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Drill, Baby, Drill?
March 17, 2011 - 10:30pm

I like tigers. The animal, that is, not the human variety that has cropped up lately. Amy Chua’s book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom” has gotten a lot of attention in the press for the shocking admissions of her parenting style. I won’t discuss her parenting here. But since she is a professor at Yale Law School, her book made me wonder: what is she like in the classroom? As a mother who demanded nothing less than A’s from her children and did not balk at calling them “garbage”, or “lazy, cowardly, self-indulgent and pathetic”, who barred them from being in school plays and insisted on them learning to play the piano and violin (no other instruments were allowed), how does she approach her students? Is there such a creature as a “tiger professor”?

I know the tiger professor exists. I’ve had some of them. They believe in “drilling”, and rote learning (as does Chua), and not tolerating any deviance from their idea of perfection. I don’t want to dismiss the value of repetition in learning to do a task well. I still remember my multiplication tables from second grade and it’s a skill that comes in handy. And I am appalled when my students misspell common words that I learnt in first grade. But I also know that some of my most satisfying moments in my educational career have been when I’ve been able to figure out (or been given the liberty to pursue) the whys, when I was allowed to bend the rules of drawing and painting, when I wrote a paper that I really enjoyed, and not the one that would necessarily get me an “A”.

I have to admit, as a young student I was that person who didn’t really “get” Mathematics. Yet I was able to get good grades not because I understood it necessarily, but because I was able to follow the specific steps required to get to the correct answers as I was expected to. But I have a sister whose Math abilities amaze me. She “gets it”. She can see the logic and the process behind the calculations, while I never could. She spent many hours trying to get me to see the connections between the various steps involved in a formula. Yet, I was the one who got better grades – I was good at producing the desired answers in the limited time frame allotted for tests and exams.

So I must ask: what kinds of tasks can be accomplished by repetition and drilling? What kind of learning takes place? And what kind of appreciation for the subject does it inculcate in the person performing the task?

There is a lot of national unrest and concern about our test-scores, and our failing education system, as there should be. But before we get completely swept up in the discussion of tiger moms (I’m sure tiger teachers and professors are next) as the saviors of nations from mediocrity and self-indulgence, perhaps it makes sense to think about the whys along with the whats of our pedagogical techniques. It is no surprise that Chua’s younger daughter gave up the violin (one of their constant battles). You can teach a person to do certain things by “drilling” them but can you teach them to love it? Can you inspire students to create, to innovate by rote learning?

What if Van Gogh had a tiger mom or a tiger teacher? What about Einstein? Do we inspire people by demanding conventional perfection? Should we drill our children and our students into coloring inside the lines, using “proper” colors, traditional techniques, or let them create something? Do we not turn the piano, violin, math, dance, or any kind of learning, into a mechanical activity when it becomes a task to be accomplished, instead of something we love, understand, and appreciate?

I said earlier that I like tigers. And I do. I would have no objection to espousing a tiger parenting or teaching style, if the label accurately resembled the methods of real tigers. Tigers may be fierce animals, but when it comes to caring for their young, they are also gentle, and nurture them for a long time. They are in no hurry to demand perfection or “appropriate” behavior from them. Have you ever seen how much fun tiger cubs have with each other and their mother as they pounce, flop, and chase their tails around? But don’t let that fool you; amidst all that “unbecoming” and often clumsy behavior, they are actually honing their hunting skills.

Connecticut, USA

Afshan Jafar is a regular contributor at University of Venus and an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Connecticut College. Her research and teaching interests are cultural globalization, gender, religious fundamentalism, and trans-national women's movements. She can be reached at


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