Drill and kill

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By John Pawlak

Yeah yeah yeah, I can hear the energy baggers whining already.  Well back off, you oil addict freaks.  I’m not writing about drill baby drill.  We’ll fight that battle some other time (like maybe when you’re fighting over the last drop).
 No, my topic today is about drilling students.
  Years ago, I shared an article with my colleagues discussing the value of having students memorize mathematical basics (like the times table, common square roots, conversion between percentages and fractions) so that the students would have more “brain processing power” dedicated to working more complex concepts.  I was quickly “scolded” by an administrator who simply said “Drill drill drill! Kill kill kill!”
  This is a buzz-phrase one learns while getting a professional lobotomy.  It means, “If you force a student to memorize material, it kills their motivation to acquire knowledge through discovery and contextual relevance.”
  So drilling is killing.  Taking this mantra to the extreme, educational experts argue that rather than memorize the product of eight and nine, a student should think about it.  Muse over its social impact.  Consider the various options.  Get together with a group of other students and debate how one should data mine the answer and then spend a couple weeks contemplating how this process could be used to ascertain other useful information and understanding, such as the philosophical question of whether or not one should factor polynomials without parental consent.
 Of course, we could skip the lobotomy and simply memorize that eight times nine is seventy four.
 Wait.  68. 86.  Well, something like that.
 As a teacher, I do in fact recognize the value of discovery.  Having a student understand “why” something works allows them to leverage that understanding to other problems and eases the extension towards learning how one applies that knowledge.  In fact, I constantly ask my students “Why?”, usually spelling it out so as not to confuse it with the Y-axis.
 But we seem to live in a world of extremes and when taken to dangerous limits, a good process can become as damaging as the bad one it sought to correct.
Consider the following problem - “Who was the tenth President of the United States?”  Now, don’t look up the answer.  Discover it.  Figure it out without someone telling you the answer.  Assuming you haven’t memorized the answer, how would you “find” it?  And what extensible knowledge could you draw upon your final answer, other than of course yet another elongated conversation on who was the 11th President?
Underlying all this educational pedagogy is a far more important (and very complicated) question.  What is the difference between memorization and understanding?  Given that you know that the capital of Colorado is Denver, did you memorize that, or is this an example of understanding?  Or perhaps it’s something you learned implicitly by repeatedly hearing or using it?
Okay, to be totally honest (a bad habit I picked up years ago when I changed my political affiliation from Republican to Democrat), this type of debate is purely pedantic and no one really knows the answer.
 In fact, few people can even understand the question.
My beef with all this nonsense is that the people who make the rules on education have little to no experience with the front lines fought each day by teachers across the nation — that is, the classroom.  
 Hanna Skandera, New Mexico’s Secretary of Public Education, has never taught in a classroom.  She’s never written a lesson plan.  Never met with parents to go over a child’s progress and discuss how to help that student succeed.  And yet, she was spirited into New Mexico from Florida to champion our educational evolution (gee, I thought those types didn’t even believe in evolution).
 Look, education is a complicated subject.  
These educational mouthpieces can debate it for years, but if you want to address the problem with any semblance of sanity, how about putting someone in charge who has actually worked with a student for more than 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to ask my students to ask questions rather than repeat answers.  And yeah, they better memorize that darn multiplication table too!
 John Pawlak
Los Alamos Columnist