Chunking Your Way to Fluency

Memorization and Practice as Keys to Effective Learning

Illustration by Sam Falconer


“How much should I practice?” It’s a question I get every time I teach Dramatizing Scripture. I always answer, “First of all, football players practice. Actors rehearse!” It’s a snarky way of suggesting to my students that actors breathe a rarefied air—that we are above the Philistine idea of mere practice. Rehearsing, I argued, was meant to be a substantive exercise in discovery and invention.

But that is a flippant and arrogant response. And it’s wrong.

There is a repetitive element to rehearsal that cannot and should not be denied. Not every rehearsal unearths new discoveries. We do not constantly invent. If we did, we would not have time to refine what we have discovered or invented. Rehearsal requires repetition. An actor can’t simply understand a character. He must memorize the lines, or he will soon be out of a job!

The great Russian director Constantin Stanislavski said,

“Rehearsals are taken up, in the main, with the task of finding the right objectives, getting control of them and living with them.”

OK, so “finding” has to do with discovery. But “getting control” has to do with two things: understanding what you have found, and practicing until you have mastered the action. “Living with them” results in a kind of procedural fluency that allows the actor the freedom to focus his relationship with the other actors, and with the audience rather than struggling with the distraction of “what do I say next?”

In her insightful essay, How I rewired My Brain to Become Fluent in Math, Barbara Oakley demonstrates how cognitive/rational apprehension of a subject (like math) can lead to “an illusion of competence that sets the student up for failure.” The contemporary focus on conceptual understanding of STEM/common core disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math)  trumps the older teaching methods of memorization and repetition. But we need more than understanding. Because, as Oakley rightly observes,

“Understanding doesn’t build fluency; rather, fluency builds understanding.”

Oakley grew up reading Madeleine L’Engle and Dostoyevsky. She went on to study language at one of the world’s leading language institutes, and became a translator for the Russians on Soviet trawlers on the Bering Sea. But at 26 she grew eager for something new, so she made the  make the dramatic shift to learning engineering—a discipline which required a lot of math.

Long story short—Oakley learned math. And algebra. And trig. Eventually, she became a professor of engineering at Oakland University, Rochester, Michigan. She learned—became procedurally fluent—in her new discipline the same way she became fluent Russian: through understanding complemented by repetition, and memorization.

Fluency of something whole like a language requires a kind of familiarity that only repeated and varied interaction with the parts can develop.

Fluency required an applied technique called “chunking.”

Chunking was originally conceptualized in the groundbreaking work of Herbert Simon in his analysis of chess—chunks were envisioned as the varying neural counterparts of different chess patterns. Gradually, neuroscientists came to realize that experts such as chess grand masters are experts because they have stored thousands of chunks of knowledge about their area of expertise in their long-term memory. Chess masters, for example, can recall tens of thousands of different chess patterns. Whatever the discipline, experts can call up to consciousness one or several of these well-knit-together, chunked neural subroutines to analyze and react to a new learning situation. This level of true understanding, and ability to use that understanding in new situations, comes only with the kind of rigor and familiarity that repetition, memorization, and practice can foster.

“Fluency with something whole…” that’s what we’re after in the Christian life as well. If we want to gain fluency in our Christian life, if we want to reveal Jesus on the world stage, we need to “chunk”! To familiarize ourselves with His word and His person so that we fluently articulate His character in everything we do and say.

Illustration: Sam Falconer

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *