Why We Need More Habits and Less Thinking

Humanity is underrated (yes, I know I stole that from Spiked). All this talk of how we have problems because of our caveman ancestors is tendentious and unhelpful. We work by habit most of the time. So what’s the problem?

Habits are excellent things, when they are good habits. The fact that we don’t think before we act most of the time is not necessarily a problem. It’s simply a reality with which we must work, as educators, as human beings. Habits can be trained. We’re not at the mercy of some hereditary, genetic predestination.

It is actually very important that we should not be thinking about most of the things we do. If I have to think about whether I will be polite or rude to an interlocutor, if I have to think about whether I will shake somebody’s hand when I meet them, or slap them in the face, there’s a problem. Politeness and good manners are the result of training. They are the result of repeated practice over years.

Likewise, to take something which is oddly controversial at the moment, with times tables, they should be practised so often that pupils give the answer without thinking. That’s how you free up your working memory for more complex problem solving.

Drill – that is, repeated, guided practice of fundamental knowledge and procedures – does not require much thought from anyone involved, once you get the hang of it. But a well designed programme of drill, such as Engelmann’s Direct Instruction, builds up knowledge and skills highly effectively. Pupils are not scratching their heads and thinking hard, but they do learn and remember very well. This is because such programmes take such small steps and drill each step so thoroughly that it is mastered. It becomes automatic, so you don’t have to think about it.

We don’t want our pupils to have think hard about where they put a full stop, or to have to spend lots of time pondering over important scientific formulae or historical dates. They need to be drilled in these things, so that they can do the hard thinking where it really counts: in applying this core knowledge to more complex problems.

We need less thinking and more drill. As Daniel Willingham points out, the reason pupils don’t like school is that they have to do too much thinking of a frustrating and ineffective kind. Their working memory is constantly being bombarded with information and becoming overloaded, because so many teachers have swallowed the progressive lie that drill is a form of child abuse.


5 thoughts on “Why We Need More Habits and Less Thinking

  1. In MFL, drill has long been regarded as a “no no” among many. This has been particularly marked with regard to pronunciation and reading out loud, with the totally soft centred belief that it would come “naturally”. Thankfully it is coming back in again now.


    • This is interesting comment. I am studying Italian language in the evenings (adult learning) not for exams but so that I can learn to speak and think in Italian. This is partly because its a good thing for me to do as a mental exercise but also because I want to be able to speak to my inlaws.

      I have just completed the first 10 week part of the 1st year of Beginner’s Italian. Just as we got to the end of that first 10 weeks, we started to look more formally at grammar rules and specific verbs such as “to have” and “to be”. The tutor who is Italian and has been speaking English for only 8 years has impressed on us that we NEED to be learning the verbs and how to conjugate them by rote. This applies to the vocabulary as well. If we don’t learn by rote, we will be constantly trying to remember lots of words and not be focussing on the language coming naturally.

      When I studied Latin in University, we were learning the rules of Latin grammar from the second lesson. Without knowing them I had no hope of translating Cicero. Again, I was studying the language as an adult.

      When I studied French in school many years ago, this concept of learning by rote was abandoned. In 4 years of learning French, I never once learnt the rules of French grammar. I have very little memory of French at all but even after 10 weeks of Italian and a 5 week break from it, I feel I could ask for things in Italian and find my way around albeit haltingly and stumbling somewhat. Give me another 20 weeks of Italian and my wish to converse with my inlaws in May should come true.

      Its such a shame that MFL in schools didn’t follow the idea of rote as well as using the language….maybe more people could speak second languages if it did?


  2. There’s a great passage in Daisy’s book, “7 Myths of Education”, which illustrates your point here. Winston Churchill was a terrific public speaker and he was known for his dry wit and wonderful speaking ability. Many assumed he naturally was a brilliant orator. The truth was, he had actually failed grammar multiple times as a schoolboy, and as such, had to repeat the subject ad nauseum for years. In fact it was the only subject he was forced to study, until he got it just right.

    Was it the right thing to do? History will be the judge of that. The point being, that a good education MUST include practice and drillwork in order to prepare our children for the real world, which includes a great deal of higher order thinking and problem solving. The progressives have it backwards; they are trying to put the proverbial cart before the horse. Common sense must prevail, which includes evidence based instruction illustrating how children’s minds work, and what teaching methods are the most effective. Evidence in that regard have shown that children haven’t really changed over the years. Regardless of what the educrats are trying to make us believe, it’s all just smoke and mirrors.

    Providing a Classical Education rich in literature, arts, maths and science is the only true way to prepare our kids for an unknown future. The sooner we reach that conclusion, the better our children, and grandchildren will become.


  3. Absolutely agree. On the other side of the coin is the ridiculous “habits of mind” school of thought in which students are supposedly taught to “think like a mathematician” or “think like a _________” (fill in blank) without benefit of the facts and skills that allow one to do that. In mathematics those habits develop with the acquisition of specific content knowledge and skills that come with the building upon foundational skills. Students, however, are taught to “problem solve” ; given problems that are not appropriate for their level of math education and thus are forced to use inefficient ways to solve (like “guess and check”) and contrary to educrats beliefs do not build up a “problem solving schema”.


Thoughtful and reasonable discussion is always welcome.

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