Drill, student, drill

Despite the education world’s rejection of “drill and kill, rote learning has its uses, writes Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times Magazine.

By e-mail, E. D. Hirsch Jr., the distinguished literary critic and education reformer, told me that far from rejecting drilling, he considers “distributed practice,” the official term for drilling, essential. A distributed practice system, Hirsch explained, “is helpful in making the procedures second nature, which allows you to focus on the structural elements of the problem.”

For knowledge that must be automatic, like multiplication tables, “you need something like drilling,” adds Dan Willingham, a cognitive scientist.

“Colorful, happy apps” can make drilling less boring, Heffernan writes.

Apps devoted to specific subjects always have the right answers in reserve. They unfailingly know stuff that might elude more fallible human drillers, like atomic weights, the order of cranial nerves and African geography. And they can make almost any exercise feel like a video game.

. . . even as they profess reluctance about drilling schoolchildren, adults who themselves are looking to learn something new — from foreign languages to bar-exam material — increasingly turn to apps that animate some version of a multiple-choice or flashcard narrative.

I tutored a girl in algebra who hadn’t memorized the multiplication tables. She had to slog through the arithmetic on every problem, which made it hard to “focus on the structural elements.”

Ten years ago, I tutored a sixth grader who was an excellent phonetic reader with poor comprehension because of her limited English vocabulary. She asked me for the definition of every word she didn’t know and memorized the definitions. I just found her high school-era web page, which lists her favorite books, including The Scarlet Letter.

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  1. This is the same issue I’m having with my junior high school students. When you’re reaching for a calculator to add 5+3, algebra is just not going to happen. The curricula purchased by the district focus on “problem solving”, but nobody stopped to think that thinking is not possible if you don’t have anything to think about. You can’t have a toolbox without any tools.

  2. And why should they think that thinking is not possible if you don’t have anything to think about? It’s not as if their jobs are on the line and *they* are unlikely to be thanked by higher-ups for steering those higher-ups away from some trendy, sexy but otherwise content-free edu-fad.

  3. LibraryGryffon says:

    And in my admittedly limited experience, if done right, elementary school kids love drills. Years ago I subbed several times in a fourth grade class where the kids had timed (3 or 5 minute) 100 problem quizzes each Friday just before lunch on basic multiplication. Each student’s quiz was based on their results from the previous week, and when they showed they had mastered one set of tables another was added. They had some practice time each day during the week.

    If you were in the classroom on Friday the kids would start reminding you about a half an hour before quiz time. I don’t recall a single child, no matter their level, who wasn’t excited about taking the quiz to see if he or she would be able to advance that week.


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