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Drill Classes? Really – in the age of web 2.0?

A few months back now, there was an interesting debate between Steve Wheeler and Larry Sanger about, essentially, the value of learning facts versus the value of learning method in the age of web 2.0. (See Larry’s comments here and Steve’s remarks here). Another way to characterise this is a debate over whether to teach content or process. I think I left comments on both sites and I think they both make valid points. I do not see how you can apply method without facts, but equally the sorts of facts we need to know are changing as the web intrudes on all conversations about names, dates, places etc. I have my own views about what kind of broad brushstroke facts may become most important as well as a take on importance of understanding relations rather than absolute facts. But I’ll pick this up another time. The purpose of this blog is to discuss the necessity of drill classes – and in this, I guess, I must be more on Larry’s side than on Steve’s.

What do I mean by drill classes? Well I mean the sort of boring learning that you need to do to really master an area of thought or practice. This sort of boring learning might include rules of grammar in a foreign language, scales and arpeggios in music, tooling techniques in carpentry and metalwork, sporting techniques, and much mathematics.

I have left mathematics until last in this list because Conrad Wolfram and others are now talking seriously about taking out the kind of technique that used to be required in maths learning, and teaching, instead, to ask the right questions of the computer. This is interesting but I think its success is still a moot point. On the one hand Wolfram seems in some articles to be merely shifting the learning from old style calculus, algebra etc to more of a computational/programming syllabus (and that will still involve some boring learning of coding), and on the other it is still really a moot point whether anyone can learn what sort of intelligent questions to ask a computer – on the assumption that the computer can solve them – without really going through the process of learning what maths can do, what are the limits of its analysis, and so on. Could we really explain to a computer to calculate the future of a derivative as a third order differential problem if we had not waded through at least two courses of calculus and understood rates of rates of rates of change? There are some brilliant individuals – David Harvey and Niall Ferguson come to mind – who seem to have a grasp of complex mathematical relations (at least with respect to economics) without having a formal background in mathematics (aficionados of these scholars, correct me here). But it would be risky to build any kind of educational policy on the basis of such exceptions.

In any event, leaving maths aside, I think it is simply undeniable that to really achieve in many areas of learning you have to do drill; you have to go through the pain that learning sometimes involves; you have to put in the Muskelarbeit, as the great pianist Rudolf Serkin called it. In a related vein, recently my colleague Vin Walsh at UCL has told me of the tremendous ability of athletes to suffer pain, tedium and hard work, just for the fleeting reward of victory. Vin is working on making a case for the excellence of athletes’ brains based on these abilities. We are kidding ourselves if we think it is any different if you want to achieve great success in more intellectual spheres.

Now, I have taken a slightly different tack myself in this blog, so I’d better explain myself. Well, perhaps you won’t be surprised that I say it is all a matter of degree. As I say in the above blog, for total disciplinary expertise – particularly that exemplified by maths, playing a musical instrument and sport – only obsessive dedication and a lot of dreary hard work will get you to the top. But for interdisciplinary expertise, though still of the type to make you a world leader, spreading yourself a little wider in order to stimulate different types of thought and grow different areas of your knowledge may get you further.

What you cannot do, however, I think, is to only go along the sorts of desire lines that Steve describes in his latest blog, and only study things which add to your breadth of knowledge without going through the pain of acquiring depth. Note, I am not saying Steve is proposing this – I don’t know his views on this full picture – though it does seem to me that in other discussions of desire lines in education, writers neglect to emphasise the virtues of sticking to the path whilst they describe the pleasures of choosing the right path in the first place. In reality, very few people indeed have enough self-discipline not to wander off the path when the going gets tough, and an education in anything, at any level, will be desultory if the learner is not prepared to stick to the project when the initial desire wanes.

So, what do we do about the situation? Well, first we acknowledge it, and we tell students about it. Then, when things get tough for students and the path looks easier another way – but copping out would take the student somewhere else – we do our best to keep our student on the original path if we really think that is the right path for them. This is hard. In some ways I think this is the mark of a truly great teacher: someone who can keep you going when you want to give up. We need to facilitate classes, learning spaces etc where this sort of drill can go on, and we need to find the teachers to get students through this sort of drill: twenty minutes a day, every day, at 8.30 in the morning, if that’s what is needed. Just like your scales. I also think that technology can play a part here, particularly if we manage to make good games for kids and others which get them learning the boring bits of maths and grammar surreptitiously – but to my mind there is still nothing good on the market in these areas and until it comes along we need old-fashioned methods.

I have painted the Muskelarbeit as drill and deadly boring in order to make a point, but it need not always feel so grim. There is pleasure in repeating your scales and your sprints. There is an order and a discipline which can give satisfaction and a feeling of security from routine which gives results. If it is boring, it is a type of ‘cool boredom’ – as a monk once described it to me, regarding 35 years of daily religious reading.

Apart from its importance to learning, the acceptance of drill and sticking at something is an essential life skill we should all try to learn. Even marriage is boring sometimes, but things can get difficult if you divert at every opportunity! And it would be strange if such notions as ‘boot camp’ and ‘working extremely hard’ come to be accepted on X Factor but denied as necessary in an intellectual or academic sphere. Somewhere, I think it is Feynman, says that something is only worth doing if it is difficult: that is the only way you get the kind of deep reward that makes life satisfying. Let’s not abandon that humanistic truth, even as computers seem to do more and more of what we used to think was essentially human.

So, yes, bring on the drill.

Any thoughts?

Photo, attributed to West Point Public Affairs, under a CC licence.

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