Thursday, April 30, 2009

Drill Baby, Drill!

Many nineteenth century educational proponents of a common curricula for all grounded their arguments in a conception called "mental discipline." The notion was that the mind could be exercised like the body, and that practicing certain skills rigorously (ancient languages, poetry, mathematics, etc.) would not only help one master a given subject, but--just as lifting weights helps you carry boxes--would be transferable to other subjects as well. Memorizing Latin vocabulary would, in a sense, expand someone's capacity to remember things in general. Such a view about human learning, not surprisingly, led to a particular kind of pedagogy, based on drilling, memorization, and recitation.

In the Progressive Era, this view came under attack. Psychologists like E.L. Thorndike argued that subjects were not "transferable" in any meaningful sense, and that, consequently, in order to learn a particular skill/body of knowledge, one had to be taught it directly. This kind of thinking would come to dominate schooling, leading to what eventually would be called "life adjustment curriculum," where students deemed less intelligent would be taught basic skills (like hygiene, cooking, child-rearing) that the mental disciplinarians had thought absurd.

I'm certainly not up on contemporary educational psychology, but I always thought the basic Thorndike theory still dominated the field. Not surprisingly, then, I was pretty struck to read a book review today that suggested the sciences is pointing to a return to mental discipline:
Elsewhere Mr. Willingham has his curious teacher ask: "Is drilling worth it?" The answer is yes, because research shows that practice not only makes a skill perfect but also makes it permanent, automatic and transferable to new situations, enabling more complex work that relies on the basics.
While the mental disciplinarians were harangued by many progressive educators as being old-fashioned, I think the idea that different subjects are intimately related is quite a progressive, Deweyan idea. Indeed, while John Dewey was no mental disciplinarian himself, he certainly thought they had something right about the drive to master subject matter, to approach learning rigorously, and to transfer skills from one activity to the next. Maybe Giuliani was right after all, and we do need to drill more.


Blogger The Sheriff said...

I just read Ranciere's Ignorant Schoolmaster, which while it doesn't make me a scholar in the History of Education, made me think a great deal on the transferrability of knowledge, or perhaps better, intelligence. Ranciere's contention, through his channeling of enlightenment (non)educator Joseph Jacotot's experiences in autodidacticism, is that all human works are effectively products of human intelligence. The latter is equal among all individuals, if not by outcomes, then as a matter of principle and potentiality. What learning one thing deeply does for a person is producing the recognition within them that (all) things can indeed be learned. I found this proposition to be empirically intriguing and at least potentially verifiable, but it also made mr recognize that there is value in repetition, in drilling, and in memorization. But only, I think, when those acts are exertions of the student to learn how to learn, as it were. Not as the hidden mechanisms of the teacher to teach.

Ranciere mentions that this will come as a disappointment to 'geniuses' because, as he puts it: "Repetition is boring."

10:08 PM  
Blogger will said...

I'm inclined to agree that drilling and many of the classical components of education have become greatly undervalued. The problem may have been that the shaping force behind the American/progressive educational system was not actually that interested in the benefit gained by the pupil as implied by John Taylor Gatto:

"In the first decades of the twentieth century, a small group of soon-to-be-famous academics – symbolically led by John Dewey and Edward Thorndike of Columbia Teachers College, Ellwood P. Cubberley of Stanford, G. Stanley Hall, and an ambitious handful of others, energized and financed by major corporate and financial allies like Morgan, Astor, Whitney, Carnegie, and Rockefeller – decided to bend government schooling to the service of business and the political State, as it had been done a century before in Prussia."

(full article here: )

3:25 PM  

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