Drilling is a cutting process where a drill bit is spun to cut a hole of circular cross-section in solid materials (wikipedia).

No, not that one… though the engineer in me does appreciate it.

Let’s try again:

The term drill and practice is defined as a method of instruction characterized by systematic repetition of concepts, examples, and practice problems. Drill and practice is a disciplined and repetitious exercise, used as a mean of teaching and perfecting a skill or procedure (reference).

Ah yes, this one.

Drilling is something most associated in my mind with youth sports and elementary school. Growing up playing baseball I can’t count the number of times I practiced my swing or pitching motion. I can still remember learning how to write cursive (does anyone use that anymore?) writing the same letters one after the other for what felt like hours. What about a more 21st century skill — learning to type? My middle school computer lab had typing games where we would hit the same keystroke combinations over and over in order to build muscle memory.

Post-primary school, the dry repetition of drilling seems to have fallen out of style. A few things I’ve heard in my own head and from others – “why are you doing the same thing over and over?” and “aren’t there more interesting or creative pursuits worth following?” Similarly, critical thinking is regarded as a more valuable skill than rote memorization. I agree. The ability to think for and tackle unforeseen problems is invaluable. But what is the difference between memorization and critical thinking? Can you have one without the other?

Similar to memorization, drill and practice involves repetition of specific skills, such as spelling or multiplication. To develop or maintain one’s specific skills, the sub-skills built through drill and practice should become the building blocks for more meaningful learning (reference).

Now we’re talking. Drilling and practice provides a foundation to build higher level skills and thinking.

Back to the baseball analogy – a player should have a reliable and robust swing where they are comfortable hitting off of a tee before facing a live pitcher. They must be proficient at hitting a ball thrown right down the middle before expanding to hit anything within the strike zone. They must be able to hit 4-seam fastballs before breaking pitches. They must be able to make contact before adding power. These are all skills that are acquired through drilling, with each preceding skill providing a stable foundation upon which to grow.

Before you can start writing complete sentences and words you need to be able to write just the letters. You shouldn’t have to think about the shape of a letter in order to write it nor should you need to think hard about the spelling of commonly used words. In fact, it would be quite inefficient and time-consuming to do so.

There’s a phrase I heard and probably mangled that comes to mind (apologies for the lack of proper attribution):

Sometimes you need to learn the science before you can learn the art.

I interpret and use this in a few ways. Regarding drilling, I take it to mean that proficiency of the core fundamentals comes before adding complexity or creativity. Discipline and repetition are the how proficiency is gained.

Yes, drilling makes sense in sports. It also makes sense for learning language and basic arithmetic.

What about in other areas of life? What about writing code? Designing mechanical systems?

I wouldn’t call myself an artist but I imagine most artists have their basic brush strokes and penmanship pretty well drilled. I’m no heavy equipment operator either, but I’ve watched masters at their craft move an excavator like it is an extension of their body. This takes skill and nuance but a lot of good old fashioned repetition and drilling. In other words – training.

Drilling is something I want to be more intential about in all areas. It takes repetition and discipline to practice. I’ll call this meta-drilling.