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!

6 thoughts on “Just Drill – but no Kill? New Article for NPR Mind/Shift

  1. Excellent column and article. I agree with Holly and Kurt Wootton that, properly used, drill can open up the door to real creativity. Drill can make the mechanical parts of math or music “second nature” allowing original thinking or interpretation to flourish.

    • Yeah, Frank, I remember a parent meeting called by my son’s third grade teacher where she said, ‘look, we’ve been working on them for a while, but now everyone has to just memorize their multiplication tables.’ When the parents protested, she said, ‘no, there’s no ‘fun’ or creative way to do it — I don’t want them to need to sing a song or say a poem when they are trying to do long division. They just need to sit down and memorize them cold. Until they do, we can’t do any more math.’ I think that is what was in the back of my mind while writing this piece. Wootton’s got it right, I think, that giving kids the why, especially at the beginning, gives them a reason for doing it and the motivation to do the rote stuff. And that it doesn’t have to be either/or, but it definitely needs to be both. Thanks for the lovely comment.

  2. Perhaps an appropriate analogy can be drawn from the study of music. There are millions of people singing, writing, and performing very nice music. However, their creative potential is limited by their technique and facility on their instruments and their knowledge of music theory and history.

    Fluency is the key word here, I believe. We become fluent musicians by highly-disciplined study and practice. Similarly, we become fluent speakers of a language by nearly constant practice, but at our own pace when we are very young.

    If teachers can design homework to promote fluency through practice, it benefits learning. The more a learner is aware of their learning processes, the more benefit it will have!

    Please visit my blog for this post, Independent Inquiry – Better than homework, for more of my perspective.

  3. Dear Holly
    I am trying to reach you to ask your permission to feature one of your pieces in the leading South African education magazine. My email address is: fiona1@acenet.co.za
    Could you reach out and connect with me please?
    Thanks, Fiona de Villiers

    • Yes! What I really learned from writing this story is that it’s not all one way or the other — it looks like you need the repetition, and you also need the why. Thanks for reading!

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