…doesn’t mean that all drills kill.
I’m not an athletic coach of any kind, but I’ve read enough of them to know that human motivation isn’t murdered by drills. Look at world-class, well-motivated athletes or musicians, and you’ll find that even at their level a good deal of drilling fills their lives.
So then why do so many smart teachers think that there is something inherent to drills — and let’s define “drills” as instances of repetitive practice, intelligently designed and carried out to produce a learning result — that murders student motivation?
Part of the reason might be just because “drill and kill” rhyme. This is a dumb thing to say, until you think on the study where researchers asked people to judge the accuracy of various proverbial statements. When statements rhymed (e.g., “What sobriety conceals, alcohol reveals”), participants were more likely to judge them as true than when the same statements didn’t (e.g., “What sobriety conceals, alcohol unmasks”).*
So seriously (and depressingly), it’s possible that hundreds of thousands of American teachers are at this very second opposed to all forms of “drill” because of whoever first said the phrase “drill and kill.”
But maybe sports are different! Maybe in schools, drills do kill, but in sports, drills don’t.
This is all tomfoolery. We’ll waste a lot of energy trying to protect this notion that all drills kill. Why don’t we just erase what we think we know about human motivation in schools and start with this: in any given learning circumstance, student motivation comes from five key beliefs. These are credibility, value, belonging, effort, and efficacy. When these beliefs are in place, a learner will want to learn and a learner will even happily engage (!) in drill work.
But go back to the definition of drill I established at the start of this post: an instance of repetitive practice that is intelligently designed and intelligently carried out to produce a learning result. This is not chucking worksheets at kids, this is not ruling a room with an iron fist while kids do tons of busywork.
Drills like the great coaches use (and the great teachers use) are aimed at one thing: learning as well and as efficiently as possible.
It’s crazy how chock-full the literature outside of education is with this idea — it’s called “deliberate practice” by expertise researchers like K. Anders Ericsson — and how heretical it is inside of education.
So let me end with what actually will help or harm motivation in your classroom. It’s not going to rhyme like “drill and kill,” but it’s going to be accurate.
The five key beliefs** beneath motivation in your classroom are:
- Credibility: My teacher is good at her job.
- Value: This work has value.
- Belonging: This work lines up with my identity.
- Effort: My effort will pay off.
- Efficacy: I can succeed at this.
One of the few paths that all five of these beliefs have in common is success. When our students succeed in our classes, especially at things that are difficult, they’re more likely to think that we’re good teachers, that the work matters, that their identities align with the work, that their effort matters, and that they’ll succeed again.
And in some situations — like learning Spanish vocabulary, or mastering mechanically sound writing, or memorizing Latin word chunks — the fastest way to success is through repetitive practice, intelligently designed and intelligently carried out in order to produce a learning result. It’s drill!
So down with overly simplistic, obfuscatory rhymes like “drill and kill,” and up with more sensible, less buzzy phrases like “in some learning cases, drills work best.”
**The Student Motivation Course is specifically about these five key beliefs — the research and the practice. Over 1,000 teachers agree: it helps. Learn more here.