Practice or Drill?Posted: July 5, 2015
There are a couple of terms that are often used pejoratively in education discussions and yet possess an interesting relationship with reality. “Drill” and “Memorisation” are generally considered to be bad things; the kind of stuff that puts children off education. However, if we replace the term “drill” with “practice” then it is trivially true that it is a desirable thing. Who ever mastered anything without sufficient and sustained practice? Similarly, would we not also want our students to remember what they have learnt? If they do not, then can we even say that they have learnt anything at all? So, “memorization” is perhaps not all that bad.
Of course, deployment of these terms is part of the romantic education-as-an-awakening-from-within narrative that sets itself against attempts to transmit knowledge and skills from experts (teachers) to novices. And yet, as we have seen, the logic is hard to sustain.
It therefore sparked my interest to be involved in an exchange with Jo Boaler where she sought to draw some kind of a distinction between ‘drill’ and ‘practice’:
At first sight, it also seems trivially true that being ‘thoughtful’ is a good thing and that if this distinguishes drill from practice then practice is, indeed, more desirable. However, this reminded me of Alfred North Whitehead’s prescient words that I have quoted before on this blog:
“It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.”
Whitehead is right. My research is in the area of Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) and, as with much educational theory, CLT bears a striking resemblance to common sense. Certainly, Whitehead was anticipating CLT with this quote.
The point is that we have limited processing capacity; a limited ‘working memory’ with which to solve problems. This becomes easily overloaded – cognitive overload. To circumvent this limit, we may (largely unconsciously) draw upon our long term memory. The fact that items can be pulled into the working memory from the long term memory with little conscious effort causes us, I believe, to underestimate this facet of how the mind works. In turn, this leads to the sorts of statements that we see about knowledge being unimportant or that students can just look things up when they need to.
To give an example from maths, the area that Jo Boaler and I were discussing, it is unhelpful to have to devote precious working memory resources to calculating 6 x 8 or to apply a ‘strategy’ to find the sum of 11 and 7. It is far better to just know these basic maths facts – i.e. retrieve them from long term memory – and therefore free working memory to interpret the problem or to produce a mental model of the situation.
Drill, especially timed drill, is excellent for promoting the swift retrieval of such facts from the long term memory. It utilises the testing effect which has been demonstrated to be highly effective, particularly for relatively simple items such as these. If there really is a distinction between drill and practice such that practice is the more flatulent kind of a thing then drill is what we should aim for.