Does Drill Really Kill?

“It’s not necessarily the amount of time you spend at practice that counts; it’s what you put into the practice.”
Eric Lindros (Canadian professional ice hockey legend)

“I know a lot of people think it’s monotonous, down the black lines over and over, but it’s not if   you’re enjoying what you’re doing. I love to swim and I love to train.”
Author: Tracy Caulkins

It is possible to get repetition without simple drill and skill exercises.

First, I want to say a few words about repetition.  Repetition is good.  Because we now know what happens in the minds of good readers, it is the final purpose to create these automatic habits of thought, e.g., decoding automatically.  Drilling is another matter.  Drilling usually refers to repeated practice that is decontextualized.  Did anyone see the Karate Kid?  I’m talking about the remake.  In the film, the Karate master instructed the student to hang up his coat on a rack over and over again. The protagonist was getting very frustrated.  He didn’t understand the value in the practice.    True, he was building an important set of skills that would later become  defense moves in combat.  The student became frustrated because it made no sense to him.  Hanging a coat isn’t exactly a laugh riot.  Because decontextualized tasks often lack purpose and meaning, token rewards or punishments are usually used as reinforcement.  In the learning I imagine, we do understand that sub skills are important.  We also know that kids don’t want to engage in what amounts to repeatedly hanging up a jacket.  So, we build relevant sub skills in a gaming environments.  We keep learning fun, playful, meaningful and inspiring.

Psychologists and many wise adults now know that intrinsic motivation is superior to extrinsic motivation.  To put it simply, if a child really wants to practice something, it will be hard to stop her.  I have used the example of wind sprints.  Anyone who has done them knows that it is probably the least liked part of most athletic practices.  An intense basketball game could easily produce the same time on task and perhaps a higher quality of effort.  Repetition embedded in a game, conversely,  ensures motivation, high quality attention, and positive emotions and enthusiasm.  This is important.  The scientific community now knows that positive affect leads to better learning outcomes. Fun is a tremendous motivator!  Curiosity is so powerful that I believe it on one occasion killed a cat.

Another important point is that too much drill  is not always better when practicing skills.  The scientific literature has shown that distributed practice is often superior to singular drilling when promoting transfer of learning to other tasks.  In other words, it is better to take periodic breaks when learning a new skill.  A skill practiced too frequently in one domain without sufficient time for reflection can lead to problems.  The learner may not be able to apply the new skill to novel situations.   Carefully designed games that are  guided by clinical experience and research on how children best learn can lead to thoughtful, self-directed learners.  Children need to learn in a developmentally appropriate manner.   Play is intense and even play may require variety and frequent breaks.

Music is a great example of contextualized learning.  Songs offer an entertaining context for repetition.  The song is a vessel that has scales, intervals, and foundational technique within it.  If we love a song and want to master it, we want to play it over and over again.  As an adult, I love the meditative state of mind produced by simply playing scales.  As a youngster, however, I just wanted to rock.  The child’s nature is to play.   We see it in puppies, kittens, and all over the animal kingdom.  It seems hardwired into us.  Why not make this awareness a centerpiece in educating children?  They will thank us for it.


Filed under educational gaming, literacy, parenting, Reading, skatekids

2 responses to “Does Drill Really Kill?

  1. Thanks, Mary Kay. I really need to give this some attention again next week. And thanks for and all of the work you do to help keep kids safe on the internet.

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