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Should We Use Digital Technology to 'Drill' Children?

This is a Guest IAE Blog entry by Cathie Norris and Eliot Soloway.

Introduction by David Moursund

It is my pleasure to have had Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway as professional colleagues for many years, and to now welcome them as IAE guest authors. I appreciate THE Journal, Cathie, and Elliot for giving permission to reproduce their Being Mobile | Blog entry below. I strongly encourage you to read some of their other articles, such as their previous and forthcoming Being Mobile | Blog entries.

In the Being Mobile | Blog you'll find analysis and views on mobile computing in elementary and secondary education by these two outspoken technology advocates. The Being Mobile | Blog is published four times per month; a new post appears each Monday in this THE Journal location.

For my personal recent thoughts about teaching machines, see the last two articles listed in Suggested Readings from IAE.

Should We Use Digital Technology to 'Drill' Children?

Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway

Once upon a time, paper technology enabled educators to drill children on their number facts and times tables using notecards. This information was necessary for living and, importantly, the bits of information matched nicely with the properties of the technology. The flashcard said "2x2=?." The student said "4," then turned over the card to check the answer. This great use of technology was affordable and effective.

Now, software technology enables educators to drill children on virtually every type of factoid. Students can read how infectious diseases are spread or about the Battle of Normandy. The messiness of those types of facts—in comparison to the quantified bits of math information on the flashcards—is not a problem for digital technology. Students read the text, view images and videos, then take a quiz that consists of 10 multiple-choice, true-false or even fill-in-the-blank questions. The computer checks each answer and either lets the student proceed or determines what information to present again. And again. And again. It's an affordable and effective use of technology.

But here is the real question: should we drill kids on essentially all types of information? Ah, some readers may object to the term “drill”. So substitute the term “competency-based learning” or “personalized learning.” But, what was that adage? "If it looks like a duck, and it acts like a duck … it’s drill."

In the 19th century, it was indeed important to readily know facts. Information resources were scarce. Memorization was a great technique to address that situation.

But we are in the 21st century, and information resources are anything but scarce. As The New York Times put it, "The day is approaching when the dream of the democratization of knowledge—Borges’s fantasy of 'the total library'—will be realized. Soon all the collections in all the libraries and all the archives in the world will be available to everyone with a screen.”

And, the U.S. Department of Labor pointed out that “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created...." Thus, while some jobs will use the facts that exist today, a large percentage of jobs—jobs that don’t yet exist—will use facts that don’t yet exist and thus cannot be memorized today.

Since the facts that students need to know have not been created yet, why should we drill them on “old facts” that are catalogued in books like “What Your _ Grader Needs to Know” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr? (Careful: The CCSS identifies what kids need to know, not how they should come to know it. Folks like E.D. Hirsh, Jr. specify both the what and the how: drill—oops, personalized learning.)

One answer to the question “Should we drill kids on essentially all types of information?” is that it's “good mental exercise.” Memorizing that old stuff will prepare the children to learn the new stuff. Ahhh ... to the best of our understanding, there is no empirical evidence that memorizing old information makes it easier to learn new information. (Lest there be any confusion: Memorizing is not learning.)

Another answer: knowing the “Great Books and the Western canon” is central to a humanistic education that makes someone an educated person. While we absolutely agree that our children need to be “educated” and that knowing the “Great Books and the Western canon” is part of what it means to be educated, we don’t agree that drilling them on that content is an appropriate and effective pedagogy!

Bottom line: Should we use technology to drill if our goal is to teach kids how to learn? We have stated our opinion of personalized learning in previous blogs. And we are not crazy: Drilling does have its place, e.g., learning one’s number facts, learning so-called “sight words,” etc. 

Over the next chunk of time in this blog, we will be examining more deeply the Great Pedagogical Dilemma of this decade: Personalized Learning vs. Inquiry Learning. This theme fits squarely within our blog's main theme "Being Mobile," inasmuch as mobile technologies are the fuel for inquiry learning. 

Please, weigh in now with your comments; while we do have a stance—clearly—our blogs are meant to be conversation engenderers.

Note: This Being Mobile | Blog entry written by Cathie Norris and Elliot Soloway is reprinted with the permission of THE Journal, Cathie Norris, and Elliot Soloway. It first appeared as a Being Mobile | Blog (Norris & Soloway, 1/26/2015).

Reference

Norris, C., & Soloway, E. (2/9/2015). Should we use digital technology to 'drill' children? THE Journal: Being Mobile | Blog. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://thejournal.com/articles/2015/01/19/memorize.aspx.

Suggested Readings from IAE

Moursund, D. (2/4/2015). Two ancient/modern educational problems. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/two-ancient-modern-educational-problems.html.

Moursund, D. (11/23/2014). Big data: A new facet of science research. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/big-data-a-new-facet-of-science-research.html.

Moursund, D. (9/22/2014). School homework: Think outside the box. IAE Blog. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/iae-blog/entry/school-homework.html.

Moursund, D. (September, 2014). Education for students' futures. Part 15: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-145.html.

Moursund, D. (September, 2014). Education for students' futures. Part 14: The future of teaching machines. IAE Newsletter. Retrieved 2/11/2015 from http://i-a-e.org/newsletters/IAE-Newsletter-2014-144.html.

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Comments

David Moursund (website) on Thursday, 12 February 2015 19:45
My favorite parts of the blog entry

Fro my point of view, perhaps the most important statements in this blog entry are:

Lest there be any confusion: Memorizing is not learning.

And, the U.S. Department of Labor pointed out that “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created...." Thus, while some jobs will use the facts that exist today, a large percentage of jobs—jobs that don’t yet exist—will use facts that don’t yet exist and thus cannot be memorized today.


Educational leaders now understand that "deeper" learning for problem solving and future learning are key to a modern education that will serve students throuhout their lives.

Fro my point of view, perhaps the most important statements in this blog entry are: [quote]Lest there be any confusion: Memorizing is not learning. And, the U.S. Department of Labor pointed out that “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created...." Thus, while some jobs will use the facts that exist today, a large percentage of jobs—jobs that don’t yet exist—will use facts that don’t yet exist and thus cannot be memorized today.[/quote] Educational leaders now understand that "deeper" learning for problem solving and future learning are key to a modern education that will serve students throuhout their lives.
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