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


Teaching | Thursday, December 18, 2014

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.

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”?

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  • […] Why “Holes In Wood” beat “Drills” in Education […]

  • Kerryn says:

    Very cool idea. Great post. At our school, we develop our lessons around transfer goals and essential questions, but there is something very eloquent about the idea of “Not the drill, but the hole in the wood.” Selling the purpose, providing insight into real world outcomes and aspirations, seems so valuable – I have a sinking feeling, though, a few of the skills we teach don’t necessarily have an equivalent “hole in the wood” moment of comparison. An English ‘text response essay’ springs to mind… I’ll take some more time to think about it 🙂 This is in no way to suggest there is an issue with your analogy! More that my thinking needs to shift 🙂 I look forward to it!

  • Kari Catanzaro says:

    I love this idea! Thanks, Matt, for challenging me to START my lesson with the application of the lesson (the “hole”) rather than ending it with it. Too often I wait until the kids have learned the content to show them how to apply it, rather than using the “hole” to hook them before we drill. This really resonated with me!

  • Up Ramp Studios says:

    As an artist starting a business to encourage/develop (rather than educate ) other artists, I know the dilemma of which you speak. To me it is clear that a person with a good working knowledge of the materials and techniques related to a chosen art form could become an accomplished artist, yet the creative mind must first engage to generate that motivation. It really is not the skill set or knowledge an artist builds up that will set them apart but their drive to communicate what they have to express and how well that is articulated through their work. To an aspiring artists “holes in wood ” may seem like THE reason to pick up a ” drill “BUT my hope would be that as a creative tool a “drill” would suggest so much more to the truly creative mind.
    I may not be able to teach the skills those I meet with will need in their careers, because they themselves will be the ones to go on to invent them, yet I surely hope to inspire that enquisitve playfulness that will keep them questing beyond the obvious until they find what they need.

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