Being Mobile Blog

Should We Use Digital Technology To 'Drill' Children?

Once upon a time, paper technology enabled educators to drill children on their number facts and times tables using notecards. This information was necessary for living and, importantly, the bits of information matched nicely with the properties of the technology. The flashcard said "2x2=?." The student said "4," then turned over the card to check the answer. This great use of technology was affordable and effective.

Now, software technology enables educators to drill children on virtually every type of factoid. Students can read how infectious diseases are spread or about the Battle of Normandy. The messiness of those types of facts — in comparison to the quantified bits of math information on the flashcards — is not a problem for digital technology. Students read the text, view images and videos, then take a quiz that consists of 10 multiple-choice, true-false or even fill-in-the-blank questions. The computer checks each answer and either lets the student proceed or determines what information to present again. And again. And again. It's an affordable and effective use of technology.

But here is the real question: should we drill kids on essentially all types of information? Ah, some readers may object to the term “drill”. So substitute the term “competency-based learning” or “personalized learning.” But, what was that adage? "If it looks like a duck, and it acts like a duck … it’s drill."

In the 19th century, it was indeed important to readily know facts. Information resources were scarce. Memorization was a great technique to address that situation.

But we are in the 21st century, and information resources are anything but scarce. As the New York Times put it, "The day is approaching when the dream of the democratization of knowledge — Borges’s fantasy of 'the total library' — will be realized. Soon all the collections in all the libraries and all the archives in the world will be available to everyone with a screen.”

And, the U.S. Department of Labor pointed out that “65 percent of today’s schoolchildren will eventually be employed in jobs that have yet to be created...." Thus, while some jobs will use the facts that exist today, a large percentage of jobs — jobs that don’t yet exist — will use facts that don’t yet exist and thus cannot be memorized today.

Since the facts that students need to know have not been created yet, why should we drill them on “old facts”  that are catalogued in books like “What Your _ Grader Needs to Know” by E.D. Hirsch, Jr? (Careful: The CCSS identifies what kids need to know, not how they should come to know it. Folks like E.D. Hirsh, Jr. specify both the what and the how: drill — oops, personalized learning.)

One answer to the question “Should we drill kids on essentially all types of information?” is that it's “good mental exercise.” Memorizing that old stuff will prepare the children to learn the new stuff. Ahhh ... to the best of our understanding, there is no empirical evidence that memorizing old information makes it easier to learn new information. (Lest there be any confusion: Memorizing is not learning.)

Another answer: knowing the “Great Books and the Western canon” is central to a humanistic education that makes someone an educated person. While we absolutely agree that our children need to be “educated” and that knowing the “Great Books and the Western canon” is part of what it means to be educated, we don’t agree that drilling them on that content is an appropriate and effective pedagogy!

Bottom line: Should we use technology to drill if our goal is to teach kids how to learn? We have stated our opinion of personalized learning in previous blogs. And we are not crazy: Drilling does have its place, e.g., learning one’s number facts, learning so-called “sight words,” etc. 

Over the next chunk of time in this blog, we will be examining more deeply the Great Pedagogical Dilemma of this decade: Personalized Learning vs. Inquiry Learning. This theme fits squarely within our blog's main theme "Being Mobile," inasmuch as mobile technologies are the fuel for inquiry learning. 

Please, weigh in now with your comments; while we do have a stance — clearly — our blogs are meant to be conversation engenderers.

About the Authors

Cathie Norris is a Regents Professor and Chair in the Department of Learning Technologies, School of Information at the University of North Texas. Visit her site at

Elliot Soloway is an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in the Department of CSE, College of Engineering, at the University of Michigan. Visit his site at

Find more from Elliot Soloway and Cathie Norris at their Reinventing Curriculum blog at