“The word ‘drill’ has come to define bad teaching, writes the New York Times’ Virginia Heffernan. ”Drilling seems unimaginative and antisocial. It might even be harmful.”
Heffernan’s piece (“Drill, Baby, Drill”) quotes Dan Willingham, who wryly notes that drilling “often conjures up images of late-19th-century schoolhouses, with students singsonging state capitals in unison without much comprehension of what they have ‘learned.’” Writes Heffernan:
Oh, those schoolhouses — with the hickory sticks and the dunce caps. “Harrisburg! Salt Lake City! Montpelier! Tralalalala!” That does sound kind of fun — I mean, authoritarian. And drilling hardly has a better reputation outside academia. On message boards, students complain bitterly about Kumon, the extracurricular Japanese system of worksheet drills that many also admit has made them superb at math.
“You can’t be proficient at some academic tasks without having certain knowledge be automatic — ‘automatic’ meaning that you don’t have to think about it, you just know what to do with it,” Willingham notes.” Heffernan also talks to E.D. Hirsch who, like Dan, points out that a distributed practice system (aka drilling) “is helpful in making the procedures second nature, which allows you to focus on the structural elements of the problem.”
Memorization suffers from bad PR. To be expert at a skill, including reading comprehension or problem solving, requires command of a large amount of prior knowledge. The phrase “drill and kill” tends to be used to contrast rote memorization with deep understanding and contextualization rather than as a necessary precursor to higher order thinking. Perhaps memorization needs to be rebranded and relaunched.
“Drill and kill? Is that what you think I’m doing by having my kids memorize their times tables? Heck, no. I’m building automaticity.”