KUOW's Discussion About Rote Learning

KUOW's The Conversation had an interesting conversation yesterday about rote learning (the show was titled "Drill, Baby, Drill?". Their guests were Dan Willingham, a cognitive psychology professor at the University of Virginia, and Cathy Thompson, the head of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment for SPS. Dr. Willingham wrote a book, "Why Don't Students Like School?" which, according to the reviews at Amazon is quite good and recommended by the teachers who have read it. From some of the reviews:
  • Willingham's basic theme is that, despite everything you've heard, nothing works to increase student ability like factual learning and practice. In fact, one of his first ideas is to point out that what separates the excellent student (or adult) from those performing less well is their ability to recall facts. The more facts you know about your subject, the more you can understand your subject because of significantly less energy spent on fact recall or retention. With facts learned to automaticity, more time can be spent on higher-order concept learning, and once that becomes automatic....etc.
  • Another big idea in education that Willingham works to dispel is the idea that we all have different learning styles - auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc. Cognitive science, in fact, has shown the opposite: with minor variation, we all learn very similarly.
Ms. Thompson talked about learning sight words (like the) so children can spend time decoding more difficult words. She also said that SPS leaves it to teachers to decide how to use drills but they want teachers to do this 15 minutes a day. She said drilling does not have to be boring.

(I was sitting with Olga Addae, the head of the SEA, last night at the School Reports meeting. I asked about the leeway teachers have in the classroom because I hear this from SPS staff a lot. She said yes, teachers do have some leeway but it depends on the principal and it may not be there because of the required things teachers have to have in place according to the district. They have to have specific things written on the blackboard, in specific places, a lesson plan on the blackboard, etc. I'd like to hear from teachers about the leeway they have in how they present the curriculum.)

The upshot was that kids need both pieces - that they are two separate parts of knowledge. Once they understand the concept, the drill piece allows them to memorize those math facts, for example, more quickly.

What was interesting is Dr. Willingham's rejection of the best practice of "whole child" which is currently popular. He talked about learning about things that have meaning rather than drills that don't connect the learning to meaning. He also said that there is an emphasis on making learning "fun" and that learning is sometimes hard and not always fun. (Ms. Thompson agreed with that as do I.)

He talked about what was embedded in differentiated instruction is that students have different minds and can use that knowledge but the idea that scientists understand this well and can capitalize on this has not been proven.

Knowledge begets knowledge - the more you know, the more you can learn was his takeaway message.


Lori said…
I heard part of it, and it sounded interesting. One comment in particular struck me, which was something about how what some educators call "Drill and Kill" can also simply be called "practice." And most people agree that if you want to succeed or excel at something, you need to practice.

I liked the re-phrasing because as in many areas of life, semantics matter. Politicians call the estate tax a "death tax" and the recent soda tax became a "food tax" in order to sway public opinion. Similarly, I've heard local educators use the pejorative drill and kill lingo when describing why they don't spend class time on memorization of basic math facts, and I think for those of us concerned about the lack of mastery our children have, we need to change the tone of the conversation. Ask how much practice they get in class and reject the notion that practice is synonymous with "drill and kill."
And Lori that is a hallmark of the path our country is going towards.

Define the message and you define the discussion.

Ever noticed how people like Tim Burgess keep saying how we need ed reform and can't go back? My question to him would be, why do you believe there is only one way forward? I know no one who is satisfied with the status quo but as I told the Board, I want a district that considers what is right for OUR district and not just jumping on the bandwagon.

But see, there are people out there who want to control the discussion everywhere and you can't do that if everyone isn't on-board. Or everyone with power.
Dorothy Neville said…
Well, yawn. This is totally not new. And the analogy to sports is made all the time. In multiplication it is "drill and kill" but if a basketball coach flatly refused to do drills because it was boring to the kids, yet during the game kids dribbled poorly and missed easy baskets, what would parents do?

Anyone who has ever worked with kids learning algebra knows this truth. If a student does not have quick grasp of multiplication and factoring facts, they are not likely to gain conceptual understanding of algebra. When faced with factoring x^2 + 11x + 28 a student who can quickly factor 28 will be at a significant advantage. Because they are not concentrating on the details of 28, they can concentrate on the understanding of polynomials.

If a driver still needs to consciously think about which pedal is the brake vs the accelerator every time they need to go forward or stop, how are they going to be a proficient driver? Which foot does which action needs to be automatic so one can use conscious mental power to safely navigate traffic.

Same with history. If one is attempting to understand the Cultural Revolution or the Iraq war or North Korea, the more variety of facts one has, the easier it will be to read and assess analyses and comprehend themes. (I hated history in school because it seemed to be all facts that never made a compelling narrative; I have no recollection of discussing themes. Math on the other hand, did organize into a narrative and I loved increasing my understanding of the bigger picture. Not that my teachers were good at showing the narrative, it was just something I could see.)

I've read Dan Willingham's column off and on for years and like them. See his report on Teaching Critical Thinking or read Jay Mathews comments.
Dorothy Neville said…
Sorry if that "yawn" comment sounded bitchy. It's just that this particular thing pushes my buttons. Both the practice for rote learning and Willingham's larger theses concerning education. I found Willingham's position on the futility of teaching critical thinking without concern for content resonated a lot. Reminds me too much of teachers in APP and then at RHS wrt the AP HG crap. Seems that the more a teacher touts that they teach critical thinking, the less they actually do.
Zulu (or Zebra) said…
This is an interesting development. Rote learning is a "non-starter" with the current Supt. In fact, she has publicly called certain successful alternative math programs, "drill and kill." Most U.W. edu-wonks are constructivist to the core. They support and promote programs that are steeped in discovery based learning. Where did this recent anomaly come from?

For the U.W. Dept. of Education to come out in favor of knowledge-based learning and pedagogy is a clear shift from the failed constructivism experiment of the last ten years.

Problem: Coaches, wonks, the Supt., and various in sundry local edu-pols within SPS still buy into the failed constructivist experiment. So, how are they going to reconcile their arcane philosophy with the newest talking point; "rote learning."

Remember, students need to "discovery" Pythagorus on their own. Not memorize the theorem! This is the heart of their darkness.

So many wonks...so little time to calibrate to their whims.
Anonymous said…
This guy seems pretty dead. So is his message, though it has resonance with all the back to basics types. Sure, fluency and automaticity is great.

Nobody would deny the need for automaticity or fluency. That's where his argument falls flat. He seems to think the stance of others is a rejection of fluency and knowledge. It really isn't a choice between constructivism and fluency. I happen to be a huge fan of constructivist math because I've seen how well it works with my kids. Notably, we had tons of drill and algorithms from a can when I was a kid. And people learned way, way LESS than they learn now. The real question is how do you get to fluency? Do you sit around drilling math facts outside of anything that is interesting or relevant? Or do you spend lots of time developing number sense in ways that are meaningful to kids? If you discover something yourself, you most certainly learn it better. Furthermore, differentiation is not aimed at "different learning styles". It is necessary to accommodate different interests and rates of learning. If you can learn something more deeply, you should go deep. If you are disabled, you should get what you can from the same materials. That's the heart of differentiation.

--Back to Basics was Never Good
dan dempsey said…
"So many wonks...so little time to calibrate to their whims."

Amen to that!

When evidence is not used ... the ideology of the Ed Elites becomes the driving force. Thus TEAM MGJ focuses on Ideology over evidence.

Back to Sports... at Allen Iverson's level of accomplishment he chose to de-emphasize the need for practice. "Practice, I mean we are just talking about practice."

Seattle's students are not accomplished professionals and "Practice is necessary" no matter what the UW edu-wonks continue to believe. Check the data.

UW education is in an extremely poor situation when it comes to producing math achievement. They are far removed from any semblance of science. For them Education is truly a "Social Science" that is 99% social and 1% science.
dan dempsey said…
Dear Back to Basics was never good,

Yup there was hardly a golden age for all in math. It is not a question of returning to basics. It is a question of implementing evidence based materials and instructional strategies that are successfully working to produce high level programs elsewhere in the world.

What is known from UW M.E.C. is with lots of time and spending they are producing markedly worse results.

Check these results for evidence in support of claims made in the above paragraph.

Sudakar Kudva took a trip home. You may find his comments of interest.
grousefinder said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
grousefinder said…
Dear Back to Basics was Never Good:

I am guessing that your students are the top math performers in the district for your grade level. Remember, the ONLY measure of student performance in the district is the MAP or MSP...period (yes, I know that's lame, but it is a fact). Based on that indicator your kids must be over the top of programs like Lowell's, and well...who could guess what other schools your kids outshine. Perhaps your students outperform all the Spectrum programs too. Or, you just have an everyday classroom like the rest of us Joes. I don't know. But, the data is clear...constructivist math programs are flat performers based on SPS indicators.

Look at the top performing schools (public data) and then evaluate their programs (not public data). They are not towing the District line in mathematics...they are flying under the radar with good old fashioned, back-to-the-basics math strategies. There is so much data to back this up that the District keeps the numbers behind Brad Bernatek's firewall. What schools are on top in math? What strategies do they use? What curriculum do they really use? That's the million dollar question that the Board is wrestling with these days. Hint...it ain't EDM, CMP or Discovery.

I'll bet Dan D. knows what schools are on top of the heap and what programs they use. Dan???
Sahila said…
I wish we would stop the "either/or" thinking and get to "and/also"...

My son's (Shoreline) school has gone "back to basics" and its drill and kill...

Hardly any manipulatives in the new programme, so no exploration and understanding of concepts going on and having to unlearn one set of terminology and learn a new one...

Total crap...
grousefinder said…

Shoreline uses a Pearson Inc. elementary program called enVision Math. It is heavy on manipulatives, visually distractive text, and eye-candy computer interfaces. It is not what you are calling "drill and kill." In fact, it is just the opposite. Children are supposed to discovery their personal route to Pythagorus (which may take two decades).

enVision is the digital equivalent of TERC Math. TERC was dropped by Bellevue after it was proven to limit performance (WASL) and algebra preparation. enVision will suffer the same fate as TERC in three years. It is a constructivist program (like TERC).

If your child is being fed wrote leaning drills, the students being given those materials are outside the program. Or, they are being handed primers because the kids stink at basic math facts.

May I suggest that you purchase some math books from singaporemath.com where you will find everything you need to move your child ahead of his/her peers. It is a proven program that has home instructors guides to support parents in their efforts to teach real math.
Hélène said…
For what it's worth, I highly recommend the book -- there's a lot of food for thought in there and pointers to very interesting research.

(Garfield Computer Science Teacher)
Sahila said…
@ grousefinder...

I will check if Room 9 is using Pearson... I know they were trialling several alternatives last year and I dont know the name of the the one they settled on...

I've been in class twice and talked with other parents who volunteer during math time and there is no time for manipulatives - the equipment is there but the children dont get to use them...

Its all overhead projection stuff on the board and worksheets..

Manipulatives might be in the program but the lesson structures leave no time for their use... at least in his class...
Sahila said…
Pete Seegars wise (old) comments on the state of society, which can be applied to education today...

Little Boxes

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky tacky
Little boxes, little boxes
Little boxes all the same

There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

And the people in the houses all went to the university
Where they all were put in boxes, little boxes all the same
And there's doctors and there's lawyers and business executives
And they're all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same

And they all play on the golf course and drink their martini dry
And they all have pretty children and the children go to school
And the children go to summer camp and then to the university
Where they all got put in boxes, and they all came out the same

And the boys go into business and marry and raise a family
In boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same
There's a green one, and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

and here:
What Did You Learn In School Today
Chris S. said…
Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I've been thinking about it. I'm not fond of worksheets, but I'm sold on the idea that some practice is necessary. The question is, how much, and on what specifically?

For elementary school, I agree sight words and single-digit addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division facts. For writing you have to practice all the time, but it doesn't need to be repetive.

Beyond that, you'd have to convince me. It strikes me that there is very little in social studies or science that needs to be automatic at that level (yes a chemist needs to "know" the periodic table but understanding, not memorization is the way to get there.

In middle school, keyboarding and world languages certainly require a significant amount of drill. However, it strikes me that it never needs to be the majority of a school day or even of homework.

I admit I have memorized lots of stuff. In fact, looking back at my experiences, I have never had trouble memorizing stuff - except when it didn't interest me. So maybe it's even more of an artificial distinction than I thought - you can have engaging practice or you can have drill & kill, and the difference could be only in the delivery or in the eye of the beholder.
Patrick said…
"Little Boxes" is a great song. It was written by Malvina Reynolds. Pete Seeger is just one of the people who sang it. Sorry, I just hate to see the wrong person get credit.
Anonymous said…
Some of you should read the book, "Why Don't Students Like School?" It takes the science of cognitive research and spells it out for the layperson. It explains why this matter and explains how you can use this knowledge to improve teaching in the classroom and yes, how to engage your students more effectively.

As someone who does lots of tutoring of both accelerated and struggling learners, I found it to be useful. Of course, many blog readers here will be frustrated after reading this book because much of what the author recommends lies in HOW you can make this work in the SPS world of curriculum alignment, pacing, emphasis on standardized testing, lack of enrichment support in the science, math, and arts especially at the middle and elementary school level.

Wish we can give Bill and all the would be Do Gooders with mega bucks a copy of this book.

A Wahoo
Anonymous said…

No my kids are not in spectrum or APP. Plain old plain old. I have a kid in private school too. They used TERC there. No, the data are not clear about TERC or EDM or CMP. People rag and rag and rag about the MSP. Then they turn around and use it to prove something. MSP is a constructivist measure. If you don't believe in constructivism, why use it as a data point? Oh right. It's the only thing available. But that doesn't make it worth anything if you reject the premise. My kids have done very, very well on all math measures. MAP, MSP, WASL, ISEE... We found TERC to be the very best. I don't believe it extends past elementary though.

Yes I have Singapore. I use it in the summer to keep the kids fresh. It's really no big deal. It isn't deep. It isn't thought provoking. It doesn't make anybody genuinely interested in math. It isn't what we want for our main program in a public school. No private school around here uses it. But, it serves a purpose, it does provide practice, keeps kids from getting too rusty, and it's cheap and easy to do yourself. Lots of people say it takes some special teacher training. Not true. In fact, you don't even have to do anything to teach it. Let's be clear, constructivism doesn't mean you don't practice. Practice is embedded into the activity. And, more can be added if needed. Musicians practice everyday, but they practice something in addition to scales.

As to what schools are top of the heap... Dan doesn't know anything special. Schools vary considerably year to year. Everybody oohed and aaahed about Saxon a while back. North Beach used it, and then their scores went in the toilet. I doubt it was because of the curriculum though. But, people still ooed and aahed... even after their pet wasn't doing well. Don't we all really know that scores are a function of 1 thing only: demographics. A tiny shift in a attendance area drawing... and that math data will be completely changed.

--Back to Basics was Never Good
wsnorth said…
I love Little Boxes!

I'm going to have them play that at my memorial, if I live that long! (and they won't be putting me in any "little boxes").

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