In Defense of Practice

by Dan Willingham
March 25th, 2009

“Drill and kill” are dirty words in education.  The teacher drills the students, which is said to kill their innate motivation to learn.  The word drill conjures up military imagery not associated with the more neutral term practice, which means the same thing.  On the other side of this debate are educational traditionalists who argue that students must practice in order to learn some facts and skills they need at their fingertips-for example, math facts. 

For teachers, the important question is whether the cognitive benefit of automaticity make it worth the potential cost to motivation.  The answer is that it is sometimes worth it, and even necessary. The question is how to get the benefits of practice while minimizing the costs.

Why do I say that practice is necessary? One benefit of practice is to gain a minimum level of competence. A child practices tying her shoelaces with a parent or teacher’s help until she can reliably tie them without supervision.  Less obvious are the reasons to practice skills when it appears you have mastered something and it’s not obvious that practice is making you any better. Odd as it may seem, that sort of practice is essential to schooling. It yields three important benefits: it reinforces the basic skills that are required for the learning of more advanced skills, it protects against forgetting, and it improves transfer-the ability to apply what we know in different circumstances. 

Working memory is the where thinking occurs   A critical feature of working memory is that it has limited space.  There are, however, ways to cheat this limitation. The first way is through factual knowledge, as I discussed yesterday. A second way is to make the processes that manipulate information in working memory more efficient.  In fact, you can make them so efficient that they are virtually cost free. Think about learning to tie your shoes. Initially it requires your full attention and thus absorbs all of working memory, but with practice you can tie your shoes without thinking about it. 

Likewise, beginning readers slowly and painstakingly sound out each letter and then combine the sounds into words, so there is no room left in working memory to think about meaning.  When students are first introduced to arithmetic, they often solve problems by using counting strategies until they gain command of basic math facts.  Learning to write or keyboard letters is laborious and consumes all of working memory, leaving you unable to think of the content of what you’re trying to write until it becomes automatic. 

What’s true of reading, writing and math is true of most or all school subjects, and of the skills we want our students to have. They are hierarchical. There are basic processes (like retrieving math facts or using deductive logic in science) that initially are demanding of working memory but with practice become automatic. Those processes must become automatic in order for students to advance their thinking to the next level.

So now we get to the payoff: What is required to make these processes shrink, that is, to get them to become automatized? You know the answer: practice. There may be a workaround, a cheat, whereby you can reap the benefits of automaticity without paying the price of practicing, but if there is, neither science nor the collected wisdom of the world’s cultures has revealed it. As far as anyone knows, the only way to develop mental facility is to repeat the target process again and again and again.

If practice makes mental processes automatic, we can then ask, which processes need to become automatic? Retrieving number facts from memory seems to be a good candidate, as does retrieving letter sounds from memory. A science teacher may decide that his students need to have at their fingertips basic facts about elements. In general, the processes that need to become automatic are probably the building blocks of skills that will provide the most benefit if they are automatized. Building blocks are the things one does again and again in a subject area, and they are the prerequisites for more advanced work.

Tomorrow:  How Can We Get Students to Think Like Experts?

Daniel T. Willingham is a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia and the author of Why Students Don’t Like School: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What it Means for the Classroom (Jossey-Bass, 2009) from which this post was adapted. 



  1. Good post, Dan. But may I be just a little picky on one point? You make the point that practice is necessary and beneficial at times, but you seem to concede to the critics of practice that it is necessarily unpleasant. I think that is not a justified concession. There is very much a positive side to practice. Drill, on addition flash cards for example, can be very motivating for students. When well done it can be a “just right challenge”, which is motivating. If handled well it can be enjoyable competition. And, perhaps, most importantly it can bring satisfaction of accomplishment. And, for the advocates of collaborative effort, when done on a class basis it is indeed collaborative effort.

    This is not to say that drill is always enjoyable to every student, just that it often is for many students.

    Where do people get the idea that drill is painful? Does it come from sitting in a classroom and watching a skillful teacher at work? Or does it come from ed school rhetoric?

    Compare flash card drill to athletics or music. I know from personal experience that intense practice can be very satisfying in music. I know nothing about athletics, but I would expect it to be much the same. Would we expect young athletes to be attracted to a coach who promises no drill?

    An important concept relevant here is what I term “intensity of mental effort”. Many forms of drill require a high intensity of mental effort, which can only be sustained for a limited amount of time. Teachers should always be aware of the intensity of mental effort required, and adjust as needed (that sweet spot of difficulty again.)

    Another important idea is levels of fluency, an idea which you have addressed before, as I recall. The ed school mentality ignores this. How does a third grade teacher recognize when more flash card drill is needed and beneficial, and when it is already into the area of diminishing returns? How many minutes of drill, distributed through the academic year do third graders need to acquire this level of fluency? These are important questions, but the ed school mentality, in rejecting practice, ignores them.

    Those who reject practice are also rejecting a larger issue, concentration. I have long held that there is a “principle of concentration” in learning. You cannot learn everything at once. You have to work on one small bit of learning at a time. The ed school mentality, for some reason, rejects this in favor of “integration”. I concur that a “principle of integration” is also important in learning. We do need to tie ideas together. But I would argue that the principle of concentration and the principle of integration are two sides of the same coin. Both are necessary.

    Much of what I do, in teaching college freshman math, is explaining how mathematical ideas fit together. Fitting ideas together (mathematical or otherwise) requires bringing concepts and facts to mind, and fitting them together in ways that produce new concepts and facts. Memory is important. If the old facts and concepts are not available in memory they cannot be assembled into new ideas. The learner must concentrate on one small part of the math at a time, do sufficient practice in some form so that those small ideas will stick in mind (meaning memory) and hence be available to relate to other ideas (integration).

    Learning is work. The ed school mentality doesn’t like that idea. But why not? Work not only produces beneficial results, but, when done right, also brings a lot of satisfaction. I happen to think this satisfaction is very evident in any well run classroom, if we will only take a look. We should look a whole lot more.

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 25, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  2. Brian–point taken. I think I bought the idea that practice is necessarily boring because I don’t know how to make it interesting. But I’m ready to believe that skilled teachers can.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 25, 2009 @ 1:58 pm

  3. It has been such a long time since I was in ed school that I am certain that whatever I knew about it then, is no longer applicable. What I do know is that when drill is appropriate, there are many ways to accomplish it–flash cards being one (using games of varying kinds that employ the information to be memorized is another, quizzing one another, etc). Where it becomes a futile exercise is when it is implemented in place of understanding, or at the inappropriate time.

    As the parent of a child who every year started off math with a new teacher discovering “he doesn’t know his math facts” and ultimately sending home a large packet of unfinished worksheets to demonstrate his indifference to learning, I wish just one, someone might have probed underneath a bit to see some of the underlying conceptual deficits and working on them. Did anyone notice, for instance, that he didn’t understand place value, or counting by multiples? His understanding of multiplication (what those times tables MEANT) was lacking.

    The practice is important–but without understanding, it is meaningless.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 25, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

  4. Margo
    You said: The practice is important–but without understanding, it is meaningless.

    I agree and I think your example of your child’s experience is a good illustration of a larger point: almost anything can be perverted and misused.
    Practice is not always the solution and neither are constructivist methods. Similarly, neither of these broad methods is the devil incarnate. I think in calmer moments everyone agrees that this is self-evident, but there is a tendency to caricature people on “the other side” of the divide. Not accusing you of that M/M, or anyone on this blog. . .just an observation of how these discussions too often seem to go.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 25, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  5. Dan, you are right. Everything is not a dichotomy. And balance is important.

    Comment by Margo/Mom — March 25, 2009 @ 3:18 pm

  6. Mr. Willingham, I am a college student who has gone through traditional education and the “practice’ you defend in your article and it didn’t help me in any subject. In fact, practice is only important when it comes to sports or other physical activities such as playing music or video games. When I look at something in the intellectual realm, however, I look at different ideas and and I think about why this might work and why the other one might not. In other words, I don’t look at something, memorize it or “sound” it out, I actually try to understand it. When I started to read, my mother read to me and I didn’t “sound” out the letters or try to memorize the the rules of grammar. I read the story and connected the words to the pictures in the book or the things my mother had already told me about the book. I also wanted to comment on your attack of Alfie Kohn. I have many of his books and have read them through to the end. In the particular case of homework, the link that you cite is to the very person whose credibility Mr. Kohn has acurately called into question, Harris Cooper. In that article, Cooper himself says that the research literature has found “little to no support” for the connection between overall achievement and homework for elementary school students, which is precisely the opposite of what you try to advance in your article. I find it interesting that you actually in this article try to still defend practice even after you had just admitted in that third paragraph that its less obvious that it’s necessary when you’ve already mastered something.I think that your trying to advance your own radical political agenda and don’t want your readers to find out about the real researh on practice and other educational issues done by Alfie Kohn, Lauren Resnick, Constance Kamii, and others who actually understand why and how people learn.

    Comment by Alex — March 25, 2009 @ 3:29 pm

  7. I’m a music teacher–nobody has to convince me that practice and (yes) drill are important. It’s not until you’ve mastered a few basic intellectual ideas and muscle memory tasks that you can begin to really enjoy making music.

    In my band class, we called them “tools”–things like scales, articulation exercises, interval studies, breath control, percussion rudiments. I had folders of tools, in approximate order of difficulty, for each child. As they memorized scales, or could recite definitions for essential terms (which are mostly in Italian, alas), those tools went into their (private) tool bags. Their grades were based on “tool goals” they set–a kind of individualized program. Of course, we worked on tools and direct explanation of concepts as a group, too, but the practice-until-mastery was their responsibility. And the more tools they mastered, the more enjoyable and challenging the music we could play as a group. For superstars, the challenge/literature level could rise quickly, via small ensembles, solo work, new instruments. It was when I instituted this system that far more superstars started to emerge, and I was ready with new rewards. About 20% of my band classes were kids with ID’d learning disabilities–and I could help them acquire skills logically. And–we all played together, stars and strugglers, every day.

    I agree with Brian–it’s always about a good teacher being able to keep the action near a sweet spot. If you’re always doing the same thing with every child, drill can become kill. What I don’t understand is the “ed school mentality” charge–in all of the PD and coursework I’ve done and taught, the useful kind of practice has been one of the recommended strategies. Blaming ed schools for all our problems is too facile–ineffective instruction is context-based.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 25, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

  8. Hi Alex
    The last paragraph of this blog post was meant to emphasize that not everything needs to be practiced. Processes that are so important that they must be automatized are good candidates. You say that practice didn’t help you in any subject, but you did not learn to recognize letters with facility (and hence, be able to read) in the absence of practice.
    I’m not interested in debating the merits of Alfie Kohn’s scholarship with you. I don’t know what you think my radical political agenda is and I’d be grateful if you didn’t tell me.

    Comment by Anonymous — March 25, 2009 @ 5:09 pm

  9. I think another take for what you’re talking about Dan is fluency. The concept of fluency works well beyond just reading–my students should be fluent in math or science, having a conceptual foundation along with some undergirding basic facts to build upon. I basically tried to figure out why my successful students were successful, and this was part of the answer. This helped me understand how to plan my lessons on a macro level: from lesson to lesson and unit to unit.

    A question for Dan (and others please): This is stemming from M/M’s comment about her son not understanding the addition or subtraction algorithms because he never understood the concept behind them. Does it matter if the practice is in context or out of context? (This is something the math camps like to throw around.) Does it matter if you’re solving a problem and using your working memory to practice or if all your brain activity is focused on the practice itself?

    Comment by Sarah Hayden — March 25, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  10. Daniel: In reference to the Alex post: How does one advocate teaching a content rich, fact and skill based education, when we get slammed for being archaic, conservative or at worse racist, classicist and unsympathetic to different world views? Related: Do I have to rescind my vote for Obama if I recognize some of your views as valid?

    Comment by Matt — March 25, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

  11. “A child practices tying her shoelaces with a parent or teacher’s help until she can reliably tie them without supervision.”

    True- but nobody forces a child to continue practicing tying his/her for some arbitrary number of times. Once the child has demonstrated mastery of the skill, he/she is allowed to move on to something else.

    The problem I have with “drill-and-kill” as typically used in schools is that students who catch on quickly are forced to waste their time completing some arbitrary number of problems. Some bright students will “play the game” and finish the assignment in order to please the teacher & receive a high grade. I was one of these. Others (like my brother) will rebel and refuse to complete any assignment deemed to be busywork. He used to ace the tests but get C’s because of the homework.

    I much preferred the way problem sets were handled in my college math & science classes. They were optional assignments- students could do as many or as few problems as they felt they needed to in order to prepare for exams. The TA’s would hold discussion sections to go over the problem sets but no student was forced to attend. If I had a big assignment for another class, I might decide to put off that week’s problem set until later with no penalty to my grade. If I were to choose not to do it at all, nobody would care but I knew that I would likely struggle on the exam if I did that. The onus was on me to decide how much practice I needed for the given topic. Some weeks I finished all the problems, and other times I only did a handful.

    I wish my K-12 teachers had taken a similar policy.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 25, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  12. Alex, you’d probably be more persuasive if you had, in fact, spent a bit more time “memoriz[ing] the rules of grammar” (not to mention spelling, punctuation, and vocabulary).

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 25, 2009 @ 8:43 pm

  13. Practice need not be boring; it can be a game. The war card game can be used to make math facts automatic. Take the face cards out of an ordinary deck of cards. Deal out all the cards. Each player turns over one card. The higher value captures the other card. When the child learns to add, each player turns over 2 cards, adds them, and the higher value takes the other cards. Do the same with subtraction, multiplication, and fractions.

    Also, Joan Connor sells math games by the box at RightStart math. A good many of them make my granddaughter squeal with delight while she practices math to the point of its being automatic.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — March 25, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

  14. Another fact that folks like Alex miss is that practicing isn’t just for low-level skills. Thinking about why something works, or about how something happened, or about broader social movements — all of that benefits from practice too. Mental rehearsal, if you will. If you’re trying to learn — really learn — about how Lincoln framed his debates with Douglas, one very helpful thing to do is distill out a list of key statements or principles from Lincoln, and then practice reciting them from memory until you know them backwards and forwards. Then you’ll be much better prepared, for example, to see parallels in other areas.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 26, 2009 @ 12:31 am

  15. Nancy mentions the “ed school mentality” charge. As one who very often disparages the “ed school mentality”, perhaps I can speak to that. I have been a critic of what is taught in schools of education since about 1963, when I was enrolled in the College of Education at the University of Missouri in Columbia. As a graduate of that school, I feel I speak as an insider. Of course it can be argued that my experience of 40 years ago is not a good basis to disparage all ed schools today. Unfortunately I have never seen any evidence, convincing or otherwise, that anything has changed since then. I have seen evidence, often, that things have not improved. The very phrase, “drill and kill” is only a small part of that evidence.

    The charge, my charge at least, is that ed school teachings are not grounded in reality. There is no educational theory worthy of the name. Ed school professors do not go into schools and analyze what is actually going on in classrooms. If they go into classrooms at all they go in to see what they want to see. Rather than critical analysis, they have ideology. For want of a better name I call that ideology “progressivism”, though I realize many would criticize my use of that term.

    Much of my life I have wondered whether it is better to attack ed school thinking directly, or to be diplomatic. I realize there is much to be lost by putting people on the defensive unnecessarily. I still don’t know which is better, but I have drifted into being pretty blunt in recent years. So I suppose I’ll continue to be. There are allies to be lost either way, and allies to be gained either way. The allies to be gained, it seems to me, are the legions of teachers who, like me, felt that their teacher training left them woefully unprepared for actual classroom realities and resent that they had to submit to training that is not only ineffective, but downright false in many important ways.

    I would like to be an education professor. I have said that before. But I have no interest in joining the present educational establishment, even if I could. I would like to see education schools that have real substance to offer in their teaching, a real analysis of teaching and learning.

    My thoughts about ed school thinking are expanded greatly in an article on my website. Here’s a link.

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 26, 2009 @ 1:31 am

  16. Stuart, it all depends on how you define the word “practice” If you and Mr. Willingham see it as repeating something over and over again such as practice math problems or diagramming sentences as I think you both are trying to say it is, then your definition is not only demonstratably false, its laughable. If, however, “practice” means finding out how tall you are or how many slices of pizza are needed for each person in the class party wherein the skills are taught in context and for a purpose as they should always be, then it’s something that I can support. In fact, in reference to Matt’s post, I was subjected to one of Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” schemes and all it consisted of was facts about how the “uneducated and backward” Indians were “civilized” by White Europeans, and where blacks,Latinos,and Native Americans (who by the way were here and understood this continent long before we ever even knew it existed) were brushed aside as “nonimportant” and one of my teachers even said, “Now ,boys and girls, who has Professor Hirsch said is the leader of civization itself and always will be? Thats right, the USA! Repeat after me, the USA!” Also, why is it that you all continue to advocate “back-to-basics” and “content mastery” even though schools in this country have never left them as you say they have and the schools continue to produce uneducated fools as I’ve witnessed many times over myself. As I want to make clear, progressive education including Whole Language is in itself a balanced approach that acknowledeges differential learning styles and celebrates cultural differences among children which is real education and is why I think you all are so opposed to it. Howard Gardner was right:”Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” seems destined to deaden the vitality of our culture for our students” The real choice that our nation faces is between the conservative, reactionary ideology which “Core Knowledge” represents and which blames poor people for their misfortunes by not having “a good knowledge base”(in Hirsh’s words) or the real, authentic education for everyone in which people’s views are respected and children understand the world around them and think about the knowledge that actually matters, which is their own and leads to the preservation and perserverance of democracy itself. “Practice” is taking our children and throwing them off a cliff into the abyss.

    Comment by Alex — March 26, 2009 @ 12:43 pm

  17. Sarah: I agree with your characterization of this as “fluency.” I’m not 100% sure I know what you mean by context.
    Matt: This is a deep problem that I have thought about a lot. I started to write an answer here but it got really long. I will blog on it at some point.
    Crimson Wife: I agree that for most skills once you master them its time to move on . What I’m arguing is that there is a (small) set of skills that do need to be practiced after mastery. Recognizing the value of doing so (fluency, to use Sarah’s term) helps you not only to understand why it ought to be done, but to identify the skills for which it will be helpful. I think your concern about “drill and kill” (the smart kids get it early on) ought to be met, of course. It’s a question of the teacher recognizing who has practiced enough and ought to be doing something else.
    Homeschooling Granny: You rock
    Brian: I don’t know enough about ed schools to generalize but I have gotten to know the people at the UVa ed school in the last few years and find them, on the whole, to be really impressive. I know that’s just one place, but I had to mention it.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 26, 2009 @ 1:27 pm

  18. Mr. Willingham, the reason I brought up Mr. Kohn’s work is because it has to do with the practice issue you defend and he points out the limits of practice homework, especially for math. For example, I’ve read personally Cooper’s comments on homework and he himself seems to think that if there is to be any practice homework, it should be up to the teacher and based on the student’s needs (although he advocates certain time levels at each grade level, which I personally will not elaborate on because that is beside the point I trying to make) If I don’t have a good understanding of logarithmic functions, for instance, it wouldn’t make any sense to send me home from school with teacher-assigned worksheet or textbook problems because practice can’t produce conceptual understanding, which is the heart of learning. If I don’t know how to do them, making me do them anyway is just going to make me feel angrier and more frusturated in the process. In your article, you deny the hold behaviorism has over our educational system. Practice is but one form of that outdated and seriously deficent theory which sees people as basically machines that have to be turned on rather than active learners. I personally have felt humiliated and insulted when the teachers all my life have ignored my previous experience in the subject areas. Behaviorism does indeed still guide the way we educate our children and I’ve had just about enough of it. Practice circumvents rather than solves pedogogical problems.

    Comment by Alex — March 26, 2009 @ 5:20 pm

  19. Alex
    I agree, the point of practice is not conceptual learning. It won’t help. The point of practice is automaticity. How many processes need to be automatic? Not many. How many processes that need to be automatic must be practiced to get that way? A subset of those. Must that practice be done as homework? No. It could be. I can’t imagine that many people would disagree with the contention that the amount of practice homework should be up to the teacher and tuned to the needs of individual students. Does every teacher hit that mark every time? Probably not.

    I claim that behaviorism doesn’t have much impact on educational thinking today. Pick up virtually any textbook written for future teachers and you will see Behaviorism excoriated.

    What are the features of behaviorism in particular that hold sway in our culture that are not part of other views of human nature and were not present in our culture before behaviorism held sway in American psychology? Ideas such as (1) people work for rewards and avoid punishments (2) repetition and practice improves skill. . .these are old ideas, going back at least to Aristotle, and they have always been important to American culture. Why do you suppose that Behaviorism, which emphasized these ideas, was so important in American psychology from the 1930′s through the 1950′s but never really caught on in Britain or continental Europe? You have the causality backwards–it’s not that Behaviorism made America the way it is, but rather that American culture was fertile ground for Behaviorism because American’s already deeply believed its basic tenets.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 26, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  20. Alex, I don’t doubt for a moment your experience. It isn’t universal however. I know of students who did not understand the explanation but applied the algorithm they were given to the practice exercises and as they worked came to understand what they were doing. One size does not fit all.

    Comment by Homeschooling Granny — March 26, 2009 @ 8:39 pm

  21. This is a great thread, and it is an excellent demonstration of debating the merits of one tool (in this case, practice) for developing automaticity in learned skills. One of the major difficulties that I believe underlies a lot of this conversation is that the effects of practice are widely different among different student populations. Some kids practice basic skills and naturally progress to applying those basic skills to solve more complicated problems. But other kids don’t automate low level skills correctly, and in these cases practice of higher level skills leads to frustration and behavior problems. In the struggling learners, you end up with a downward cycle of frustration and falling behind from an early age.

    Thankfully, some education and intervention programs are trying to introduce other systems to build automation through programs that incorporate more than just rote practice of academic skills.

    Comment by Gordon Rowe — March 26, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

  22. Brian–My first experience with ed school, like yours, took place long ago, in the early 1970s. Like Margo, I don’t remember a great deal about it–some helpful information, some history, a chance to think about the purposes of education in society. And a lot of music methods courses, deeply rooted in traditional practice in music education. Nothing resembling progressivism. I didn’t know who Dewey was until grad school.

    I do think that anyone setting out to be a teacher ought to be operating from a well-considered personal philosophy. I think your point is that ed schools try to shape that personal philosophy, and that may be true sometimes. On the other hand, any teacher who can’t articulate and defend their own thoughts about what education should accomplish in a democracy is operating on autopilot, doing what their teachers did because that’s what teachers are “supposed to do.” There’s a lot of that out there (Lortie’s “Schoolteacher” being the primer)–and a lot of it is crummy, unexamined practice. Teaching is not just technical work, delivering information or following a recipe (or script). It’s much more complex, completely context-dependent, and certainly worthy of study and research in a competitive modern society.

    I respect teachers’ preferences for direct instruction, or any number of other approaches, strategies, methods, techniques. I am convinced that a teacher in his comfort zone is a better teacher than someone trying to teach in a way they don’t believe is effective. I also know–from 30 years experience– that students have different preferences. There is no “one best way”–it’s a daily judgment call. That’s frustrating for people who like things neat and tidy, but a teacher who’s paying attention, and continually looking for evidence of student learning, can fluently change instructional practices to leverage more learning.

    I think blaming educational failures on ed schools is a cheap shot, frankly. First of all, there are lousy, cash-cow teacher training programs and there are ed schools that are using research to ask and answer the right questions. As a grad student in Ed Policy, sitting in an office with 3 grad assistants in Teacher Education, our personal beliefs and goals for our undergrads in ed programs are very diverse, and always up for challenge. Progress has been made in the last 40 years on the weak technical core of knowledge about teaching, and in the last eight years, the research money has been directed almost exclusively toward quantitative evidence. A lot of the old thinking on ed schools is wrong, at least in schools where education is a competitively funded department.

    Most people who reflexively claim that ed schools turn would-be teachers into lame, feel-good, no-content all-process practitioners do so for political purposes. If ed school is useless, then we can bring in ranks of (cheap) untrained labor. The goal should be making ed school as rigorous as engineering school, adding solid content knowledge and continuously strengthening pedagogical training. Why would we want to bring people with no knowledge or developed perspectives on education into our classrooms? When you drill down, it’s the most vulnerable kids who are stuck with the no-ed school teachers. And that’s a problem, in a nation founded on democratic equality.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — March 26, 2009 @ 9:49 pm

  23. What folks like Alex do is create an absurd straw man (“Willingham wants people to practice; therefore he specifically wants them NOT to understand what they are doing, but instead just to fill out a worksheet by rote”). The irony, though, is that in opposing any “practice,” they are opposed to any real understanding as well.

    Think of it this way. Take the trigonometric identity cos2 + sin2 = 1. If a student does not understand anything about WHY that equation is true, or what can be done with it, but instead just fills out a worksheet of problems by rote, that’s not ideal. But that’s also not what any pro-practice person is arguing for.

    What pro-practice people realize is that 1) students are obviously better off if they comprehend everything on this webpage (about that equation), but at the same time, 2) in order to achieve that level of understanding — and in order to have any hope of remembering the equation in the future — students need to practice using and manipulating that equation. Math isn’t like riding a bicycle: without practice, people forget it pretty quickly. More importantly, it would be a one-in-a-million student indeed who could instantly comprehend all of that webpage without ever practicing any math problems, and who could retain that knowledge so as to apply it in future lessons.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 26, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

  24. “Practice is but one form of that outdated and seriously deficent [sic] theory which sees people as basically machines that have to be turned on rather than active learners.”

    Alex, that is a blindingly ignorant statement. Where, oh where, to start? Perhaps with another blindingly ignorant statement:

    “In fact, practice is only important when it comes to sports or other physical activities such as playing music or video games.”

    Speaking as a musician, if you think playing music is *just* a physical activity, or that practice merely adds to the physical side of it, you’re really not giving us musicians enough credit. Nancy gives an excellent explanation of the “tools” of music. Scales, chords, meters, rhythmic patterns, dynamics, articulations, tempo and expression marks, etc. all play a role in the music that comes out the end of an instrument. Add in lyrics for singers while you’re at it.

    Players are routinely tasked with taking in all this information and produce sounds based on it on the fly. When I sit down in an orchestra and get handed a part, I don’t have time to sit down and consider the problem, or look up what something means. I have to know it, and know it *now*, or I’m going to fail. My reading of the part has to be instantaneous, as does my identification of all the substructures therein. This is a purely mental activity.

    Say, for instance, I’m in the key of C and suddenly see a run of 10 or 20 notes with every note flatted except the Fs. I’m either going to have a terrible time reading it, processing each flatted note as an entity outside the key, or I’ll be able to read it easily by processing the entire run as being on a G-flat Major scale. So, now this intimidating figure is easy. Why? Practice. Not only have I practiced my G-flat major scale to the point of being automatic, I’ve also practice analyzing the music on the fly to figure out which tools I need to draw on to the point of being automatic. Unlike the scale, the analysis skill is 100% mental, yet it benefits from practice.

    This leads us to a true statement, but one used as a straw man:

    “If I don’t have a good understanding of logarithmic functions, for instance, it wouldn’t make any sense to send me home from school with teacher-assigned worksheet or textbook problems because practice can’t produce conceptual understanding, which is the heart of learning. If I don’t know how to do them, making me do them anyway is just going to make me feel angrier and more frusturated [sic] in the process.”

    Going back to my music example, before I learned what a G-flat major scale was, I had to learn what a major scale was (a specific pattern of intervals) and what the pitch of G-flat was. Once I had these two pieces of information, I was able to understand that a G-flat Major scale was a specific pattern of intervals starting with G-flat. Once I had this understanding, to make it useful I had to practice playing the pattern until it was automatic. I also had to practice seeing the pattern until it was automatic.

    Where you try to claim that practice’s dependence on understanding makes it undesirable for mental activity, actually analyzing how people think shows quite the opposite. People use automatic mental processes all the time. You, in fact, have demonstrated two of them: Reading and writing. I’m sure that the translation of the characters on your screen into words in your mind is not something you’re thinking about. In fact, you said it’s not.

    How did reading become automatic for you? Did you instantly pick up a book and begin reading fluently? Or did someone help you lay the foundation of understanding you needed to read, after which you read a lot? Conveniently, you already answered:

    “When I started to read, my mother read to me and I didn’t “sound” out the letters or try to memorize the the rules of grammar. I read the story and connected the words to the pictures in the book or the things my mother had already told me about the book.”

    You started, and then got better at it over time, right? I’ll bet you were reading as you got better. Every time you read, you were practicing. Heck, every time you read something now, you’re practicing. Only it’s not segmented out and called “practice”. It’s part of your life.

    Let’s take another common mental skill: Navigation. We all have to move about our daily lives, finding new places when needed. When you were a little kid, 5 or 6 years old, how did you find a new place you had to go? Unless you’re some sort of prodigy, I’ll bet someone showed you where it was. At that age, most kids lack both the knowledge necessary to navigate and the skill of self-orientation. They can’t build the skill to the point of being automatic because they lack the foundational knowledge for that skill.

    Once a kid understands the way his school is laid out, he can being self-orienting based on cues like room number. Then he can find new places within the school based on the existing knowledge. The same thing happens when the kid learns the way to school, and then the way to the store, etc. The more the child learns about the larger scale structures in his environment, the more he can use those structures to navigate independently. Every time he does so, he’s practicing that skill. By the time he’s got his driver’s license, he can probably get around town without thinking about it.

    Moreover, he can probably get between towns by reading maps and following signs. Now, this top-level skill might require effort if it’s not used often enough. Most people have trouble finding a specific location if it’s far enough away. They have to think about how to do it because the course of their lives doesn’t allow them to do it often enough for the practice to lead to the skill being automatic. But, the top-level skill is based on automatic skills: Reading and self-orienting.

    My point is that we use practice and practiced skills, both physical and mental, all the time. Every time you repeat an action or thought process you’ve learned, you’re practicing. It’s just not formalized as practicing. So, before you denounce practicing, consider that you wouldn’t have been able to even type a coherent blog comment with out. None of us would.

    Comment by Quincy — March 27, 2009 @ 3:20 am

  25. Also, Alex, you would do well to become acquainted with the work of Anders Ericcson, perhaps the most prominent cognitive scientist studying the role of what he calls “deliberate practice.” If you don’t have time to read his Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance, here’s an old but still useful article from Psychological Review.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 27, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  26. I enjoy debating you all even though we don’t agree because I’ve longed for someone to hear what I had to say and you all seem to be the only ones capable of undertanding my points even, and I return to my main point, we don’t see eye to eye. Its fun and stimulating. But to the point I want to make in each of my responses:
    Mr. Willingham: You proved my point. America is fertile ground for, is saturated by, and was actually the main center for the creation and implementation of operant or applied reinforcement theory (behavaiorism). People like Edward Thorndike(the father of standardized testing who favored the theory I’m sure you’re well aware of known as positivism which has long since been discredited that says everything in learning can be measured), John Watson(Baby Albert, “I can take well formed infants and turn them into anything I might desire”,etc) , and B.F Skinner (Walden Two, “There is no self,”"If reinforcements don’t work, try new ones,”etc) were disseminating their methods around the turn of the last century and their ideas have deeply influenced the way we educate our children because many of the things that we take for granted today such as the high school schedule, bells and timeclocks,explicit phonics- based instruction, and the previously mentioned use of grades and tests as reinforcement were actually little used if they ever existed at all before this past century. For thousands of years, children learned mostly by actually doing as they were instucted at home, had hands on experiences, spent time with other peers of different ages, and engaged in mentor-apprentice relationships. Incidentally, in my high school psychology textbook, they spent some time on behaviorism and actually praised Watson and Skinner in the context of talking about how this movement “engendered the standarization and orderliness of American society, something previously unmatched in human civilizations, which caught the attention of some academics impartial to it, received criticism for its lack of ‘sensitivity’ to the human spirit, and continues to animate what many of us do each and every day.” “Practice” (in the sense I’ve mentioned and support) is useful and if there is a case where simple practice as you support it is needed, it should only came after the kids understand the underlying concept.
    Stuart-My criticism is not a ‘strawman’ as you assert it because its inherently flawed to assert that practicing a math problem such as the one you cite is first and foremost before anything else. Students need to discover, have explained to them in familiar terms, and have the opportunity to ask questions and put them into written words about the concepts of trigonometry as you cite as well as other subjects because after the concept of sine,cosine is understood, then the practice can begin. Even here though, and I reiterate, practice shold be in context and for a purpose as it sould always be. After all, mathematical priciples were invented in a context and for a prupose by the Sumerian and Far East cultures as well as writing in order to communicate and trade, which had very important consequences. To a behaviorist, it may seem logical to start with the pieces and then go to the whole(ie practice then understanding/problem solving) but in reality many things simply cannot be broken down into parts because they’re more than the sum of their parts. This produces the ridiculous, fragmented, lockstep curriculum our kids are still going to be subjected to in the future unless we figure it out before its too late.
    Quincy-When I learned to play baseball, the kind of “practice” you support and mention did indeed make sense because sports require memorization of certain postions(holding a bat a certain way to a particular pitch when it comes, dunking the right way over a defender in a blocking position in basketball, etc) and music and video games also require this. I played a recorder in elementary school and I had to memorize the pitch of each of the sound holes in order to play certain songs. However, when we’re taking about children’s intellectual proficiency(as I’ve experienced myself) just practicing and talking that way to students simply won’t do. I’ve been in enough math and language classrooms to know that practice textbook problems and inane worksheet questions don’t create undertanding. That’s the problem I think we have with our foreign language programs in this country, at least in the schools. Bilingual education is a wonderful idea and its a shame Bush and other conservatives(including ,as I suspect, some at this foundation)are opposed to it even though research supports it. I plan on being a progressive educator because I want not only my kids but other kids as well to get better than what I got.

    Comment by Alex — March 27, 2009 @ 2:00 pm

  27. I plan on being a progressive educator because I want not only my kids but other kids as well to get better than what I got.

    I can’t wait to see what happens when that plan makes first contact with the enemy.

    Comment by KDeRosa — March 27, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  28. Alex, no offense, but if you’re planning on being a teacher, I do hope that at some point, you’ll find the time to review the rules of grammar, punctuation, spelling, avoiding run-on sentences (you passed the 130-word mark in one of them), and the like. “Connect[ing] words to the pictures,” as you say, doesn’t seem to have done the trick.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 27, 2009 @ 3:32 pm

  29. Alex: I will relate back to my point before. Are you trying to get students to understand the world around them? Or are you trying to get them to understand the world the way you view it? Your tone and comments have a huge socio-political slant to them. What would you do with a fundamentalist, right-wing Christian in your class? At what point does making sure students can think become making sure students can think like I do?

    Comment by Matt — March 27, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

  30. Alex –

    There you go again. You say,

    “I’ve been in enough math and language classrooms to know that practice textbook problems and inane worksheet questions don’t create undertanding.”

    Who said they create understanding? You’re bringing your own straw man to the argument and debating it rather than addressing the points I’ve made. It has been said at least 20 times, between the original posts and the comments, that practice does one thing: Brings learned skills to the point of being automatic. That’s it. The skill must still be learned before it can be practiced.

    “I played a recorder in elementary school and I had to memorize the pitch of each of the sound holes in order to play certain songs. However, when we’re taking about children’s intellectual proficiency(as I’ve experienced myself) just practicing and talking that way to students simply won’t do.”

    And again with the idea that practicing skills is just physical. Did it ever occur to you that you learned music at such a superficial level that you’re grossly oversimplifying? I have worked as a professional musician, and the amount of mental and physical tasks I have to be able to do automatically is staggering. I laid out, in detail, what some of those were, but you seemed not to have read them.

    “I enjoy debating you all even though we don’t agree because I’ve longed for someone to hear what I had to say and you all seem to be the only ones capable of undertanding my points even, and I return to my main point, we don’t see eye to eye.”

    You probably enjoy it so because you’re doing a great deal of talking, and very little listening. You responded to precisely *nothing* I actually said. Are you aware of that?

    How, exactly, can you plan on going into a classroom to teach students when all you seem capable of doing is restating your own ideas? What happens when those pesky students don’t respond well to the theory you base your teaching on? Do you adapt your teaching, even throw out the theory, when it’s clear the kids need something else? Or do you pound sand and stick with it and blame the kids for not understanding?

    I would urge you to take some time and reflect. Re-read your replies to the others here and our replies to you. Look at the way you’ve been responded to, addressing specific statements and speaking to them, and the way you have not done so in kind. Being adaptable in the moment is key to many things in life, but teaching especially.

    Comment by Quincy — March 27, 2009 @ 4:46 pm

  31. Alex: FWIW, the “New England Primer”, which was first printed circa 1690, contained explicit phonics-based instruction. So I’m not sure where you got the idea that it was some recent innovation.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — March 28, 2009 @ 12:32 am

  32. Nancy, we’ll probably disagree about ed schools, but perhaps we can agree that we would like to see them improve. I certainly don’t want to make enemies unnecessarily, and I don’t want to demonize education professors, though I’ve got plenty of criticism of them. I do have in mind what I would like to see from ed schools, and it’s not too hard to explain.

    There’s a very interesting discussion going on over at Bridging Differences, about coercive group dynamics among other things, and in my last post ( the fifty-third, of Mar 28, 1:37am ) I try to explain very clearly what I would like to see ed school do. Here’s a link to that.

    Comment by Brian Rude — March 28, 2009 @ 1:51 am

  33. This is a link to a purely satirical page, but it is the most scathing indictment on constructivist education I have ever read. It casts in stark relief the need for practice in education.

    Comment by Rich Getzel — March 28, 2009 @ 5:16 pm

  34. Alex
    No offense, but there is a lot of reading you need to do before you can seriously engage on these issues. Your understanding of behaviorism is very confused, as is your understanding of basic cognitive processes. It’s great that you’re enthusiastic and passionate about these issues. It’s great that have a point of view as a starting point, so long as you will be open to opposing points of view. But at this point you are an object lesson in the need for background knowledge in clear thinking.

    Comment by Dan Willingham — March 28, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

  35. Mr. Willingham,

    Not terribly important, but you might enjoy Steve Dutch on the subject of practice:

    Sad to say, students have been victims of a cruel hoax. You’ve been told ever since grade school that memorization isn’t important. Well, it is important, and our system wastes the years when it is easiest to learn new skills like the ability to memorize.

    Memorization is not the antithesis of creativity; it is absolutely indispensable to creativity. Creative insights come at odd and unpredictable moments, not when you have all the references spread out on the table in front of you. You can’t possibly hope to have creative insights unless you have memorized all the relevant information. And you can’t hope to have really creative insights unless you have memorized a vast amount of information, because you have no way of knowing what might turn out to be useful.

    Rote memorization is a choice. If you remember facts and concepts as part of an integrated whole that expands your intellectual horizons, it won’t be rote. If you merely remember things to get through the next exam, it will be rote, and a whole lot less interesting, too. But that is solely your choice.

    It is absolutely astonishing how many people cannot picture memorization in any other terms than “rote memorization,” – even after reading the paragraph just above.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — March 31, 2009 @ 3:34 pm

  36. Matt-All views have a socio-political slant to them. That’s why they’re called “views.” I wouldn’t mind having a Christian Fundamentalist in my class. I wouldn’t mind having Muslims,homosexuals,Buddhists,Shintos,Wiccans, or anybody else either. I love to see other people’s points of view. That’s why I’m Progressive in my social and educational views. I find it interesting that you’re actually attacking me for simply pointing out the obvious:You are a political conservative(you have a right to be that,of course)who wants to define education as the amount of factual information one can recall in order to preserve the status quo you benefit from. It’s as simple as that.I haven’t benefitted from it at all and my family and I have suffered mounds of disrespect and harassment from people who share many of your political/educational views because we aren’t as rich or privileged as you and the other members of this foundation are . Whenever we talk about something, we’re all engaging in value judgments. There isn’t any such thing as a “value free” discussion about any topic because our experiences, attitudes, and beliefs color our lives and make us the unique creatures we are.I know that you will respond by saying that “Core Knowledge” is actually about “American Values”, but how can that be when every single one of Hirsch’s books that I’ve read degenerates minorities and blames poor people for their position in society(such as when he quotes Gramsci as saying that the poor should learn the value of hard work)? I come from a working class family that has served our country through the Coast Guard, Navy, Army, Postal Service, and manufacturing industries. I think that the overwhelming majority of poor people do work hard and that people like you continually blame them because you simply want to protect your own status and prevent our society from being fair for everyone. I’m personally insulted by your remarks.You all spout socio-political remarks across this website all the time and I think you’re afraid that someone like me who you’ve attacked repeatedly has been giving it right back to you. This is exactly how a bully acts when he’s been beaten in a boxing match. He gets angry and then has the audacity to actually blame the victim for being “too tough”. Well, that’s life. Get used to it!
    Stuart-I read the article written by Professor Ericcson that you posted for my review. All he talked about was practice concerning physical activities such as playing the violin or piano, playing chess, and engaging in sports such as tennis and gymnastics. He doesn’t deal with educational(ie. intellectual) issues at all. Of course practice is valuable for those physical activities. I don’t dispute that. It isn’t valuable(and indeed counterproductive) for the activitiy that does matter and triumphs over all others:learning. Thats’s what I’ve been saying all along. Your admission that all that practice for academics does is produce a behavior proves my point.Your continual insistence that Im just injecting “strawmen” reveals your own inability to formulate a reasonable counteragrument to my statements.
    Quincy-If I’m just repeating what you all have supposedly said on this posting, why would I have made these through rebuttals to your comments in the first place if I had thought that the issue was as clear-cut as you’ve made it out to be? What you are saying is that practice should indeed be counted as learning and then defining it in such a way so as to make it look like that it is the act of learning the skill itself. Practice in the sense that I’ve mentioned is useful, but the practice you endorse isn’t. If it was as simple as you’ve made it out to be, I wouldn’t have been communicating with you back and forth all this time and I wouldn’t have had any beef with you. Conceptual understanding, which is the heart of learning, can’t be perfected through mere practice as you endorse it. For example, If I had a math problem that I was working on and I did it once in the context of solving a problem (ie finding the height of a building using geometric formulas learned in class through similar types of problems), that’s wonderful. The practice you endorse(ie. learning multiplication tables and then filling out a worksheet full of them) is a waste of time. What about the person who practices that sheet all wrong? What about the person who understands after the first problem and doesn’t need anymore? The tasks that students are given need to be indiviualized in order to insure that learning takes place. In regards to your comment about music, I spent about five years with that recorder and I didn’t learn “superficially” as you say that I did. I performed in numerous Christmas and Easter concerts with that recorder and I also sang and played the drums, which recquired intense practice for that type of activity. In fact, I have read and considered your statements. That’s why I’m responding with the detailed citiques that I do! All you are saying is that you think its okay to restate your own opinion but its not okay when I restate mine. That’s a double standard and intellectually unacceptable. Of course I’ve read about(and experienced) the educational theories you aspire to. As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m responding with my own critiques of those views and I think you don’t like that because you’re not used to being challenged by someone of a different opinion on the issue since this organization and website is basically filled with people who already share your views. For someone who claims to be an “expert” on educational theory as you claim to be(and I intend to explore the intracate nature of learning further since I believe that progressive education is very different from and better than the usual since it in itself is intracate and resistent to conformity) and then having the nerve to claim I don’t “listen” to your views when I won’t agree with you is hilarious. Since when can I “listen” to someone’s posting on a website? I see your views, consider them, and respond. Didn’t I agree with you that practice for physical activities is indeed important? You and the other posters who have respnded to my postings have a chronic inability to consider my points. Maybe that’s why you all aren’t educators yourselves.
    Crimson Wife-I’ve been studying that for years and the invention of and systematic use of explicit phonics-based instruction(ie. sounding out vowels in isolation, saying lists of words isolated from each other) didn’t occur in this country until this past century. The New England Primer, and other similar books that I’m aware of from that time period, contained phonics in the context of actual stories. In any case, I think that most parents didn’t teach phonics in that way and kids then and now don’t learn it that way either. That’s certainly not how I learned it.

    Comment by Alex — April 1, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

  37. Alex,

    You obviously have strong views. I would respectfully suggest that you need to learn to read other people’s words more carefully and thoughtfully, so that you are able to be aware of what they have and have not argued, rather than constantly substituting strawmen of your own invention.

    For example, you respond to Matt — who already said that he voted for Obama — with this complete non sequitur: “You are a political conservative(you have a right to be that,of course)who wants to define education as the amount of factual information one can recall in order to preserve the status quo you benefit from.” Nothing in that statement resembles anything that Matt actually wrote. And it’s just silly to boot: teaching kids “factual information” does nothing to “preserve the status quo.”

    For another example, it’s simply wrong to say that Hirsch’s books “degenerate” minorities (I think you meant “denigrate”). Read “The Knowledge Deficit” and point to a page on which minorities are even mentioned apart from the fact that Hirsch wants minorities to be successful.

    One of the most valuable college courses I ever took was with a political science professor who made us write a two-page single-spaced essay every week. The only thing the essay could do was describe exactly what a political thinker had written or argued. The essay was to have as little personal opinion as possible. The reason that this exercise was so valuable is because so many people find it difficult or impossible to actually READ and correctly interpret what someone else wrote. The professor said (and I paraphrase from memory): “I don’t care about your opinion; you don’t know enough to have an informed opinion. All I care about is whether you are able to write a succinct and accurate summary of what someone else said. Only after you can do that will you be able to reach informed opinions of your own.”

    You’d do well to take that advice.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 2, 2009 @ 5:25 pm

  38. All he talked about was practice concerning physical activities such as playing the violin or piano, playing chess, and engaging in sports such as tennis and gymnastics. He doesn’t deal with educational(ie. intellectual) issues at all.

    Ericcson’s article did deal with those activities, but he also says that need for years of training and practice has proven true in many areas, and the examples he lists (with multiple citations) include music composition, mathematics, science, poetry, medical diagnosis, reading X-rays, etc.

    By the way, if you don’t think that playing the violin or chess primarily involves the intellect — and in some extremely challenging ways — you have no clue.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 2, 2009 @ 8:22 pm

  39. Stuart-Voting for Obama does not automatically make one not a conservative. In fact, I know of several conservative Christians who voted for him because they like his youthful nature and promise to make America strong again. They, however, still disagreed with most of his policies. In regards to Hirsch, I’ve read three of his books (The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, Cultural Literacy, and indeed the Knowledge Deficit as you mentioned) and in every single one of them he is condescending towards minorities(when he mentions Columbus’s voyage and the “uneducated” Native Americans whom he sought to bring “learning” to ) and makes ridiculously false statements about progressive educational practice( such as labeling any researcher who has proven that all people construct knowledge during their lives as part of “Thoughtworld”) . The kindest interpretation that I can give of Hirsch’s work is that he simply misinterprets research because he is one of those who looks at something and then presumes he has understood it immediately. If there is such a “knowledge deficit” as he and others say there is, then why is it that everyone has said that going back to the years earlier this past century when those were supposedly the “golden years” he, you, and other establishment educational leaders praise. Hirsch blames the schools for something that they didn’t cause and were unfortunately used to perpetuate by people like him:poverty and crime. These are societal constraints, not educational ones. I don’t understand why you all attack reformers like Alfie Kohn, Linda-Darling Hammond, Deborah Meier, Theodore Sizer,Howard Gardner, and others and claim they’re part of the “educationist” crowd you claim to despise and yet admit they’re outside of and question the status quo too. I think its because you all are part of the very educational status quo you claim to hate; otherwise why find scapegoats who actually want kids to learn? Traditional “education” is dumbing down our schools. Our kids can’t think or act for themselves. If you actually wanted to press for reforms, why are you saying that “practice” and other treasured jewels of the right’s war on our public schools are on the way out when standardized test scores have stayed constant over the years and our kids can recall about the same amount of facts as previous generations did? I think you actually deep down know that Kohn and others are right but that if you came out and admitted it, it would crash your entire plan to privatize our educational system. Core Knowledge is indeed about memorization of facts because the sheer number of facts that Hirsch presents in his books(especially Cultural Literacy) would mean that a teacher would have to cover them like the endless lists they are in order to meet Hirsch’s own grade by grade gudelines for each school year. How does Hirsch determine what to teach at what grade level in the first place? Curriculum is important, but it should be a thinking curriculum that analyzes a few topics in depth each school year rather than an avalanche of factoids heaved onto schools every school year. Teaching facts does indeed preserve the status quo because the style and amount of facts he advocates are well suited to getting kids to get accustomed to the way things are rather than analyzing a few key concepts and being able to scrutinize those concepts (and the society they come from) rather than just run through them as Hirsch wants to do. We need a culture of thinkers, not receivers. I haven’t heard that from Hirsch or anyone of similar persuasuion and I know I never will. I don’t “thoughtfully and carefully” read other people’s words in your view because I don’t agree with you or others at this foundation on these issues. I’m not saying you can’t have yours. I’m simply saying that I don’t agree with them.

    Comment by Alex — April 2, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  40. Alex,

    I have a policy of not censoring or even editing comments on this blog unless they are obscene, contain ad hominem attacks, etc. I’m usually content to let people be hoisted with their own petards (look it up). So it is with your comment above. I simply fail to see how anyone with even a passing familiarity of Hirsch’s work could come to the conclusions you have. Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. Indeed, I would describe your characterization of Hirsch’s work as a cartoon, but I have no desire to give offense to cartoonists.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 3, 2009 @ 8:33 am

  41. Stuart-Practicing physical activities does indeed requre the use of the mind(ie memorizing the sounds, knowing when to play them, knowing when to hit a certain pitch in baseball, etc) but not the same kind of mental processes that are needed to understand and apply ideas and concepts in the intellectual world(ie. why did Julie make that dumb decision in the novel, how does one write a good essay, how to divide up a pizza so that everyone in the class has at least two slices, etc.) There are indeed differences and that the latter examples are more important in my view. That’s all I’m saying.
    Robert-I acknowledge that Hirsch is trying(at least theoretically) to change our schools, but his perscriptions and the style he advocates for implementing them just don’t make any sense. It’s just more of what isn’t working now. Maybe he didn’t intend for his lists to be used in the way I’ve described, but that has certainly been the way they have been used all over the country. He neglects to mention in his writings that testing is frequent in the schools that have adopted his curriculum packages and that there isn’t room for thinking and application of academic concepts. He decries the “Thoughtworld” for advocating what I’ve described, but neglects to acknowledge the inherent harms of too much testing(which is necessary for the model he advocates.) Assesment should be authentic and used to help students learn in the future(ie. portfolios, student prject fairs, student-led parent/teacher conferences.) Hirsch advocates that a curriculum is important and I agree with him on that. What we disagree on is the curriculum itself.

    Comment by Alex — April 3, 2009 @ 9:55 am

  42. Again, you need to learn to read. Your thorough ineptness at writing in the English language (as evidenced by the staggering number of grammatical mistakes) shows that you have far to go here.

    Why do I say that you need to practice learning to read? Because I’m some conservative trying to preserve the status quo? Quite the opposite: it’s for your own good. You would be much more convincing for your own point of view if you were competent at writing. Moreover, you would be a better advocate and a stronger disputant if you disagreed with people like Hirsch (which is your right) based on having at least some minimal comprehension of what he has actually said and written. When all you can come up with are lengthy screeds — written at a level I wouldn’t accept from a 12-year-old — aimed at strawmen of your invention, you simply discredit yourself.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 3, 2009 @ 9:56 am

  43. Alex, I’m loathe to be dragged into a discussion on a subject about which you are clearly uninformed, but you’ve let one howler slip that I simply cannot leave alone. “Maybe [Hirsch] didn’t intend for his lists to be used in the way I’ve described,” you wrote. “But that has certainly been the way they have been used all over the country.”

    So do you seriously mean to tell me that schools “all over the country” are requiring their students to memorize the list in the back of Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy?

    Pray tell, where are these schools. Cite me even one example. Take your time.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — April 3, 2009 @ 10:56 am

  44. Stuart-I can certainly read in the sense that you describe. Your invocation that I make frequent grammantical errors(when I make complete sentences)is itself silly. Sure, when I write or anybody else writes there will be a period left out or a word that could be substituted for another here and there but I think I have pretty good command of the English language. I find it interesting that your actually attacking me for critiquing Hirsch when I’ve mentioned I’ve read three of his books cover to cover. I also took a look at at least two of his What Your Nth Grader Needs to Know Books(the First Grade and the Fourth Grade) and he mentions Ancient Rome and Greece as well as Western European literary figures such as Shakespeare.When he does briefly mention anything not connected to the dominant European philosophy in educational circles today(ie African experience, Asian history,Native American stories) he presents them in a way that is very condescending(such as for example when he says that the Spanish came to “transform” the Indians, the European nations “civilized” the African continent(they,by the way, existed before we did). When he mentions the Vietnam War was fought to bring “freedom,” he puts it in the context of saying that the protesters back here in the U.S were just trying to undermine the effort rather than admitting that we fought that war without any legal or moral mandate. I remember reading in a book by Diane Ravitich anbout how he and she fought the new and rigorous Social Studies standards in the nineties because the “establishment” wanted to focus more on immigrant experience,the slaughter of Indians by our government in the late nineteenth century and give students the tools they needed to understand how our country has not always lived up to its ideals. I’m very familiar with Hirsch’s philosophy and I think its ridiculous. Our textbooks continue to praise America as if it was almost blotch free and the publishers of these and the standardized tests they market certainly share Hirsch’s philosophy even if they don’t specifically use his slogan “Core Knowledge”.
    Robert-I’ve read stories about how elementary schools in Utah and Illinois have set up a curriculum based on the “Core Knowledge” model and frequently test their students up through the seventh grade(although Hirsch’s series levels off at sixth grade) because there is simply so much he focuses on and not enough time to actually understand them throughly each school year . Many teachers feel that what Hirsch offers is a.)too much, b.)too narrowly and philosophically focused, and c.)prevents them from actually discussing at least a few of these topics elsewhere because his model wants them to give them just “knowledge” rather than decide what is worth knowing themselves and connecting it to the multicutural world we live in today. Hirsch, from hearing him lately and reading some of his articles, actually seems to be backing off from the “national standards” and “firm content” he’s advocated in the past. Could it be that he realizes that NCLB(which follows his fact and test model for all grades)isn’t helping children be able to learn and hasn’t even succeded on its own merits? I think that his recent qualifications allowing teachers to use their own curriculums and to not have to necessarily follow his maybe a sign.

    Comment by Alex — April 3, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

  45. Another thing that I simply don’t get. We see it both in Alex, and in the folks that he’s (attempting to) regurgitate here (i.e., Alfie Kohn). It’s this: The completely spurious insinuation of evil political motives.

    I don’t get it. It’s just a bizarre and completely specious accusation of bad faith. And you don’t see Hirsch making up wild theories suggesting that Kohn and you and other progressives are all conspiring to keep children stupid and illiterate so that they will lobby for more government welfare. There’s no need for such silly imputations of bad faith. We all agree, I think, that children should be educated. We simply differ on the means by which to get there.

    But Alex’s side (perhaps because it is insecure about the state of the evidence) is constantly hurling these accusations that the only reason Hirsch wants kids to learn to read is because of some conservative conspiracy to “maintain the status quo,” whatever the heck that means.

    It’s as if they think Hirsch secretly wants the following sequence of events to occur:

    1. Teach kids to read, and to do math fluently, and to learn lots of ideas about the world.
    2. ?????
    3. Political conservatism will win!!!!!

    But of course, there is NOTHING in step 2. There’s just no logical connection to be made between what Hirsch argues for, and the supposed future success of political conservatism.

    Comment by Anonymous — April 3, 2009 @ 12:53 pm

  46. Hmm. Let’s see. Here’s just one sentence:

    “Your invocation that I make frequent grammantical errors(when I make complete sentences)is itself silly. ”

    1. “Invocation” isn’t the right word. Maybe you were thinking of “accusation.”
    2. It’s not spelled “grammaNtical.”
    3. You left out spaces on either side of the parentheses.

    So you managed three pretty basic errors in just one sentence. I could keep going, but I don’t have all day.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 3, 2009 @ 1:10 pm

  47. We can infer, though, that from what Alex and Kohn and similar “progressives” say about Hirsch et al., that their view of education must be something akin to this:

    1. Don’t make 3rd graders spend too much time learning the mechanics of reading, or doing multiplication tables.
    2. ??????
    3. Liberals win!!!! Universal health care!!!!!

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 3, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

  48. Good point, Anonymous. I have very strong socialist leanings in many ways (e.g. I support single-payer universal health care) and yet I’m an ardent support of Hirsch’s ideas. Also, I attended St. John’s College, the “Great Books” school, and it didn’t turn me into a Republican. Alex, are you familiar with Socrates? He was killed for corrupting the youth and mocking the gods. I don’t think many arch-conservatives would consider him great role-model material. The great thing about a solid liberal arts education is that it really does LIBERATE you from all narrow-minded dogmas, right and left.

    Comment by Ben F — April 3, 2009 @ 3:28 pm

  49. I was that “anonymous” comment.

    Keep in mind, Ben, that merely uttering Hirsch’s name without a series of foul imprecations means that you are, ipso facto, a “conservative,” regardless of anything else that you may believe.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 3, 2009 @ 9:37 pm

  50. Alex –

    Why do you insist on sticking words in my mouth? The following are things that you attribute to me that I’ve never said, or even flat out contradicted in a previous comment:

    What you are saying is that practice should indeed be counted as learning and then defining it in such a way so as to make it look like that it is the act of learning the skill itself.

    Conceptual understanding, which is the heart of learning, can’t be perfected through mere practice as you endorse it.

    The practice you endorse(ie. learning multiplication tables and then filling out a worksheet full of them) is a waste of time.

    All you are saying is that you think its okay to restate your own opinion but its not okay when I restate mine.

    For someone who claims to be an “expert” on educational theory as you claim

    You and the other posters who have respnded to my postings have a chronic inability to consider my points.

    Those are your words, Alex, and they are all false.

    You said:

    In fact, I have read and considered your statements. That’s why I’m responding with the detailed citiques that I do!

    You have done a lot of critiquing, some of it captured above, but it was rarely, if ever, of my statements. Only once over the space of several comments have your critiques responded to something I actually said. To get that out of you, I had to direct a derisive, if true, comment in your direction.

    The rest of the time, you critique straw men. You sketch up a crude caricature of me based on what you think I am and what you think I’m saying, let that caricature speak in your head, and respond to it by restating your opinion.

    You say:

    All you are saying is that you think its okay to restate your own opinion but its not okay when I restate mine. That’s a double standard and intellectually unacceptable.

    I have only had to restate myself so often in this debate only because you hadn’t, until your last comment, actually critiqued anything I actually said. You attempted to drag me into defending a patently false caricature of who I am and what I’ve said. I refused, and still refuse, to play that game.

    When I respond to something you said, I always quote you or restate it. I want to make sure I’m according you the same intellectual standard I am asking of you. That’s no double standard, and you’ll be hard pressed to convince anyone else here that it’s “intellectually unacceptable”.

    As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m responding with my own critiques of those views and I think you don’t like that because you’re not used to being challenged by someone of a different opinion on the issue since this organization and website is basically filled with people who already share your views.

    That is awfully presumptuous, Alex. I will gladly be challenged on the views I express and engage in a vigorous debate about them, as soon as you actually challenge them in any meaningful way. So far, you’ve spent most of your words here arguing with a crude crayon drawing of me you ginned up in your own mind.

    Now to the one thing you said that actually responded to a point of mine:

    In regards to your comment about music, I spent about five years with that recorder and I didn’t learn “superficially” as you say that I did. I performed in numerous Christmas and Easter concerts with that recorder and I also sang and played the drums, which recquired intense practice for that type of activity.

    Rather than rebut my comment, you confirmed it for me. How? I’ll get to that in a moment.

    You earlier accused me of claiming to be an education expert. I never claimed to be. I am a professional musician. My insights on practice, both physical and intellectual, come from firsthand implementation of the insights passed to me by my teachers who were also professional musicians, as well as discovering what worked along the way. Part of working up to that level is achieving a high-level of self awareness of all the automatic physical and intellectual processes going on in yourself and being able to influence them on the fly.

    I have to be connected to every second of a rehearsal or performance on a physical, mental, and emotional level to breathe life into the music, make it rise above being just notes on a page to some that lives and that moves the audience. The insights I share here are not the product of reading textbooks or studies, but are the product of using them, of living them. I have learned to walk in with a trumpet, or just my voice, and never make the same mistake twice. I’ve learned, through continual practice and reflection, to figure out why I made a mistake and to correct that before I encounter the same thing again.

    When I say you don’t understand music deeply enough to comment on it, I’m saying you don’t understand the depth of the mental processes going on to make that possible. It takes many layers of mental skills from the most elementary to the profoundly complex to give a professional-level musical performance, all of which have to be automatic to allow the musician’s mind to comprehend the music at the with the needed depth.

    If comprehending the music weren’t enough, I also have to have an awareness of every sound being produced around me and have the mental ability to adapt to what I hear. Again, this is automatic. The only physical aspect of it is the bones of the ear transmitting the sound energy captured by the eardrum. Everything else, the deciphering of the sound, connecting it to another simultaneous mental process and using it to adjust that mental process, is a mental skill.

    You ask:

    What about the person who practices that sheet all wrong?

    The person who practiced the sheet all wrong has gotten one step closer to doing it all wrong automatically. Practice is not a technique used in isolation. To be of value, it must be preceded by conceptual understand. The person practicing a skill must understand the skill before it is practiced, for the point of practice is to bring the skill to the point of being automatic.

    In the above few paragraphs I mentioned things I now do automatically to make music. I know I do them because, when I started doing them, they were not automatic. Each skill I use started out as something I learned and had to do with conscious effort. I continued to do it consciously, continually checking my results against the concept. With that practice, I eventually stopped having to think about it, and soon began being able to leverage the skill to do something more advanced, that then became automatic.

    I also know that I continue to do them because I can consciously focus on one of them and modify it if needed. Going back to the scale example from my first comment, say I looked at the scale and keyed off of the notes G-flat, D-flat, and F and played a D-flat major scale where it was really a G-flat major scale. I would have played a C instead of a C-flat. My ear would hear it and, if it stood out as a mistake, I’d ask myself why I missed the flat.

    Then I’d remember back to how I looked at the scale and trace the misidentification to a glitch in my process. Then I would think to my theory training and remember that I forgot to look for the tritone in the scale. I saw three notes and pieced them together instead of looking for the tritone first and keying off of that instead. If I had, I would have identified the scale by the written tritone of F to C-flat, and would have seen that interval pointing to G-flat, at which point I could run through the rest of the process I’d learned for identifying a scale.

    Except, consciously, all I’d do is look at the scale again and see the interval I should have spotted before, remind myself to look for the tritone, and keep moving. That entire last paragraph is a cluster of unconscious processes.

    Applying your math worksheet metaphor to my philosophy, you asked about the person who understands after the first problem. Each person doing the worksheet should always understand after the first problem because they understood before the first problem.

    The disagreement between us is not whether conceptual understanding comes from practice. It does not, as I have stated clearly in each comment so far. The disagreement is whether people are capable of learning mental skills to automaticity just as they are with physical skills. I believe that they are, for the reasons laid out above. You believe otherwise.

    In fact, in each of your comments, you view understanding a concept as an end unto itself. Understanding is only the beginning. After understanding comes conscious use of that concept, after which comes refinement and more conscious use. After that comes unconscious use, when that concept is so integrated into one’s mind that it can be drawn upon at any time. Only at this point has that concept transcended the vagaries of memory and recall to become available to a person whenever she needs it. That’s the power of practice.

    Comment by Quincy — April 4, 2009 @ 4:59 am

  51. How much you want to bet that Alex will read that lengthy comment, and still accuse you of defending rote math worksheets where kids just apply some algorithm without understanding place value, etc.?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — April 4, 2009 @ 10:34 am

  52. Stuart –

    I don’t take sucker bets. ;-)

    Seriously, it’s more about uncovering the flaws in his arguments for the rest of the audience in this debate. I’m quite sure Alex won’t see them.

    OT: To the webmaster, Google is flagging this site as malicious due to 3rd party calls to malicious sites. You might want to check your third party content to make sure.

    Comment by Quincy — April 4, 2009 @ 1:54 pm

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