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!

“Babes in Fairyland” for The Nervous Breakdown

Check out a new essay about my kids’ magical experience at their Waldorf school at The Nervous Breakdown. So excited to be a contributor to such a fantastic culture magazine. Thanks Brad Listi and everyone at TNB. Here’s the essay:

Babes in Fairyland

My sons play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind: they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rain water. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them – most likely because they were unused to it. But since we have moved to Nashville and enrolled them in our local Waldorf school, they are required to spend large amounts of their school time outside, no matter what the weather holds. Now they downright enjoy soaking rain. I look out the kitchen window and watch them, at nine and six years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain.

My sons are all in for fairies, too. In school, they have locked eyes and hearts with elves, woodsprites, and most especially, knights who slay dragons. Waldorf education, founded in the early 20th Century by Austrian philosopher Rudolph Steiner, honors and develops children’s imaginations, believing imagination is key to a successful life. Along with outdoor play, fairy tales and myths make up a large part of the “head, heart and hands” Waldorf curriculum. Einstein, calming an anxious young mother in a library, apparently told her, “First, give him fairy tales; second, give him fairy tales, and third, give him fairy tales!”‘ Our Waldorf school has taken Einstein’s prescription quite literally: my kindergarten-aged son is not working on reading or calculating at all until first grade. For now, he receives a steady diet of language- and image-rich fairy tales.

As my sons tromp their muddy boots through this new world where learning is treated as an adventure, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the leafy Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere—dirty, bruised-knee children—running, laughing, playing kickball, reading paperback books in clumps under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, my sons were still in public school in Texas, and I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked from my own children.

When I visited my kids at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess in optimal weather (otherwise, their 15 minutes of exercise all day was a TV show in the auditorium), then loaded down with more work to bring home. Usually worksheets. I couldn’t help but whisper “another day at the office” to my husband. It seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he had stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Now my sons’ childhoods are back, larger and more vivid than the ones they might have missed if they hadn’t been filling in so many worksheets. It’s as if the fairies visited them while they were sleeping, and filled their heads with poetry, art, and music. It’s as if they woke up from a dream and realized, like Peter Pan, that they didn’t have to grow up. Not yet.

Out of earshot, my husband and I joke about Waldorf’s hippy New Ageyness (a recent email home to parents warned, “Don’t tell the kids about today’s special ‘dragon bread’: they believe the elves made it!!!”). But we happily write the difficult tuition checks, because our sons love school. They love it. And like Superman in the face of kryptonite, my husband and I find it difficult to remain cynical and detached in the face of such genuine magic powers; we melt. Waldorf might lay on the magic a little thick, but magic is precisely what was missing from our children’s orderly lives.

For the majority of kids, however, the sparkling fairy dust of playtime has long gone missing from school. Through accountability-obsessed reform measures supposedly created to make learning better, public education has inadvertently stripped the elementary school day of magic—by reducing time for recess and lunch, by de-emphasizing art and music (or getting rid of it altogether), and beefing up quantifiable ways to “prove” learning. In an effort to push academics down to earlier and earlier ages, school officials have forgotten that magic—not Harry Potter magic, but childhood magic—has a way of bringing joy to learning. They have forgotten that childhood magic is real.


Current circumstances make it easy to believe that public schools don’t have the capability to infuse elementary children’s lives with wonder and amazement: after all, budgets are stripped to the bone, classes are crowded, teachers overloaded. There is an unruly achievement gap, most evident between rich and poor children, that forces public school to press academics early on, in hopes of erasing the chasm. All of these things are indisputable. But childhood magic doesn’t depend on money, and isn’t exclusive of academic rigor. Instead, magic depends on a mindset that childhood itself is a foundation for an adult life, not small-adults-in-training. Here is where our American imaginations, bent on Puritanical models of success framed by adult achievement, are sorely lacking.

More than budget or time, it’s our idea about what public education should be that gets in the way. Especially since entering the age of accountability in the early 2000s, education has aimed to prepare children for adulthood as quickly as possible by simulating it with seriousness, hard work, and organization. Author and parenting expert, Alfie Kohn, aptly calls this attitude “Better Get Used To It”—the belief that, in order for kids to get to adulthood successfully, they must act like small adults while they are young.

I once thought “BGUTI” was the best way for kids to learn. Having long believed that the more early academics, the better, my husband and I started our Waldorf experience eager but skeptical. We found ourselves asking, will they get enough math in fairyland? How rigorous can African drum circle be, anyway? And hey, are they really learning anything in those bushes, or are they just playing around?

But recent studies show the Waldorf fairies may be onto something. In the paper “The Role of Pretend Play in Children’s Cognitive Development,” Doris Bergman, Professor of Educational Psychology at Miami University, points to several studies that link “cognitive competence to high-quality pretend play.” Children who engage in fantasy on a regular basis are linked to qualities “such as mental representation ability (i.e., theory of mind), problem solving and other cognitive strategies, social and linguistic competence, and academic skill development.” Developmental psychologists like Alison Gopnik are beginning to doubt that “direct instruction” from teachers to preschool students is the most effective way for them to learn. In an article for Slate, Gopnik sums up the research on how free play helps children in this way: “While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution.”

Childhood experts have sounded the alarm as well, warning parents of the dangers of erasing free play in favor of STEM for preschoolers. In  “All Work and No Play: Why Your Kids Are More Anxious, Depressed,” Brown University pediatrician and clinical professor Dr. Esther Entin makes a connection between the diminishing opportunities for imaginative play and rising rates of childhood depression and anxiety. Referencing Boston College Professor of Psychology Peter Gray, she writes, “There has been a significant increase in anxiety and depression from 1950 to present day in teens and young adults and Gray cites several studies documenting this rise. One showed that five to eight times as many children and college students reported clinically significant depression or anxiety than 50 years ago.”

While I find these studies validating, they are insufficient to describe what I see my sons experiencing. Easing our early fears, my sons’ academic skills are right on target, and continue to grow. But there is another skill they are learning through Waldorf education, something that is impossible to measure with a test: experiencing the joy of being alive. I see it now in the way they touch the fur of a dog they just met, the way they put their full faces into a patch of wildflowers. I see it in the way they dance around the Maypole in honor of the Fairy Queen, their small bodies jangling with hippy flute music. Considering the kind of schooling they had before, I can only conclude that this is the result of copious amounts of poetry, singing, and art. It’s surely the result of lots of recess and nature walks.

I’m surprised at how different my sons are—more thoughtful, more curious—than they were before. Why is this wonder for the natural world, for art and music, strangely absent from our reforms?

I wish I could shake the whole American school system, and shout, “dump the worksheets, bring the magic!” And it doesn’t have to be the Waldorf method—if fairies and gnomes creep you out, then make it angels, animals, music, art—whatever. Make it anything where kids are awakened to the wonder of everything they see, and more importantly, everything they can’t. There is only one childhood, and only one opportunity to wring every precious drop of magic and fairy dust from life’s branches—branches that will always be dripping with more worksheets and deadlines and objectives. Unlike obligations, fairyland will only be with our kids for a very short time, and then it is gone forever.

Certainly we owe our kids an education—the ability to read, to calculate, to solve problems, to think critically—but we also owe them the academic and emotional benefits of learning to play in the rain. A lifelong learner, after all, must find some joy in the process of learning. Have you ever heard someone say, “What I remember best about my childhood was all the worksheets?”

Bonus Material: Kurt Wootton and “Teach Your Children Well”

Tuesday night’s Parent Book Club on “Teach Your Children Well” was so packed with information that Kurt and I decided to cut a part of his terrific essay, “Dance Like No One’s Watching.” But after re-reading the parts we cut, and talking with my father, who (also) taught public school for his entire career, I decided that these small but important bits are vitally important to another part of the discussion: if we are going to foster true learning and help kids develop a roadmap for authentic success, we’re going to have to talk about teaching, too.

Here’s the part of Kurt’s essay that didn’t make it:

My father, who was a public school teacher, told me once that teaching in a large, traditional, neighborhood school isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon. One of my colleagues who teaches English in a Boston Public School sees 140 students every day. We know that giving students multiple choice tests, pop quizzes, and other quick assessments doesn’t truly measure their learning, but you can imagine how long it takes to grade an essay. Let’s do some quick math: 140 students x 10 minutes to read and grade a paper = 23.34 hours. That’s time spent outside of school and doesn’t include the planning time needed to prepare classes. You can see why teachers and school districts might take shortcuts by giving students multiple-choice tests that can be graded by a machine. 

The morning after Parent Book Club, my dad called to talk about ‘authentic success’ and the innovative classroom teaching that leads to tinkering, investigating, and deeper learning for students. When I told him what Kurt’s dad had said, he backed it up, and added, “There are teachers who are taking the material and presenting it in innovative ways; there are lots of creative teachers out there, no doubt. But the combination of factors that a teacher faces on a daily basis make it extremely difficult to sustain.”

We forget many times that teachers are people, too; they have families and friends and bills to pay. I know an extra unpaid 23+ hours a week would make me cranky. Yet if we are gearing our kids toward authentic success, and want them to be less focused on grades and test scores (and therefore less stressed out, depressed and freer to enjoy learning), then we must address the way the current system works – and its dogged chase of, well, grades and test scores. After re-reading this cut paragraph a few times, I got frustrated and emailed Kurt.

“What can we do about this?” I typed testily. It was only a few minutes later that I received a long, detailed list of why the school system is unable to support the kind of open-ended learning we are talking about in reference to Levine’s book – besides the obvious time constraints. He rattled off ways in which teacher development could be better, more creative, and involve teachers’ self-reflection more, and Kurt was quick to mention that it’s a complex issue and shouldn’t be looked at in clear black-and-white, but still I wanted to share a few key nuggets of the long list he wrote at 10PM:

  • ” A radically wrong-minded emphasis on testing and the results.”
  • “High student workload and little planning time. Some teachers teach 140 students a week with a 45 minute planning period during the day. They are exhausted and they are just trying to get by.”
  • “Lack of possibility and opportunity. Many teachers don’t know about and schools don’t support radical teacher professional development (like the Habla Teacher Institute.) Teachers should have the chance to travel, to take summer courses in universities, and to work with diverse organizations—and schools should pay for it!”
  • But here’s the kicker, the one that really got me: “Lack of valuing exploration and creativity from a policy and administrative level. This relates back to 1 (testing and results), but creativity can’t be quantifiably measured. It’s more difficult to evaluate learning in a creative space, and therefore the “effectiveness” of an education environment.  Great teaching and learning is messy and a bit chaotic.”

Hmmm. It seems that administrators and policy makers should join our Parent Book Club, so they could also read “Teach Your Children Well,” and see what lack of valuing exploration and creativity is doing to our kids in the long haul.

Can Public Schools Learn from Waldorf? (YES)

In Waldorf education, children work on intellectual and emotional balance, spend plenty of time on the creative arts and play, eschew technology for books (not textbooks) and, perhaps most importantly, are taught that inner wisdom and deep thinking are paramount — all this done without grades, tests, or constant pressure and assessment. Waldorf children get to farm, cook, knit and crochet, build furniture and learn woodworking, write and perform plays, go camping and hiking, but not at the expense of academics – the academics are made part of these activities. Public schools could take a cue from this “alternative” method that values a child who experiences, thinks and develops, as well as absorbs information.

My kids play in the rain. Not just a few sprinkles, either, but the hearty, soak-your-clothes kind; they continue building forts and swinging pop flies even as their clothes hang heavy with rainwater. Just a year ago, this would have bothered them immensely, probably because they were unused to it. But now, since we have joined our local Waldorf school and they spend a large amount of their time outside, no matter what the weather holds, they have changed their minds entirely. They downright enjoy soaking rain. When I look out the window and watch them, at eight years old and five years old, running, falling, throwing, jumping fearlessly, befriending the pouring rain, I can’t stop thinking how much they look like children. As a matter of fact, that was my impression the first time I stepped on the Waldorf grounds: there were children everywhere – dirty children – running, laughing, playing kickball, reading under trees, having a science lesson on a nature walk. At the time, I couldn’t help but think how different these children looked than my own children.

When I visited my children at public school, they looked like adults. They were uniformed, lined up, quiet, organized, task-oriented, rushed through lunch, only allowed outdoor recess during absolutely optimal times, then loaded down at the end of the day with more work to bring home. I couldn’t help but call it “another day at the office” to my husband; it seemed that the time for childish things was over by first grade. My oldest son admitted to watching the clock nearly all day; he stopped using crayons in kindergarten.

Please don’t get me wrong; I love public school, and spent two years advocating for change very publicly. The public Montessori we attended in Texas was outrageously good, and we loved it. I know that we are extremely fortunate to get to go to (private) Waldorf, and believe me, our past circumstances wouldn’t have permitted it. I also have no interest in trying to convince you, dear reader, that you should try Waldorf school – it is not the perfect education method, far from it, and it is not for everybody. But, since we have been so happy with so much of Waldorf education (and my kids really love it), I want to tell you what’s so great about it, or why you might tell your school about it or even incorporate it into what you do at home. I think public schools could benefit from a few key pieces of Waldorf education, and when parents know things, they can bring ideas to their school leaders.

In other words, can public schools learn from Waldorf? Hell, yes. Here are just a few of my favorite Waldorf methods.

  • Bringing life in living color – The walls of a Waldorf school are painted in watercolors, and the chalkboards (yes, real chalkboards) are adorned with colorful drawings and illustrations depending on what they are working on. The insides of school rooms are colorful, too, and made to look like home. Each room, filled with books, student-made sculptures and drawings, and objects, looks so inviting, I long to drop my stuff and join in.
  • Creating lesson books – Instead of state-mandated text books, Waldorf children make their own. Much more than a journal, these large lesson books are filled with graphs, charts, drawings, stories, poems, and illustrations of their own making. Creating a record of their own lessons also gives children the brain boost scientists say students get from handwriting.
  • Time for lunch and play – As public schools grasp for more and more academic learning, we have seen in recent years lunch and recess time diminish to a hilarious degree (one Chicago parent complained that her third-grade son got ten minutes to eat lunch). My very active sons reacted negatively to the structure of the public school day, which ended up amounting to a lot of time sitting in a chair. Since they have gone back to having two recesses per day (what I remember having in elementary school, by the way) plus physical education, they come home less anxious and worn-out. They are light when they leave for the day – they have had time to both concentrate and take short breaks for fun.
  • The Main Lesson – Several hours of each morning fall under the category of “Main Lesson,” which can include math, science, reading, and spelling, and history, as well as combinations of all of these. When studying agriculture in third grade, my son learned the history of the world’s grains, how they were grown and harvested, who grew them, and how they were measured and sold. They learned these lessons through poetry, dances, and a play they performed about a Native American legend called “The Corn Man.”
  • No technology, no homework, no boredom – In the early childhood and early elementary grades, strong emphasis is put on kids staying away from technology until they are older – and my kids do watch a little tv and use the computer, we aren’t purists on this point. But, since they don’t use any at school, and there is no homework in the early grades, this combination of no sit-down work in the evening and no passive entertainment has had a really interesting effect: they are rarely bored. From the Waldorf parents I have talked with, kids who use this circle – no technology, no homework, no boredom – have the ability, without anything available to occupy or entertain them, to begin to learn to entertain themselves. Who wouldn’t be happy with that?
  • There is more to life than reading and math – This might be my very favorite part of Waldorf schooling – the understanding that children are thinking and feeling human beings. While reading and math are certainly emphasized and mastered, they are blended with other activities that children find engaging, like making food and knitted hats, making towns and cities out of beeswax, learning how to garden, farm and how to take care of the earth – the list goes on and on. As you and I know, reading and math are two excellent skills to have in a complex, colorful life that requires more than comprehension – life requires consideration and compassion as well as math and reading.

Now, parents, the most important part: tell me what you think. Have you had any experience with a Waldorf school? Does any of this sound appealing? And, most importantly, what Waldorf methods might you use?