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.