I have been thinking a little too much about the differences between the students who get it and those who do not. I was reminded of this basic distinction when I was reading through another one of Jonah Lehrer’s posts on the nature of expertise and the research he cited by a few folks at various universities.
One of the behaviors that research pointed to as essential to learning well was the ability to tolerate boring and repetitive practice without distractions. Lehrer cited to work of K. Anders Ericsson at the University of Florida and Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania who have both done a great deal of research on memory development.
Ericsson has worked with music performers to find out why some excel while others languish in mediocrity, and Duckworth led research that focused on students in the National Spelling Bee to find out how some students nailed those impossible words while others made it there but received nothing more than a congratulation and a pat on the back.
Ericsson found that the best musicians tended not to be those born to perform but those who spent hours and hours in their rooms practicing by themselves. This reminded me of a story told by Paco de Lucia’s father about how the young Paco was not able to go to school, so he ended up staying in his room hour after hour practicing his guitar and listening to records of flamenco guitarists. For musicians, this ability to practice scales to the point of being able to go through them without thinking is part of internalizing complicated movements into something the brains considers to be a single motion.
Duckworth found essentially the same discipline in the top spellers at the National Spelling Bee. They were were not the ones who asked other people to quiz them, and, contrary to what many English teachers would like to believe, they were not the ones who read a great deal. They were the ones who were willing to put up with the drudgery of repetitive practice. They tended to practice even after they had already spelled the word correctly once or twice, and made sure they had, essentially, nailed it.
For anyone who has been following memory research, these findings are nothing new. They are quite consistent with what has been showing up in studies for decades. Research on chess players showed that the ones who were willing to practice hour after hour developed better memories for various strategies and the conditions under which they can be used. The research on chess players showed that practice and not intelligence was the key to being able to learn and employ the various strategies during matches.
In spite of all the mounting research on the utility of repetitive practice, I have not found many books or teachers who put this approach into practice. It seems grammar is already such a boring topic that making parts of it repetitive would push it over the edge and make teaching it a violation of the Geneva Convention.
The issue is determining which parts of grammar instruction should be drilled. According to Ericsson’s and Duckworth’s studies, only those materials that can be reduced to small segments of randomly accessed memory should be learned through repetitive drill. Doing this would allow students to focus on the structural elements without sweating over whether a certain word were a preposition or an article.