation: a more complex question might be useful for strengthening recall over time if the answers are themselves simple. For example, on the November Criminals:

  • Easy What was the name given to the German politicians who surrendered to the Allies?
  • Harder Many Germans believed they had been stabbed in the back at Versailles, but by who?
  • Harder still Stresemann worked hard to win over a public angry at their treatment by …?

The same answer can be produced by a multitude of questions, each differing in their degree of complexity. Same output, different input. So I guess I’m interested in the input as much as the teaching approach.

If I expect a more complex answer students have to have approached the same facts in a variety of different ways: their ability to handle information needs to become more adroit, adaptable and ambidextrous: hence protean repetition.

If I want students to know a lot about a little then I have to test, non-threateningly, often; I have to change those tests regularly and throw in the odd wild-card. However, if I want students to also have that adeptness then I need to include multiple approaches, siphoning in anecdotes, hooks and context.

Semmelweis and Y8

If you don’t know the story then here it is, massively digested.

Ignaz Semmelweis was a Hungarian doctor who had a lightbulb moment in recognising a possible link between clean hands and infection. His experiments demonstrated a correlation between greater hygiene and lower mortality rates on his maternity ward. However, this was before Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory. His bosses didn’t believe him and despite mountains of statistics he eventually left his job. In fact, he eventually went mad. He died, ironically, of an infection.

Y8 have been studying the development of medicine and treatment in the C19. At the start of every lesson they have paired off to test each other on the key events, actions and ideas using these cards. There are images on the back which one student looks at whilst trying to link the image to the information – a classic revision technique.


Note that they began every lesson with these cards. I was trying to build in an idea of chronology alongside not yet studied facts so that these became more recognisable – and so I could explain in greater detail – when we eventually reached that part of the story.

I began, however, by telling the story of a Scottish doctor whose helpful advice to an ulcer sufferer was to improve his diet. The patient’s ulcers disappeared and yet he did not thank the doctor. Instead he thanked a certain Jenny Donaldson who had recommended spiders’ webs as an ulcer cure – lo and behold his ulcers disappeared. The point was to introduce the idea of ignorance and mistrust which would be repeated later with Semmelweis.

To emphasise this point I said that I’d been told of a magic word (a student’s name, say) which would open the door. I then made a big show of rubbing my hands together, breathing deeply and saying that name – and then clearly opening the door with my hand.

‘Oh my God!’, I’d exclaim – the magic word worked! After repeated variations with pens falling to the floor and and the PPT slide changing they got the message. But that repeated metaphor, however clumsy, was quicksilver in its approach. Now all I had to do was to find a way to squash it into every lesson.

This was actually easy.

‘Do you remember the Scottish doc .. Yes, that’s right, yes … And why did they … And where’s the similarity here? Or is it the sa .. Great, can you tell me more? And why did the ulcer sufferer believe .. And so can you see  …?’

By the time we reached Semmelweis the notion of fearful attitudes and beliefs was well set. But here’s the thing: I actually didn’t need to put Semmelweis in. I did, however, include his story because he became another metaphor: he became that Scottish doctor. Later in the term another version: Robert Koch’s anger at Louis Pasteur ‘stealing’ his Anthrax experiment. I also added the remarkable story of Mary Mallon (a must read) which, though not in our period of study, gave a sense of fear and ignorance moving beyond the sometimes too-distant pre-C20.

And still the cards. Every lesson. They tested each other; I tested them; sometimes they knew the same test was coming, other times they did not; sometimes I changed the test; sometimes I asked for only dates; sometimes I wanted four facts or their answer wouldn’t count.

SPECTRM and factors

I unashamedly use this acronym to better my students’ factual recall and comprehension.

Social,  Political, Economic, Cultural, Technological, Religious, Military.

Students are very used to these: SPECTRM’s taken no time at all to embed. As long as I use this often it’s a great tool for getting students to think differently about their facts. During this topic we investigated many of the medical discoveries using factors as well, such as War, Chance, Individual Genius and Communication – I nabbed these from a GCSE spec. Factors, I’ve found, are also a really useful way to test students’ recall – ‘Good morning! Three facts for each SPECTRM factor, back of your book, six minutes – go.’

Learn: test test test test test test test.

Semmelweis became a hook on which to hang context, and this context gave the students a greater ability to introduce anecdotes, offer similarities and consider contemporary contextual attitudes as reasons for success or otherwise of the various discoveries. And something I hadn’t expected: every time I subsequently mentioned Semmelweis each of my four Y8 classes would say, almost in unison, ‘Oh, that’s so ironic that he died of an infection – the irony, Sir!’

Learn: test repeat test repeat test repeat test repeat test

Except each test was slightly different and each repetition was too. Each repetition added something new or approached the topic from a different view – religious, political, European.

We have to be careful when adding new ideas, however. Some work with the narrative to drive a sub plot: Nikita Khrushchev, for example, notably called Western journalists – who he mistakenly thought were West German – fascist bastards in a peace conference in May 1960; he also described West Berlin as the West’s testicles: ‘If I squeeze on Berlin the West screams.’ These anecdotes, repeated and revisited I think serve to aid recall because they build a story on memorable hooks.

However, one mistake I’ve been guilty of when teaching the Cold War at GCSE (all very ‘West good, East bad) is worrying too much about differing views of communism. I’ve in the past focussed too heavily on the Cuban Revolution because I wanted students to understand that some people did want an economic option other than capitalism. I muddied the story, though, and thus the factual recall suffered – hang on, Sir, I’m confused now.

Instead I’ve now created cards for this course as well. There are more, obviously, and the each card has ‘more ink’, as I like to put it. GCSE students are currently testing themselves on history they haven’t yet studied so that when we reach that event (I do teach chronologically) we can be more adaptable. And because, you know: repetition.

Have a read of another of Harry Fletcher-Wood’s excellent blogs on mastery in history teaching.


1. http://www.danielwillingham.com/daniel-willingham-science-and-education-blog/better-studying-less-studying-wait-what

2. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10648-015-9310-x/fulltext.html#CR16