Repetition Isn’t Always Bad
We tend to think that repetition is boring, and sometimes that’s true. Eating the same dinner every night would get old fast, and most people wouldn’t wear the same clothes day in and day out. Variety is nice.
But repetition isn’t always bad. Some formulas work really well. No one complains that the format of late-night talk shows is always the same, or that there’s always conflict, rising action, climax, and falling action in movies and books. We like knowing what to expect.
If you’re a teacher perhaps you have felt guilty at times for following a “formula” of sorts in your teaching. Perhaps you’re a pastor who wonders if the same old sermon structure is wearing people down. Maybe you homeschool your kids and fear they will grow to hate learning because the routine of your days seems to always be the same. If you teach in a K-12 context you might feel pressure to “spice up” your lessons to keep students engaged.
Let me submit to you that one of the most common misconceptions about teaching is that doing things the same way over and over again is disengaging, the assumption being that the students will instantly check out when faced with repetition.
Thankfully, this is not so. In fact, students learn best via routine. Repetitious, reliable, predictable routine.
High Quality Instructional Routines
Understand that I’m not talking about behavioral routines like going to the restroom in a single file line or raising one’s hand to ask a question, as important as those are for other reasons. I’m talking about instructional routines. As in, you shouldn’t hesitate to deliver quality content the same way repeatedly. If you’re a great lecturer, find an outline format and stick to it. If you love facilitating discussion, create a routine way to go about it. If you prefer hands-on activities, which are often torpedoed by a lack of structure, formulate norms that will guide the activity regardless of the subject matter.
The key is this: the routine delivery of your teaching won’t be disengaging so long as what you are delivering is high quality. This is where the world of education is wrong about engagement: it is commonly believed that changing the way you teach is what engages students, when in fact the key to engagement is quality content.
When I train teachers I say it this way: your students should never walk into your classroom asking themselves “What are we going to do today?” They should always walk into your classroom asking themselves “What are we going to learn today?” Do you see the difference?
The Benefits of Predictable Routines
An inconsistent variety of lesson structure or content delivery won’t engage students, it will stress them out. They begin thinking about the how (method) instead of the what (content). How will I know what the teacher wants? How will I be graded? How will I choose my topic? How will I decide if I want to work on my own or with a friend? How will Jane feel if I want to work alone? How will I make sure I have time to get this done? How much effort is enough? How loud is class going to be today? Can I sneak my headphones in or take a quick peek at my phone?
Unpredictability is not a good thing when it comes to the method of your instruction. Research on what scientists call “cognitive load theory” has shown us that students have limited mental space, and I suggest that students function best when they aren’t wasting that mental space trying to anticipate the mechanics of class. Instead, you want them thinking about what they are going to learn.
Figure out a great instructional routine (how to go about that is a topic for another day, perhaps) and stick to it. Your students will love you for it. I can’t remember how many times my ninth-graders commented on how much they loved knowing what to expect in my class. Every class was exactly the same: they sit down, we do a review quiz, I deliver a lecture, we review the lecture, we have a 5-minute bathroom break, they practice mastering material from the lecture, we watch 10 minutes of student news, and off they go to their next class.
It sounds boring, right? It wasn’t. Or when it was, it wasn’t because of the routine, it was because I didn’t deliver quality content. (Delivering quality content is also a topic for another day.) Bless your students with routine. In public schools, in private schools, as you homeschool or teach Sunday school—bless your students with routine and get on with learning.
 If interested, I recommend John Sweller’s seminal article “Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning,” which was first published in Cognitive Science in 1988. Cognitive research related to education has flourished in the decades following, as expressed so well in Daniel Willingham’s must-read book on education Why Don’t Students Like School?. Willingham’s book would benefit anyone from preachers to K-12 teachers to homeschool parents to Sunday school teachers to coaches.