What is Rote Repetition Good For?

01 Mar 2023

Rote repetition is useful for scaling quickly, to help people copy what worked at one time so that a single person might have an entire civilization as their tool. It’s good for getting a group that’s going to do one thing in a shorter time frame to do that thing together. It’s also good for making money or getting credit- if people think they can get what made one person do well by copying little parts of what they did at one time, that’s something that person can potentially sell to all of humanity.

There is a lot of pushback when you change the way we learn things. One of the blocks to using an ecological approach to teaching is rote repetition. People are preferentially attached to the way they learn things. People who did very well in competition do not always know how they came to do well.

Having applied to an Ivy League school predicts future success almost as well, or as well as, getting into an Ivy League school. The selection process begins before the application. Elites want to go to programs that already have the most elites. It’s not the way classes are taught in those places that make them great. The best want to be there, so the best go there. There’s something similar in sports. Lots of coaches act like Coke Zero versions of drill sergeants. Most people think that works well. They perfect their technique by looking at a part of the game and repeating that part alone over and over. Maybe they do push-ups or some sort of line drill. Wait your turn, and each person does a thing. That misses the timing part of the skill, which is one of the most important things. You might have seen something about timing in what you get for what you say. Maybe you said something, and it didn’t have the same effect as when someone with more prestige said it later, or someone says it at a time when everyone else is saying it. Timing is important in startups, too. Once upon a time people thought the first startup to execute an idea would do best. Recent looks suggest that second-movers or third-movers or tenth movers often do better. We can see that in the invention of motorized flight, right? The Wright brothers looked at all their competition and previous designs before they came up with a design that worked. It pays to be a little later, rather than than first. There’s something about timing there. When a skilled soccer goalkeeper responds to an attacker on the enemy team trying to score a goal, it pays for them to wait as long as possible before they react. Waiting until the last moment gives them more information to work with. Timing is not trained in rote repetition. The context of what you’re supposed to respond to is missing.

A lot of schools like this. They abstract parts away from a skill, decide that the skill is important, and that the best way to teach it is to teach the parts without the original context. This was a famous problem in arithmetic, which people tried to get over by using word problems. Word problems don’t teach arithmetic as well as a video game like Kerbal Space Program, or even better, a home project. Say you get together with a bunch of other kids every week for water balloon fights. If one of you can figure out how to have some sort of water balloon artillery, and you end up learning a little bit of math or basically reinvent arithmetic from first principles to try and make or engineer a contraption that can accurately lob water balloons? That will be a skill that you don’t forget. You’ll learn that skill more effectively that way- learning by doing. But look around and you’ll notice that most skills are still taught using rote repetition. Yes, people say otherwise, but look at what they’re doing. Look at martial arts and combat sports. Look at school, or the military. I gravitated to combat sports because it’s easier to practice a combat sport than it is to experiment with a school or a military unit. People in the military I knew loved to switch force-on-force training to scripts. Staff officers got results they did not want, in force-on-force exercises. An OPFOR or Red team does something innovative, and any staff’s best laid plans are gone. Seemingly useless. So they get mad and shift things a little bit. Pencil-whip the results to change things in their favor, so that they get something that’s more scripted. A great example of this came around when an E5 combat veteran immobilized an entire battalion with five people. All he did was use basic insurgent tactics. Anything a bunch of 6th grade boy scouts might come up with. It was enough to cripple that battalion. That’s the sort of thing a staff planner might not like. It won’t help their career, perhaps. How do you plan for a situation that is chaotic? Instead of learning that, it is easier to script things. Stick to the manual. We can also see this in policy. People tend to copy what worked once, regardless of what context it came from. Same thing goes for companies. You know, they make you sit in front of these videos, these lectures for sexual harassment, security, or diversity. You memorize a few things you can select in a multiple choice test. Everyone checks the boxes, and they go home. Many people are happy with that and think of that as learning. Or take language learning, right? It’s all about memorization. Though, who learns a first language through memorization? You learn a language by trying to do things with people who speak that language. People do acknowledge the value of immersion in understanding. Understanding comes from repeatedly trying to figure out what changes and what doesn’t change about the given skill. In the case of a language, what are the overarching patterns of grammar as it relates to trying to do something in your everyday world? Describing things that allow you to do things in your everyday world. Anyway, going up against the doctrine of rote repetition is difficult. So I want to look at what rote repetition is good for, so that we can understand when and where its place is, what its strong points are, what its weak points are, and where we might need it.

A situation I like to think about is the Seven Samurai situation, for why you might need rote repetition. There’s a whole genre of fiction that follows the Seven Samurai plot. The plot is this: there is a village, there are lots of bandits collecting rent by force, and some heroes show up and get the village to defend themselves. A Bug’s Life. The Magnificent Seven. The 13th Warrior. Lots of episodes in tv shows. Anyway, the plot is this: a village or a group of poor innocent people are being picked on. Their food or resources are being taken. Whether it’s by bandits or some enemy state. There is not much of a difference between an early state and a group of bandits, as you might know from Tilly. ‘War Making and State Making as Organized Crime’ is a famous paper from the 80s in political science. Anyway, there’s a group like that right? A group of tough guys with weapons and muscle and they find a town or village and they ask them for some sort of tribute, some sort of payment, some sort of tax. A smaller group that is extremely skilled at fighting comes by and teaches the villagers how to defend themselves very quickly. There’s an attack. The villagers defend themselves. Lots of the heroes die or something like that. Not all of them. The season is saved. All the heroes had to do was show the villagers that they had a fighting spirit by teaching them how to fight. So I believe that is a great situation for rote repetition. Peasants with a long history of doing what they’re told. A chaotic, fat-tailed situation.Time pressure- a day, a week, month, a season, what have you. Even if they had like a month, a month is not enough to develop the skill that would come from a history of fighting for themselves. So what do you do? You give them a set series of moves, you give them answers to the problem. Solutions that you have come up with. In the long-term you want to teach a man to fish, right? Instead of giving them fish. This method is giving them fish, it’s not teaching them to fish. But you would want to give someone fish if they were starving and you had fish and you cared about them. Or if they haven’t learned to fish yet and they’re in the process of learning, then yeah, you give them some fish to start. These people are not planning to become heroes or super samurais or gunfighters, whatever, they are peasants, they are, you know, they just want to survive. Give them some moves! You can think of this almost like a drug that treats a symptom. It works sort of, it works faster, then not having the question at all. If you haven’t found the answer yet and you just don’t have the time to find your own answer, it works for someone to give you the answer. It’s just that, then, without that person, you might feel kind of helpless. If the answer doesn’t work, you’re kind of fucked. But it’s better than nothing. So we have that situation. We can use the Seven Samurai situation to look at the history of the military levy. While the storied soldiers of the past may have been dedicated to war, a great majority of people fighting would have been lower class serfs, peasants, subsistence farmers, what have you, who are mostly doing something else other than preparing for war. They have some elite, some nobility, some aristocracy, and that elite calls them up to fight. They’re like, okay, we just need to get you ready- to use you as cannon fodder or or cavalry fodder, right? Because it doesn’t really matter, if you have like twenty of the most skilled warriors, if the other side has two thousand guys with pointy sticks. Those two thousand guys will win, if they’re determined. For someone raising an army, rote repetition is the best choice. When you’re raising an army, you just need to get all these people together and up to speed to do very, very basic things. Move in this particular direction, with this distance gap between you, and then attack! It’s the simplest thing, but as they say, the simplest thing in war is extremely difficult. So for that context, if you want to give all these people a shared language, or a shared series of movements that they can use to coordinate with, you want rote repetition. Remember, there would have been more cultural differences from town to town, village to village, region to region. They’re all coming together, and you want them to be able to work together. So if you teach all of them the same six or seven moves, you know, eight or nine commands, whatever, then you can get those two thousand people to work somewhat like a single organism. This is a huge problem for any chaos-friendly method, right? Like, whenever you have pastoralist societies, or the Native American warrior tribes, there’s a huge issue with the young Braves, the young warriors, going off and doing their own thing. Raiding in their own time, starting skirmishes earlier, starting wars that draw their entire societies into them. That’s a problem for those societies. It’s very difficult for them, without a bureaucracy. Without rote repetition, how are they going to become a single machine? In the long run, it kind of doesn’t matter how great they were, how effective they were, individually, if they could only muster fifty people at a time against an organism that can muster twenty-thousand people, right? So that is a place where rote repetition is useful. So the part of the large-scale society’s population that got prestige from going to war comes back. And they’re like, you know, we did the hardest thing, we beat these guys, we beat the enemy. And this is how we did it, we used this method. So then the method kind of goes into the rest of society. When they trained scribes, at some point, a lot of these scribes would have been lower class or slaves or younger brothers of nobility, throughout the various civilizations. They’re also in this situation where they’re just trying to get people who can read and write out there as quickly as possible. Where they have common norms they can coordinate on. So again, rote repetition is useful there.

The school systems that we have today descend from Napoleon’s school system. A part of the effort to colonize France. We think of France as this singular entity, but there was a time when a lot of the rural areas had their own dialects and norms. The regime took all the aristocrats and put them in one place. To monitor the nobles. It also meant there was a sort of independence with the peasants. This demanded a sort of internal colonizing mechanism. One of the methods, in addition to mapping things, was the invention of the public school. So, if you have a bunch of tests, then that’s also another area that greatly benefits from rote repetition. A test is like a script. There is an abstraction of what constitutes a skill. Parts are taken away. And we say that all these parts constitute this skill. And these parts can be tested and because it’s easier to test them, we can get people to do what we want more easily than if we were to give them a project or a general mission. It would be difficult to have this sort of accountability without rote repetition. The kind of accountability that a modern bureaucratic management would want from the larger part of its population. If you don’t have tests, the only way to evaluate whether someone is doing something well is if you know what they’re doing. Doing that is actually more difficult than it might sound. Say, say you are a guy behind a desk and you want to evaluate if the potato farmer is lying to you or not. You have to know a little bit about farming. At least, you have to Pareto optimize your knowledge of potato farming. Given that he knows much more about potato farming than you, he can tell you whatever he wants. So then it comes down to the relationship. Maintaining relationships is actually quite difficult if you don’t live next to someone all the time. Even then it’s difficult, right? Like, family is notoriously hard to get along with. So if you then fail to maintain that relationship, how can you actually evaluate what someone is doing? What they tell you they might be doing might not be what they’re doing. Often it isn’t what they’re doing. In that situation, it is beneficial to have tests that then require rote memorization. Which then brings us to religion, which is a method that we have used for thousands of years to weave hundreds of millions of people together. Without some sort of formal religion, we may not have a way to bind so many people together.

Our universalizing world religions include what the anthropologist Harvey Whitehouse calls ‘doctrinal ritual’. So you need this doctrinal ritual, as opposed to imagistic ritual, to bind large groups of people together. You can sort of map these two modes of religiosity onto the Apollonian and Dionysian energies that Nietzsche describes. The Apollonian maps onto doctrinal ritual and the Dionysian maps onto imagistic ritual. Religion involves both, though modern religion relies heavily on the doctrinal side. What that means is, with doctrinal ritual, you have rituals that are very regular. Most of our modern religions are now all like this. It’s one of the tools they used to win. They’re very repetitive, and they are low energy. Think of going to church, or lighting incense to your ancestors. Putting slices of cucumber in front of the little God every day. Things like that. Saying a prayer before you eat. Imagistic ritual is what you might see more often in small-scale societies, with people dancing around a fire, doing something really dysphoric like cutting someone’s penis skin off when they’re fifteen or doing tattoos or putting ants on each other or sending someone out into the wilderness to sit all day in the same spot in the sun without any water or food. All those are examples of imagistic rituals. You could also say the modern day rave is an example. Orgies? Classic Imagistic Ritual. Possibly you could do a doctrinal ritual orgy, though who would get hard for that? Someone, probably. So, one of the key aspects of the doctrinal ritual is that you repeat the same movements, the same phrases at set times, like clockwork. You need rote repetition for that. Some of the oldest religious stuff we have is in the Vedas. The RigVeda survived by having an unbroken lineage of people who are just memorizing the same songs for hundreds of years. That brings us to another extremely valuable part of rote repetition, which is to say, cultural preservation. That’s something one of the coaches at Arena Weapon Arts in Austin,TX points out. He points out that katas (or martial arts forms) are useful for taking snapshots in time. They teach swordplay descended from Historical European Martial Arts, which was a reconstruction of the Fechtbuch, the fight book, the fighting manuals of medieval fencing masters. So they started with the forms, the set abstracted patterns of movement, before they moved on to modern competition sport formats. To see what people were doing in the past, the form is useful. To copy what worked for someone in a past context, you do your crescent kick, your perfect armbar, whatever it is, your ox stance- those are snapshots in time of what worked for someone. They are snapshots of what some group did. It might be a group you care a lot about. Bards and priests carried the Vedas to us with rote repetition. We have an idea of our history because of that rote memorization. And so, repetition is extremely important for Cultural Preservation. One of the things freezing that knowledge does is give us access to a bigger collective brain over time. Now we’re connected to more of our past because of that rote repetition, we can build on it. Though, if you were a priest or something like that, because your job is to preserve the culture, you might not be so great at building on the culture. Let’s imagine you have a hard disk. You want your hard disk to keep the same state you left it in two weeks ago, if two weeks ago was the last time you accessed the data on your hard drive. You don’t want it to just start adding things when you go away. So imagine you go away from your computer or your phone, and then you come back. New things have been downloaded and software states have been changed and whatnot. That wouldn’t be very useful to you! So a priest serves a function as a human cultural preserver. We can think of a lot of martial arts instructors and teachers in the same way. They’re here to preserve data. They’re not here to build on it, or they wouldn’t see their job as building on it. So, they might fight any attempt to build on it, even though the benefit of what they have done is for someone else to build on it.

We kind of have better ways to do snapshots of things now. One of the great technological advances brought video cameras to our pockets. You don’t really need to use rote repetition to go back in time if you have a video of that time. To analyze how you might do better next time, you can take video of all your sparring sessions. We have many more ways to record what happened in a particular place in time. There’s not as much need to memorize everything. If you have access to a machine that does that way better, that machine is better designed for rote repetition than you. When I joined the army, I noticed that a lot of my vocabulary disappeared. In its place, I picked up a lot of data that was important for me in the field, where I didn’t really use a phone. How much gas a particular vehicle needed, what kind of ammunition a particular weapon used. Things like calculating medical dosages. All those things. I memorized those while losing a lot of my vocabulary. That was a reflection of what I was doing at the time, what I needed at the time. But, you know, you might walk into a clinic, and the doctor might be Googling something. The doctor has access to this larger brain. Part of that brain is something that memorizes things for you. So you’re free to make the decision, you’re free to experiment and explore and push your skill further. In the context where you don’t have access to that, you don’t have pen and paper, you don’t have a computer? Rote repetition pays! Plays, right? If you want to perform a play (which is a sort of cultural preservation) or even a speech that’s been done many times before, or a song that’s been done many times before, with particular lyrics instead of building on the lyrics, then you do want to memorize the exact words. Though, you will notice that it’s easier to memorize things when your method of memorization isn’t rote repetition. Like when you are telling yourself a novel story that is connecting things together to aid rote repetition, you’re not using rote repetition to do rote repetition.Though there’s timing, again. The speed thing comes into, ahem, play. Like if you give me a year, I could probably understand the story through the beats of a play enough to memorize the words of that play. But most plays are done in a month and a half to three months to four months at most. In that limited timeframe, the best you have is rote repetition.

And so those are some of the things that I’ve found rote repetition useful for.