Learning & Development Blog

Martin Luther King Jr

What Martin Luther King Jr. Taught Me About Learning

On the first day of my junior year of high school, my American History teacher offered the class a nearly impossible challenge. He said, “If anyone can memorize Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech word-for-word, I'll raise your final grade in this class by a full letter. If you get a B, I’ll move you to an A. In my nine years of offering this challenge, only one student has been able to memorize the speech.”

I wanted to be the second person.

When delivered by Martin Luther King Jr. the speech clocks in around 16 minutes. That's 1,671 words to memorize in exact order. For a reason I'm not quite sure, I believed I could do it. Like everyone else who ran a four-minute mile after Roger Bannister, all I needed to hear was that one person had done it before.

martin luther king jr

In the span of about a month, I went from only having the “free at last” line memorized to being able to recite the entire speech word-for-word (in about 8 minutes). I ended the class with a B that turned into an A, but received far more from the experience than just an improved grade. Perhaps the teacher knew that the act of memorizing the speech would have a far larger impact.

Reflecting back, I found that I learned a lot about learning from memorizing the speech.

What I Learned

1. Learning often requires urgency

With roughly three months to learn the entire speech, I couldn’t waste much time. Having a deadline of three months to memorize the speech actually made it easier to learn. Where would my motivation be if I had 5 years? Even then, my high school habits would have likely led me to wait until I had three months left. To learn anything rapidly, you need a sense of urgency. Without urgency, other distractions always seem to get in the way.

2. Chunking makes learning easier

After reading and listening to the speech a few times, I determined the only way I was going memorize the speech was by memorizing a sentence, then a paragraph, then paragraphs, and eventually that would add up to the entire speech. Focusing on a single paragraph at a time reduced the complex task to something simple. Memorizing the entire speech seemed overwhelming, but I could definitely memorize a paragraph. I had to deconstruct the speech before I could put everything back together.

Take the first step in faith. You don't have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
– Martin Luther King Jr.

3. Learning requires consequences

If I didn’t learn to memorize the speech, I would have ended the class with a worse grade. If I received a worse grade, that would have affected my overall GPA which in turn could have influenced the choice of college. Since learning the speech, I’ve found learning something to be infinitely easier if I’m experiencing “pain” from not knowing the information or skill. Learning something for the sake of learning is possible, but far more difficult.

4. Repeat to remember and remember to repeat

Learning the speech was going to require a lot of time. There was no way for me to "cram" and memorize it in a few days. For about a month, I reviewed the speech anywhere from a dozen times a day to occasionally skipping a day. I needed to give the speech time to soak into my subconscious.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was using spatial repetition to learn the speech. Repeat to remember and remember to repeat are two ways to increase retention from the book Brain Rules by John Medina.

5. Learning is an active process

I was never going to memorize the speech by only listening to a recording on repeat. I needed to find a way to make the speech more memorable in my mind. I then began to write out the speech by hand, figuring the act of doing so would help program the speech into my brain.

After a series of hand cramps, I moved on to reciting the speech out loud to myself. Vocalizing the speech was one of the most beneficial things in helping me remember the speech. By becoming more active in the learning process, I was able to learn the speech at a much faster rate.

6. What doesn't get better gets worse

If you asked me to recite the speech today, I could give you about half a sentence before drawing a blank. Soft skills like memorizing a speech need to be honed on a consistent basis in order to maintain learning retention; otherwise they atrophy like a muscle. It's possible that it might be easier for me to re-learn the speech than for someone trying for the first time, but my ability to recite the speech is entirely gone. This is why it is important to see learning as a lifelong endeavor.



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