Can Repetitive Exercises Actually Feed the Creative Process?
By Holly Korbey
In Sherri Scott’s first grade class, the daily “main lesson” pages students work on — essentially their handmade textbooks made up of words, numbers, and artwork — are copied straight from the old-fashioned blackboard, not created. And that’s the point.
“It’s what we do in Waldorf schools,” Scott says. “In the lower grades, those initial main lesson pages are copied as closely as possible, to allow practice and more practice with shading, perspective, accuracy, spatial awareness. All that practice copying turns into a keen eye and skilled hand when given free rein in the upper grades.”
For many dedicated to re-making our schools as hubs of dynamic innovation and creativity, getting good at math or science or literacy might be better found in techniques like inquiry-based learning, less emphasis on standardized testing, and avoiding the soul-numbing “drill and kill” exercises and worksheets used to instill basic skills.
But what if the right drill -- without the kill — actually encourages creativity?
Teach Like a Champion author Doug Lemov proposes this very idea in his new book, Practice Perfect: 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better. His Rule Number 4, “Unlock Creativity… With Repetition,” falls in line with virtuoso musicians, elite athletes, and Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours rule” — that creativity actually comes after lots and lots of rote learning (also called practice)
has built a solid foundation of skills. Focused practice, Lemov has found in his research training teachers, actually automates a process in one’s body, which then becomes fertile ground for creative breakthroughs and individual variations.
To explain why his teachers have had so much creative success with repetitive practice, Lemov told the story of a particularly good literature teacher who would get stumped when students would respond to text questions with answers that were very far afield. “She would ask kids, ‘What do you think about x,’ and they would say the darndest things,” Lemov recalls. “And the teacher would just freeze. She just didn’t know how to respond to the unexpected answers.” Lemov suggested she meet with another teacher once a week for 10 minutes and do nothing but respond to unexpected questions – in other words, practice receiving really wrong answers, so she could work on her response.
The results, according to Lemov, were outstanding. “After three or four weeks, she was a totally different teacher. She was more confident. Her mind wasn’t focused on, ‘What am I going to say?’ She had reallocated her thinking from lower-order task to higher-order task, and it made her more creative teaching in the moment when she needed it most.”
But not everybody agrees with this premise. From a scientific standpoint, says John Kounios, Professor of Psychology at Drexel University and co-author of upcoming book Insight: Aha Moments, Creativity, and the Brain, the connection between creativity and automaticity is complicated. “Yes, it is true that many ‘Aha moment’ breakthroughs come to people who have mastered an area. However, the opposite is often the case: once a person has mastered something, their thinking about it often becomes locked in and it’s difficult for them to break out of this mental straightjacket.”
Some educators believe that a side-by-side combination of rote work and “aha” moments works better for students. While there’s no doubt that repeated practice is the key to mastering any craft, “much of the way we’ve structured education is about the repetition without actually getting to create at the task itself,” says arts and literacy educator Kurt Wootton, co-author of A Reason to Read. “In my view, the repetition must not come before allowing students to participate in the creative tasks, but rather repeated practice walks side-by-side with the creative process.”
Wootton gave an example of his childhood piano lessons that were comprised of endless scales. “I never knew why I was practicing those scales or what they were for,” he said. “I was never given the chance to create anything musical in the ten years I played piano. It was always the repetition and practice without the chance to create. This would be the same as memorizing the rules of basketball and shooting endless free throws without ever learning to play the game.”
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In Wootton’s experience, bringing in the creative process shows students “the whole game” and gives them a reason to go back and get better at specific skills that require rote practice. “Creativity is about immediate play. Students learn by doing and feeling the immediacy of the creative experience,” he said.
“In schools we do ‘drill and kill’ our students. We ask them to go through endless acts of practice and memorization (multiplication tables, memorizing the periodic table of elements, spelling quizzes, grammar lessons, scales, free throws, batting practice) often without the payoff of actually doing the real work the skills were meant for,” he said.
And don’t forget, says cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, author of Why Don’t Students Like School?, that the kill in “drill and kill” refers to motivation, which is key to learning whatever skill is being taught. “I think terrible instruction would kill motivation for any topic, and that’s regardless of the content,” Willingham said. “Can you imagine a hands-on workshop — which should be an engaging method — on a topic you find intrinsically interesting that was really boring? Sure, it’s easy. Topic and method are no guarantee that students will be engaged, and therefore there’s some risk that their motivation will drop.”
But, Willingham is quick to point out, “the risk for boredom and lack of engagement is higher for practicing things that students feel they already know. It’s probably more demanding of the teacher to make it fresh and to keep students wanting to engage.”
With her first graders, Sherri Scott works hard at finding the delicate balance between engaging them in creative play and performing rote tasks they’ll need later. As she described the myriad ways she has students learn “100,” through writing and counting, organizing and artwork, Scott affirmed her belief that rote practice pays off in creativity further down the road. “If you want to know what 100 ‘is,’ having those math facts internalized allows you to deal with 100 in so many, many ways. Rather than just knowing 10 x 10 is 100, or 4 x 25 is 100, you’d be able to pull 100 apart and put it back together without analyzing it.”
[RELATED: How Do You Spark a Love of Math in Kids?]
Lemov would certainly agree: “Creativity is play within a system of rules, and you can only play with the rules once you understand the systems. You have to see the theme first to understand the variations.”
Practice Perfect is a paean to the “humble power” of the kind of practice that makes you better, and more creative. In the book, Lemov quotes legendary UCLA basketball coach (and king of practice) John Wooden, who said, “Drilling creates a foundation on which individual initiative and imagination can flourish.”
Perhaps Wooden is precisely what the British government had in mind when they recently designed a poetry contest that asks students to learn the poetry “by heart,” not by rote. English poet Jean Sprackland explained the difference beautifully: “Well, I suppose there’s a great difference between learning by heart and the old-fashioned, rather dusty phrase ‘learning by rote.’ So there’s a thought that if you learn by heart it means you take the poem right into yourself, it becomes part of you. And it remains with you, probably for the rest of your life. I think a lot of us can remember bits of poetry that we learned when we were very young. So it’s something that lives with you forever.”Related