Friday, July 27, 2012

Don't Treat My Daughter Like a Dog!

By Ted DesMaisons

Many teachers and coaches who use TAGteaching—Teaching with Acoustical Guidance—get resistance from parents or colleagues for “clicking” kids. Isn’t that what dog trainers use? Are you treating my kid like an animal? Humans are different!The palpable fear and anger get in the way of good instruction, both by introducing hesitation on the instructor’s part and defensiveness on the learner’s.
Of course, to “treat someone like a dog” does normally mean you’re treating that person poorly.[1] Maybe you’re “shutting them out” or “keeping them leashed” in some way. Maybe you’re using commands or dominance in a disrespectful manner. Or assuming they’re of lesser intelligence. Because of such associations, the pioneers of using positive auditory reinforcement for humans early on needed to steer clear of “clicker” language. But TAGteach involves none of that ugliness. Quite the opposite.
Instead, TAGteach takes the best of positive reinforcement science with other animals and applies it to the particular world of humans. The stuff works on any animal with a nervous system, from “scallops to scientists” as one colleague put it this past weekend. Specific instruction and precision feedback work best to instill long-term learning, period. Here, “feedback” doesn’t mean critique or pointing out how something went wrong, but, rather, simple yes-no information about whether a goal was reached.
But we’re not animals. We can use words. Why do we need a “click” to tell us when we’ve done the right thing? Well, for one, we are animals. Getting a “yes” message directly to the amygdala helps show us Oh, this is the behavior we want. In that way, words often actually prove detrimental to learning. They activate cognitive processes that interrupt simpler, more immediate absorption. An “Attagirl” for my shortstop accidentally invokes my social approval (and suggests her need for it). There may be a time and place for that but it’s not at the moment of integrating a successful learning. A quieter “OK, mm-hmm” that follows a more enthusiastic “AWWWRIGHT!!!” can prove more confusing than reassuring. A simple “yes” can lose all its power when converted to a “yes, but”—and we as teachers so often want to add in that “but” to demonstrate our superiority or confirm our value. When offered by itself, the “click” serves as a marker that communicates a job correctly done, without variation or emotion attached. The information remains clean and pure.
Importantly, TAGteach demands as much improvement from the teacher’s side of the equation as much as, if not more so than, from the learner’s side. To use the method well, a TAGteacher has to improve his craft by going after several questions:
What behavior or ability, exactly, am I trying to develop?

What smaller skills or behaviors make up that larger goal?

Why should this matter to my learner?

How can I explain what I’m looking for cleanly and concisely?

How do I get better at marking successes precisely?

And, then, how do I get out of the way of my student’s progress?

“The  tag point is: proper cover hand.”
A teacher who asks these questions starts to shift from sage to coach. Her job is not to be the center of attention or the server from which a kid downloads information, it’s to help set clear goals and deliver the methodology and information needed to reach those goals. It can all sound a bit dispassionate and removed—What happens to being a cheerleader?—but there’s an elegance and a beauty when it’s done well. The learning itself provides the reward. Then, at the end of a TAGteach sequence, the teacher offers praise to celebrate the process used to get the result rather than the result itself.
Most parents would blanch at using a drug or a treatment for their child that hadn’t first been tested on animals, but somehow this idea of “clicker training” kids still raises hackles. TAGteach co-founder Theresa McKeon offers a useful reframe that can ease minds—“I’m going to use a short sound instead of my voice to say yes so I don’t break your concentration”—but in the end, we do rest on the success of the animal behavior science.
If you flinch to hear that I’ll use a clicker to help your daughter improve her softball game, you’re right in one sense. I will treat her like a dog. More specifically, I will use positive reinforcement. I will signal when she’s earned the reinforcer. And I will regularly increase my expectations of her performance so she can maximize her potential.[2]
Over time, I promise that you will be astonished with the results.

[1] Unless you’re with my partner Melissa, in which case being treated like a dog means getting the platinum-level, luxury service: long walks in beautiful places, nightly grooming, a steady stream of belly rubs and cuddling, and the like.
[2] Thanks to TAGteach colleague Josh Pritchard for the phrasing of this sequence.
Ted DesMaisons is a Religious Studies teacher and Head Coach, Varsity Softball at Northfield Mount Hermon. Please visit Ted's blog for more about contemplative practice, improvisational theater, positive reinforcement training, and alternative assessment.

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