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Topic: More on Drill and Kill, practice and learning


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Subject:   More on Drill and Kill, practice and learning
Author: ihor
Date: Jan 16 2005
Interesting article in today's Education Life by Alison Gopnik - How we Learn. I
thought the last two paragraphs might stir some conversation about how to
approach practice in math.
-Ihor

"...But routinized learning is not an end in itself. A good coach may well make
his players throw the ball to first base 50 times or swing again and again in
the batting cage. That will help, but by itself it won't make a strong player.
The game itself -- reacting to different pitches, strategizing about base
running -- requires thought, flexibility and inventiveness.

Children would never tolerate baseball if all they did was practice. No coach
would evaluate a child, and no society would evaluate a coach, based on
performance in the batting cage. What makes for learning is the right balance of
both learning processes, allowing children to retain their native brilliance as
they grow up..."


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January 16, 2005

How We Learn
By ALISON GOPNIK

o here's the big question: if children who don't even go to school learn so
easily, why do children who go to school seem to have such a hard time? Why can
children solve problems that challenge computers but stumble on a third-grade
reading test?

When we talk about learning, we really mean two quite different things, the
process of discovery and of mastering what one discovers. All children are
naturally driven to create an accurate picture of the world and, with the help
of adults to use that picture to make predictions, formulate explanations,
imagine alternatives and design plans. Call it ''guided discovery.''

If this kind of learning is what we have in mind then one answer to the big
question is that schools don't teach the same way children learn. As in the
gear-and-switch experiments, children seem to learn best when they can
explore the world and interact with expert adults. For example, Barbara Rogoff,
professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz, studied
children growing up in poor Guatemalan Indian villages. The youngsters gradually
mastered complex skills like preparing tortillas from scratch, beginning with
the 2-year-old mimicking the flattening of dough to the 10-year-old
entrusted with the entire task. They learned by watching adults, trying
themselves and receiving detailed corrective feedback about their efforts.
Mothers did a careful analysis of what the child was capable of before
encouraging the next step.

This may sound like a touchy-feely progressive prescription. But a good
example of such teaching in our culture is the stern but beloved baseball coach.
How many school teachers are as good at essay writing, science or mathematics as
the average coach is at baseball? And even when teachers are expert, how many
children ever get to watch them work through writing an essay or designing a
scientific experiment or solving an unfamiliar math problem?

Imagine if baseball were taught the way science is taught in most inner-city
schools. Schoolchildren would get lectures about the history of the World
Series. High school students would occasionally reproduce famous plays of the
past. Nobody would get in the game themselves until graduate school.

But there is another side to the question.

In guided discovery -- figuring out how the world works or unraveling the
structure of making tortillas -- children learn to solve new problems. But
what is expected in school, at least in part, involves a very different process:
call it ''routinized learning.'' Something already learned is made to be second
nature, so as to perform a skill effortlessly and quickly.

The two modes of learning seem to involve different underlying mechanisms and
even different brain regions, and the ability to do them develops at different
stages. Babies are as good at discovery as the smartest adult -- or better.
But routinized learning evolves later. There may even be brain changes that
help. There are also tradeoffs: Children seem to learn new things more easily
than adults. But especially through the school-age years, knowledge becomes
more and more engrained and automatic. For that reason, it also becomes harder
to change. In a sense, routinized learning is less about getting smarter than
getting stupider: it's about perfecting mindless procedures. This frees
attention and thought for new discoveries.

The activities that promote mastery may be different from the activities that
promote discovery. What makes knowledge automatic is what gets you to Carnegie
Hall -- practice, practice, practice. In some settings, like the Guatemalan
village, this happens naturally: make tortillas every day and you'll get good at
it. In our culture, children rich and poor grow highly skilled at video games
they play for hours.

But in school we need to acquire unnatural skills like reading and writing.
These are meaningless in themselves. There is no intrinsic discovery in learning
artificial mapping between visual symbols and sounds, and in the natural
environment no one would ever think of looking for that sort of mapping. On the
other hand, mastering these skills is absolutely necessary, allowing us to
exercise our abilities for discovery in a wider world.

The problem for many children in elementary school may not be that they're not
smart enough but that they're not stupid enough. They haven't yet been able to
make reading and writing transparent and automatic. This is particularly true
for children who don't have natural opportunities to practice these skills,
learning in chaotic and impoverished schools and leading chaotic and
impoverished lives.

But routinized learning is not an end in itself. A good coach may well make his
players throw the ball to first base 50 times or swing again and again in the
batting cage. That will help, but by itself it won't make a strong player. The
game itself -- reacting to different pitches, strategizing about base running
-- requires thought, flexibility and inventiveness.

Children would never tolerate baseball if all they did was practice. No coach
would evaluate a child, and no society would evaluate a coach, based on
performance in the batting cage. What makes for learning is the right balance of
both learning processes, allowing children to retain their native brilliance as
they grow up.

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