During my radio interview with historian, Martin Marty, I shared something with him which he found helpful.  We were not talking about historical matters, but grief.  I was interviewing Professor Marty on a book he wrote about his first wife’s death from cancer.

After the interview, I realized my reflections also related to learning.

The three diagrams below represent various ways we may conceive of the learning process.

The circle emphasizes that “repetition is the key to learning” because we are always coming back to things we thought we learned.  The problem is that there is no movement forward.  True learning means that we are growing in our knowledge.  A circle depicts the repetitious nature of learning okay, but not the dynamic of progress.

The second graph shows an arrow moving forward.  It reflects progression which is good, but it fails to depict that learning involves reviewing former things we’ve learned or going back to earlier lessons and seeing fresh insight there.  Progression simply in a linear direction is not a good example of how the best learning takes place.

The illustration I shared with Professor Marty is the one which best depicts learning: the spiral staircase.  It includes the best contributions of the circle and the line.  Like the circle it reminds us that true learning means coming back to things we’ve previously learned and like the line it reminds us that we should be making progress.


  1. Jeannie Love

    Having taught twenty-five years covering all grade levels, I submit that the rote learning that was (in essence) required decades ago has NOT been embraced by today’s educators and that is why our students know so little. The baby has been ‘thrown out with the bath water’ (as the saying goes). Darn!

  2. Dave Post author

    The learning you speak of is indispensable to a true education. We must be able to easily retrieve (and that comes from memorization) salient facts in order to grow in discernment and wisdom.

  3. Lindsey

    I like the spiral model. You may not have read Dinotopia, but in that book, time is also referred to as a spiral, which seems fitting, since it is also repetitive but with progress.

  4. Dave Post author

    Thanks Lindsey. I vaguely remembering hearing about Dinotopia. Interesting that he would picture time that way!


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