Just Drill – but no Kill? New Article for NPR Mind/Shift

On Friday, my second piece for NPR’s Mind/Shift, “Can Repetitive Exercises Actually Feed the Creative Process?” posted, something I wrote due to my obsession with the new book (and upcoming Parent Book Club pick) Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. I wanted to investigate the real-world applications of author Doug Lemov’s Rule #4 – “Unlock Creativity with Repetition.” Lemov asserts that automating certain processes actually increases creative potential — once you can do something in your sleep, you can then concentrate on variations or discoveries. Lemov has seen this firsthand in his research training teachers, and thinks it can apply to lots of learning – he even told me in our conversation, “I see the drill, I just don’t see the kill.” I have had some experience with this myself, in my former life as an actress — one of my favorite Shakespeare teachers instructed us to perform a scene so many times that it “lived in our bodies.” Then, once we knew it cold, we could experiment and “find the truth of the scene” – which is where all the creativity lies. But does all learning work this way? It didn’t get by me that both acting and teaching are a kind of performance. How do creativity and repetition work together when learning grammar rules? Or long division?

Teaching veteran Sherri Scott said it’s easy to see how rote work pays off in creativity: “If you want to know what 100 ‘is,’ having those math facts internalized allows you to deal with 100 in so many, many ways. Rather than just knowing 10 x 10 is 100, or 4 x 25 is 100, you’d be able to pull 100 apart and put it back together without analyzing it.”

When I took this to the experts — educators and cognitive scientists — they agreed that rote learning is necessary to innovate, to a point. Cognitive scientist and creativity expert John Kounios told me that first, we needed to define creativity. He wrote to me in an email: “From the scientific standpoint, creativity refers to the formulation of something novel and potentially useful. So, performing a piece on the piano is not necessarily creative if one is simply reproducing an interpretation of the piece that was worked out previously.  But coming up with that interpretation to begin with, that is creative.”

I really liked Kurt Wootton’s idea that letting kids be creative first – to get their hands dirty in activity and allowing them to see “the whole game” – gave them the motivation to go back and put in the time with rote drills they needed to get better. In his opinion, drill and creativity work together. He reminded me of how I learned acting as a teenager: “As an actor you started by performing on the stage. In your first performances you realized perhaps you needed more training in certain areas (voice, dance etc.), but you started by actually getting to participate in the creative process and then you gained the desire to really put the time into the repeated work that was necessary to become a proficient actor. Because you knew what it was for, you were willing to go through the repetitive process of learning dance steps in order to serve your larger artistry of acting.” 

I also liked the reader comment that came from T Ficher, who says when it comes to drill/kill and creative thinking, we should put side the idea that it’s either/or. “When two sides are set up as an US vs THEM debate, it misses the oppoprtunity to combine perfect practice with creative inspiration. Putting together a perfect meal is based on proper choices of various food combinations. Putting together a perfect learning environment is very similar in that a combination of repetitive learning and creative opportunity helps the learning as well as creative process.” I love that!

But back to my obsession: Lemov’s book is excellent, both in practical application (I have been reading parts to my son, who really wants to get better at baseball) as well as a cultural observation of what Lemov terms the “humble power” of practice. 

Check out the article and let me know what you think!

“College or No?” for NPR Mind/Shift

A week ago Friday, I wrote a piece for Mind/Shift about a couple of ambitious teen school reformers and their differing views on college degrees. As you might guess, the choices for college are getting more complex – do students get a degree at a prestigious university and go into debt? Or is it better to find work first, take a ‘gap’ year, work on a degree piecemeal? Two young men have totally different takes on how to end up on top. Take a look and let me know what you think:


College or No? Stuck Between Future Promises and Present Realities

Higher education options are changing for all students — not only for gutsy school reformers and tech enthusiasts dropping out with hopes to become the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. As MOOCs proliferate and college costs keep rising, more young reformers and “edupreneurs” are looking for a way around a four-year degree, some opting for a gap year to work on personal passions they hope will take off, and some looking for meaningful work experience in the world’s classroom.

They’re not alone. In fact, they might even be the majority. According to a panel of higher education experts, only 27% of today’s college students have a “traditional” four-year college experience away from home. The rest work toward a degree in pieces while living their lives – holding down jobs, having families, and taking care of other responsibilities.

But while economists and entrepreneursdebate who’s right for college, and we question the value of a college degree, young school reformers who are trying to figure out what’s on everybody’s mind: Can dropping out or putting off college advance their budding careers in reforming the system, or will the lack of a college degree put them at a disadvantage?

Nineteen-year-old Zak Malamed, a freshman at University of Maryland College Park majoring in government and politics, is looking for ways out of the four-year degree track to spend more time on his growing school-reform organization, Student Voice. He’s been considering a break, like the Gap Year Program offered by UnCollege, an organized year off that includes international travel, internship, and instruction in “building your personal brand.” The hands-on learning available in the Gap Year, Malamed says, would be helpful to him in building his organization. And he believes the program plays to his strengths.

“In high school, I really felt like I learned more outside of the classroom. I was more of an experiential learner. I loved student government most because I learned how to work with people,” he said.

While guidance counselors report that the gap-year trend is on the rise, the logistics for Malamed are mostly financial – UnCollege’s program costs $12,000 for the year, and Malamed made it clear that for a gap year program to work for him, he would have to be paid, not pay. And while Malamed’s not exactly sure a degree will help him with his goals, it couldn’t hurt.

“I really don’t like the way school works. I believe that, as it stands now, I could learn more outside college than in. But, I have to take the opportunities given to me. If I can’t support myself financially with work that I’m passionate about, then I’ll stay and get my degree.” In the interim, Malamed has promised his parents that he will finish, even if he takes a gap year (or two) to grow Student Voice.


For 20-year-old Mpaza Kapembwa, a Gates scholar and sophomore at Williams College, there’s only one way to become a formidable school reformer: get a college degree. College was one of the top reasons Kapembwa’s mother moved him and his sister from Zambia to the U.S. six years ago.

The first years of American life were a struggle, and for a period of time they were essentially homeless, while Kapembwa continued to earn the highest grades and found his passion in American education reform. He believes that for many living at or near the poverty line, a four-year degree is still the best and most reliable way to move into the middle class.

If a major education think tank or policy group wanted to tap his talent early, would he leave college — even for a year? No way.

“A college degree gives you legitimacy in a way,” he said. “If you hear people tell us we don’t need to go to college, they have college degrees and I bet their children will also have college degrees. I don’t get their logic.”

[RELATED: For the Future Student, Higher Education Will Be Redefined]

Kapembwa feels that, for him, dropping out — even for a good job — poses a serious risk. “Very few people who are movers and shakers don’t have college degrees. If you are a low income student, living in or just above poverty, forgoing college to pursue something might be disastrous because you have no safety net in case you fail.”

He also believes that, in order to be an effective school reformer, teaching inside a classroom is a must — and that requires a four-year degree (at least). “I don’t take people who want to talk about education seriously if they have never been in a classroom, or don’t plan to.”


While ambitious college students search for alternatives to four-year degrees, school reform efforts have fostered a group of startups attempting to help younger students navigate a changing landscape of growing choices. The Future Project, founded by two Yale grads, is one such startup: Chief Dream Director Sallomé Hralima, a Weslyan grad and former educator, is in charge of hiring and training young people just like Malamed or Mpaza for Dream Director positions inside of high schools. She describes the salaried Dream Director job as “part human catalyst and part social entrepreneur,” and says the job requires the ability to help kids recognize, organize, and implement their passions.

Hralima, a former “straight-A student” who didn’t feel challenged in school, feels that for many kids, college should be Plan B. “So many people have been indoctrinated into the belief that college is access to the life that they dream of. And for so many people it has resulted in lifelong debt. We live in a time where arguably our most influential people either didn’t go to college at all, or they dropped out. The kids are looking to these icons and saying, uh-huh, they have the life I want and they didn’t go to college.” Hralima herself is $45,000 in education debt.

Would The Future Project hire young Zak Malamed or Mpaza Kapembwa to be Dream Directors, even though they don’t currently have college degrees? Hralima hesitates, then says, yes, probably. “On the application, under educational qualifications, it says, ‘undergraduate degree preferred, but not required.’”

[RELATED: Should Work Experience Come Before College?]

For these ambitious student school reformers, conforming to what they consider an ailing system and getting a degree continues to be the most promising choice. Zak Malamed’s upcoming Student Voice Live! conference will be sponsored and hosted by Dell Computers, making the gap year option look more promising. Mpaza Kapembwa is currently on a Williams-led trip to Uganda, designing technology and curriculum for an HIV-awareness initiative.

Whether a well-paying job and career opportunity is available for school reformers without college degrees, even as “college” morphs and changes, is still questionable. For now, each appears to be forging their own path.