Why The Best Teachers Use Drills To Teach Skills

One of my favourite books is Practice Perfect. It’s full of great insights based on in-depth research by Doug Lemov. Here is just one insight from the book.

In sports and music when it comes to practice there is this temptation to want to play the game or play the song likely for 3 main reasons. 1. It seems logical that the best way to prepare for the game/song is to play the game/song. 2. Playing the game/song is just more enjoyable. 3. It doesn’t required much thought.

Interestingly it seems the best coaches do not focus on the game/song. For example the legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden focused on drilling fundamental skills rather than scrimmaging (playing the game) to isolate problems. In fact, he would often coach his players without the ball. He saw the ball as a distraction. That’s like teaching guitar without the guitar. Seems crazy at first but makes perfect sense when the object is to isolate a skill via a drill. Drills to most people feel boring. When teaching guitar students and focusing on drills the standard response is “When are we going to play a song?”

In the book ‘Practice Perfect’ the author makes the point that you must first drill to automate skills and free creative cognition. Think of learning to ride a bike. When you first learned to ride all your attention was on balancing and pedalling. The reason for trainer wheels was to isolate the peddling. Once automated we could remove the trainer wheels and focus on balance. Once both these tasks were automated you were free to get creative. Riding no hands, doing wheelies etc. As a guitar teacher I found the biggest challenge was not how to teach someone to play guitar via drills, it was gaining their trust to follow my advice and actually practice the drills. The best coaches in my experience do not compromise on this even if they lose students. They do however take time to build trust. As they say, the teacher will appear when the student is ready.

While you do need to play the game/song sometimes the role of a good coach is to develop the right drills and to somehow motivate students to practice them.

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