Why “holes in wood” beat “drills” in education

Having the right focus in education can help students see the relevance and importance of content. Here's why, in education, we should focus on holes in wood more than drills. (Public domain photo via photoXpress)

Having the right focus in education can help students see the relevance and importance of content. Here’s why, in education, we should focus on holes in wood more than drills. (Public domain photo via photoXpress)

For a long time, I’ve believed that everyone is a salesperson. Teachers are definitely not an exception to that. (In fact, they need to “sell” more than most!)

One of my favorite quotes to back this up is by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Everyone lives by selling something.”

A recent podcast I listened to put a new twist on this that concept that, I think, is perfect for educators.

The focus of this idea was on selling power tools, and to do it well, the salesperson has to have the right mindset.

Here’s the takeaway message: “You’re not selling a drill. You’re selling holes in wood.”

Not drills, but holes in wood.

You don’t want the buyer to focus on having this shiny, new tool to put on the shelf in the garage. The salesperson wants the buyer focusing on the projects he/she can do with the tool.


In many facets of education, we get too focused on the drill, so to speak. I’m guilty of this in the classroom at times. As a high school Spanish teacher, I’ll start to introduce some new material — say, for instance, forming verbs in the past tense. I’ve found that students aren’t internally motivated right away to learn about verb conjugation. (I know … shocking, right???)

What they are motivated about is making new friends, maybe from different countries. They are motivated about traveling. They are motivated about telling stories to their friends to connect with them.

When I introduce new material in my class, at my worst, I start it like this: “This is something that you’ll see in the following years of Spanish class. It will be very common, so you’ll want to get a firm grasp of it.”

When I do that, my mind is definitely not in the right place. If it was, I would say it like this:

“Speaking in the past tense is so important for having good conversations. How often do you tell your friends or family about something great or funny or interesting that happened to you? The past tense is the tense of telling stories.”

The verb tense there is just the drill. The stories they can tell with it are what make kids want to learn it.

Not drills, but holes in wood.

When I lead professional development with teachers, I slip into the “tool salesman” category again, and I see countless other presenters make the same mistake.

It’s easy to talk about all of the useful, fun features of educational technology. It’s crucial to do some of that. Otherwise, the audience for that session will leave poorly equipped to do anything with what you just talked about.

I have made a conscious effort to make the focus of my presentations (and my blog posts about technology) about what can be done with the technology. Teachers can find YouTube tutorials or how-to websites on how to run anything they might need on the web. What they really need is someone to help them identify and solve problems.

They don’t need to hear about variable speeds and keyless chucks and reversible motions. Before that’s relevant at all, they need to hear about the furniture they can create and the problems they can solve.

Not drills, but holes in wood.

[reminder]What’s your take on this issue? In teaching or leading professional development, how much focus should go on “drills” and how much on “holes in wood”?[/reminder]

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