Drills – On learning the basics before mastering the game

A lot of education professionals abhor standardized tests. “Our kids will be taught to the tests!”, some say with disgust. Is that entirely bad? An article by Dan Winters at Edweek says not necessarily.

from Edweek

Creativity and the Fundamentals

One of the criticisms I’ve come across about accountability measures based on standardized tests goes something like this: If we assess students based on standardized tests, teachers will “teach to the test”, which when translated, means drill and kill, followed by rote memorization and robotic hypnosis while all creativity is thrown out the window. Here’s another one of those false dichotomies that is propagated throughout the educational kingdom.

When I think of creativity and flair on the basketball court, one of the first players that comes to mind is Pete Maravich. He was one of the most creative and flamboyant players of his day and age. No one would accuse him of being boring or stale in his approach to the game.

However, the funny thing is, when reading his biography, I noted that his dad, a high school and college basketball coach, instilled in Pete the necessity of learning and practicing the fundamentals until they were second nature. He performed session after session of ball handling drills that helped him master the basics. Indeed he was fanatical about practice, repetition, and drill. The end result is that he was able to create and ad-lib because he had mastered the fundamentals of the game.

Bringing this back to education, I value students who can think critically and reason with complexity and synthesize information in order to create, and produce new products, but this can only be accomplished by students who are masters of the fundamentals of language, math, and subject matter content. I think the debate would be furthered by a “both/and” mentality as opposed to an “either/or” mentality.

Finally, I’m thinking of classrooms with teachers who get the most remarkable results on standardized tests and those classrooms are lively places with rich interaction and student enjoyment. It’s just that those teachers are also attuned to the building blocks of academic success and don’t allow their students to miss out on these critical components of learning. Our standardized measures are not the ends that we seek, but I contend that they are a requisite means toward those ends and we are justified in pursuing those goals, measuring them, and expecting all students to achieve them.

There isn’t anything wrong with “teaching to the test”. Would anyone accuse an MIT professor of teaching to the test if they taught their students the information and skills they thought were important in meeting their standards? No. Would you try to force your child to play Beethoven on their violin before they’ve got a grasp on their scales? No.

Rather than dismissing standards as forcing teachers to stifle creativity, let’s recognize that the right standards can be a helpful tool. Instilling our children with the basics will allow them to create their own music. Of course that does not mean our standards and means of assessment don’t need to be reformed first. Uncomplicated basic standards need to come first. Tests that assess how our children apply those basic skills, rather than if then can just pick A,B,C, or D, must follow.

The moral of the story: a little practice never hurt anyone