Friday, May 28, 2010

TAGteacher Spotlight - Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson

Swedes Emelie Johnson Vegh and Eva Bertilsson are Certified Level 3 TAGteachers, authors of the book Agility Right from the Start and work together under the name Carpe Momentum. Emelie studied to be a high school teacher in English and Swedish, and Eva has a degree in education and psychology – but after getting together to work within Carpe Momentum, giving classes, hosting seminars, writing articles and the recently published book Agility Right from the Start, neither has time to pursue a more traditional career in their field.

Emelie and Eva came into contact with clicker training at roughly the same time (around 1997), but before knowing each other. They met while competing in agility one hot summer, and found that they both shared a great passion for training and discussing training. After having begun teaching together, they noticed that clicker training made them good animal trainers – in their classes everything was split into small pieces for the dogs and the rate of reinforcement was kept high. But for the human part of the team? As instructors they felt that they wanted to share everything and give all the tools they could to their students, but just cramming their heads full didn’t feel right. How was that setting anybody up for success? Eva spent some time searching the Web, looking for ideas. She came across TAGteach and promptly wrote an email to Theresa McKeon and Beth Wheeler, and that is how the first Primary Certification Seminar came to be hosted in Dingle, Sweden, in 2004.

Since then, Emelie and Eva have worked their way to a Level 3, now educating and certifying others in TAGteach in Scandinavia. They’ve written a few articles in Swedish on the subject and in their book Agility Right from the Start, there is a passage briefly introducing TAGteach and many of the exercises come with suggestions of TAG points for the trainer/handler.

We highly recommend this book! It is not just agility done right it is TAGteach done right as well! Click here to find out more or buy the book

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Laura Learns to Ski

By Laura Van Arendonk Baugh

It is said, and rightly so, that instructors should continue to learn unfamiliar things so that they stay empathetic with their struggling students.  This week, I learned to ski.

I had been skiing before.  My first experience with the sport was in college, when my roommate and I (both ski-virgins) were taken to the slopes by our respective boyfriends, both experienced skiers.  To be specific, my boyfriend grew up at 8,000 ft and started working Ski Patrol as a teen.  This wasn't exactly a good starting match.

Jamie and I signed up for a lesson while the boys went off on their own.  We found that we were the only members of the ski class over the age of 8, and our male instructor was apparently greatly intimidated by having two females of his age in his group.  He coped by pretending we didn't exist, speaking only to the children, ignoring our questions, and never making eye contact with us.  Jamie and I finally reconciled ourselves to eavesdropping on his directions to the kids and copying them ourselves.  When our hour or two was up, we met the guys and went to apply what we'd learned.

It was disaster for me.  I tumbled down the hill time and time again, knocking myself hard in the head.  (This was before ski helmets were as popular as now.)  Once, Jon followed me down the slope and watched me splat across the hill.  As I blearily reoriented, Jon sped up and hockey-stopped inches from my face, spraying snow over me and laughing.

Yeah.  I did not learn much that trip.

I went skiing once or twice more, with Jon's family of avid skiers (I did marry the guy despite the ski incident), but I never really progressed beyond managing to stay upright on the bunny hill.  This year, however, Jon's parents decided that their Christmas gift to their kids would be a ski trip, and so off we went to the slopes.
Jon's parents are nice people, but we don't always speak the same language.  "You make a pizza pie," his father (another former Ski Patrolman) explained, "and then your left ski is cheese and your right ski is pepperoni, and you keep saying cheese and pepperoni as you go downhill."  Uh huh.  I had a sneaking suspicion that I could scream "cheese and pepperoni!" repeatedly and ineffectively as I bounced head over heels, scattering skis and gloves and goggles to the winds.

But I had a plan.  Last year I went ice skating for the first time, with a former figure skater friend who gave me instruction.  As she explained what I needed to do, I translated her words into TAGpoints in my head, verified them with her, and then tried to apply them.  The result was that I learned in a few skating sessions far more than I'd expected and surprised her as well, I think -- not that I was anywhere close to accomplished!  But I was proud of what I'd learned.  I wanted to do the same on this ski trip.

So I began translating, occasionally asking Jon for clarification.  "Pizza pie" became "inner wedge" in my head (form a triangle with the skis, weight on the inner edges).  I dropped the "cheese and pepperoni" metaphor for the image of pressing one heel downhill and then the other to start gradual turns.  "Ski with your feet" became "knees over toes."

The pizza metaphor is apparently a popular one in ski instruction, because I heard it screamed every time a novice blitzed past en route to a tumble or narrow escape.  "Pizza!  Pizza!" a parent or helpful friend would shout after them.  "Don't lean forward.  Don't lean.  Turn.  Turn!  TURN!"  Me, I was chanting my personal TAGpoints consciously and constantly.  "Knees over toes, knees over toes, knees over toes!"  This kept me upright, at least, and I started making at least a bit of distance between falls.  Then my coaches determined that I'd graduated to more challenging slopes, and "take the slope out of the mountain so you don't gain so much speed" became "ski horizontal (across the slope)."  I started to stay upright on whole green runs.  And then, "Face down the mountain so they can take your picture" became "chest downhill."

I tumbled down the mountain and landed splayed and laughing.  "I get it!" I called uphill to Jon.  "This is supposed to happen!"

Jon skied down to me.  "Increased criteria means a temporary drop in performance?"

"Yep!  See, when I know why this happens and that it's even supposed to happen, it's not frustrating!"

Yeah, we've both come a long way since that first ski lesson.

We reached the bottom of the slope and got in line for the lift.  Jon's dad helpfully advised, "You want to keep the weight off your uphill ski when you turn, because that's what's slowing your turn.  You need to face downward and push harder into the boots, and just keep it tucked in.  The angulation of the ski's edge to the snow is inversely related to the cosine of the Fibonacci number sequence...."

I started to lose track.  "What does keep it tucked in mean?"

"Don't worry about it," Jon interrupted.

"Knees over toes?"

"Knees over toes."

"I want you to TAG me," I told Jon.  "Just watch me and say a short 'yes' when I've got 'chest downhill.'"  And on the next run, he skied backwards a short distance from me (a skill I'd previously found infuriating) and tagged -- or didn't -- with each turn I made.  I think that was Jon's first experience tagging.  I fell only once on that run, a blue.  Whee!!  Progress!

As the afternoon went on, I found myself starting slopes without my TAGpoints, recalling them only when I started to run too hot.  When I did need them, I alternated points as necessary.  Being right-handed, I turned better to the right, so that TAGpoint was "chest downhill."  For left turns, where I still wasn't confident in turning aggressively, I dropped to the lower criteria of "knees over toes."  Then I gradually and unconsciously faded the TAGpoints altogether.

But I didn't fade the skills.  By the end of the day, I was running blues repeatedly without falling, in decent form and good control.  I was very proud of myself; though I'm still nowhere near their skill level, I'm at least capable of having a good time now.

Laura is a certified TAGteacher and an instructor with the Karen Pryor Academy for Dog Training and Behavior.

Reprinted with permission from Laura's blog at

Karen Pryor's Thoughts on Paying Kids to Go to School

Last week TIME magazine ran a cover story about paying kids cash money to get better grades.
The objections to cash ‘rewards’ for schooling have been around for a long time and can lead to tremendous political uproar. There are moral objections—children should do what’s expected of them without reward. There are philosophical, theoretical, religious, and of course financial objections.
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Well, this fellow at Harvard, economist Roland Fryer Jr., decided the first thing to do was to find out if paying kids to do better in school actually worked or not. Forget all the existing studies and opinions. Forget those specific schools where reinforcers, large and small, are built into the system. According to TIME, Dr. Fryer “did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment.” (Just think about THAT for a minute. They opine stuff and put it into the schools and they don’t TEST it?)

Anyway, Fryer persuaded four cities—New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Dallas—to set up ways to pay some groups of kids to learn (while others just did the usual learning). The experiment involved 18,000 kids and a total of $6.3 million in payouts.

Fryer left the design of the programs up to the cities; he let them pick whatever they thought would work. The results, which he shared exclusively with TIME, “represent the largest study of financial incentives in the classroom and one of the more rigorous studies ever on anything in education policy.”

City planning

New York set up a program to pay fourth-through seventh-grade children for their test grades during the school year. For great results you could get as much as $50. The money went right into a savings account.
Chicago also paid for test scores during the year. Good scores could earn up to $2,000 per year, half of which went into a savings account payable on graduation. Washington, D.C. had a complicated system in which high school students were paid $100 every two weeks by getting perfect marks in five different areas, including attendance and good behavior. Dallas kept it simple. Second-graders got $2 every time they read a book and passed a little computer test on it.Then the kids all took the national MCAS tests at the end of the year, to see if their scores had improved over those of control groups who got no money.

What happened 

In New York and Chicago attendance improved, morale improved, grades improved, and the kids liked the program—but the MCAS test score improvement was zero. Nil. None. Nada. Washington, D.C. showed distinct improvement in general behavior and, presumably as a result, some improvement in reading scores, enough so the chancellor was thrilled and extended the program after the experiment was over. And 85% of the Dallas second graders improved their reading the equivalent of five full months of extra schooling, and continued to improve the year after that.

Why the differences? Clicker trainers could tell them…

In Chicago and New York, the event being reinforced—grades on tests—was an end result, not a behavior in itself. The money, too, accumulating in savings or paid out at graduation, was seriously delayed, functioning as a positive experience but not necessarily a reinforcer. Sort of a lure; gets you hopeful and moving, and in a good mood, but doesn’t actually teach you much. Kids loved the program, and wanted to earn more; they just didn’t know how.

In D.C., most of the five behaviors (coming to school, not fighting) were things that the kids could control, and could offer deliberately. $100 every two weeks was frequent enough to actually reinforce better behavior, and a global change in behavior enabled everybody to learn more. Standardized test scores in reading went up about three months’ worth, even though nothing else in the teaching or school changed.

And in Dallas? The behavior was a clear-cut operant behavior the children could already do: read a book and answer a quiz on screen. The payoff was connected to the task and was therefore a reinforcer. MCAS reading scores improved by five months. It was as if the kids had had another half year of schooling. And it cost Dallas about $14 a kid.

What of the 15% of Dallas children who did not earn pay and did not get better? Perhaps they were the ones that couldn’t really read yet, or at least not in English. They couldn’t earn reinforcement because they just didn’t have the behavior. TIME thought so too.

My take on it

Fryer is reported as saying he doesn’t really know why it worked best in Dallas, or why 15% of the Dallas kids didn’t learn. He does know, however, that they definitely have an answer to the question, does money work; done right, cash can make a huge difference.

How exhausting—four cities, 6 million dollars, 18,000 kids—and only one school system came up with an operant behavior and a timely reinforcer. And no one noticed those fundamental facts. Makes you want to laugh and cry at the same time, doesn’t it! Well, good for Dr. Fryer and TIME magazine. Maybe SOMEONE besides us clicker trainers will read the story and go “Oh. I see why that worked. Let’s get it going in our school.”

Our town. Our city. Our state. Our planet.

Happy clicking,

Karen Pryor

Reprinted with permission. Link to read this at the KPCT site