Drill and Kill

FYI: In education this is the term given for “EXTREME” math practice.  Generally this type of practice takes form in 50-in-a-minute or 5 minute timed tests for addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division.

This week as I was talking to teachers about homework, this phrase reared its head more than once.  When it’s spat out (like something so dirty, so wrong), I always wonder exactly what message the teacher is trying to give to me.  In fact, when I first started teaching, this was one of the most frequent complaints new teachers had about “old school” teachers.  I would hear, “I don’t need a child to do 100 problems incorrectly to see what he doesn’t know.”  [Sigh] O.K.

I have an issue with this.

If I were a basketball coach who had a player who COULD NOT shoot a basket to save his/her life, I would have that player DRILL often on that skill.  I would promote that skill as part of the skill set needed to make that player a valuable member of the team.  Why can’t I do this with concrete math skills that (not to put to fine a point on it) KEEP ON SHOWING UP?

Seriously?  I actually had a district office “guru” come and tell me that lack of numeracy or ease with quick calculations is NOT the reason the students can’t do algebra.  It’s because we don’t focus enough on fractions.  S.I.G.H.  If looks could kill…

I spent an additional 4 weeks on fractions this year.  I went off my pacing calendar like you can’t believe because I do get that working with fractions becomes a bigger part of math moving forward.  However, as a previous “policy wonk” at a PI (program improvement) school, we delved into tests and testing philosophy.  We were working to teach students not only how to get the “right” answer, but also how the “incorrect” answers were created.  We could tie them to common student errors in CALCULATION.  Because, in elementary and early middle school, algebraic issues still are connected to calculation errors as well as procedure errors.

My students, by not having FLUENCY in numbers, could NOT naturally see connections between numbers.  Because they were not drilled and killed to the point of KNOWING simple calculation answers without thought, they had to work to see connections.  They were supposed to do SIMPLE math.  The simple math that was embedded in the problem to help them learn the new concepts was not necessarily SIMPLE for them.  THAT, my friends, IS A PROBLEM!  When you still have 6th graders stopping to calculate 87 + 13, there is something wrong in the state of Denmark.

In the same sense as we understand the role of fluency in reading comprehension, we need to equally promote the role of fluency in mathematical comprehension.  By going BIGGER, FARTHER, FASTER, we’ve managed to bypass a needed skill.  That, more than any other factor, I believe, is what’s keeping us from moving forward.

SICK NOTE: My son’s school, which is in a “good school district” (in fact, it’s considered a “good” school) promotes drill and kill.  What does that tell you about the “achievement gap”?  Maybe that, for some,  our “high standards” aren’t so high at all?

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