Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Chicken Sexers, Plane Spotters, and the Elegance of TAGteaching

By Ted Desmaisons
Reprinted with permission from Tedsword Blog

Neuroscientist David Eagleman’s Incognito mentions two fascinating stories of unexpected learning. Both attest to the mysterious powers of the human brain—and encourage a radical reexamination of how we teach and train.
Boys or girls?
Photo courtesy of bsmalley at
Eagleman explains how many in the poultry industry of the 1930’s turned to the Japanese for a technique for training chicken sexers, workers who sort one-day-old hatchlings based on the sex of the bird. An untrained eye can’t tell the difference between a male and female chick; their bodies are just too similar. Trained masters could sort the birds effectively, even though they could not describe what they details they used for their decisions. As Eagleman writes, the selection “was somehow based on very subtle visual cues, but the professional sexers could not report what those cues were.”[1] They just knew, and they knew in a moment’s time.
The training for newcomers didn’t derail in a bog of mystery, however. Instead, masters stood over the apprentices and simply watched. As students examined each hatchling and made their choice—male or female?—the master offered feedback with a simple yes or no. After a few weeks of working this way, the student’s brain learned to distinguish what remained imperceptible to the conscious mind. The learner became a master and could now do the job with reliable and near-instantaneous accuracy. Amazing.
Around the same time period, Eagleman relays, British military advisers were trying to take advantage of a super-valuable skill enjoyed by several airplane hobbyists: being able to identify incoming aircraft quickly and accurately. (You don’t want to shoot down your own pilots returning home and you don’t want to give open air to German bombers.) Trouble was, as with the chicken sexers, the enthusiasts couldn’t articulate how they did what they did. In fact, when they tried to explain, they had even less success.
Sure it’s German, but would you know that from a distance?
Fortunately for the Allies, the British stumbled on a training technique parallel to that of the Japanese: trial-and-error feedback. A novice would work in partnership with an expert, getting a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ based on the accuracy of each guess. Over time, the students could identify the planes as successfully as their trainers could. They didn’t know how they had become experts specifically, but they knew that they could now safely do the job.
When I first heard these two stories, I was blown away (yet again) by the power of the unconscious mind. Many tasks—including such highly-refined, subtly-defined jobs as these—simply don’t need words or explanations for us to ‘get’ them. In fact, the words can actually obstruct the learning. We don’t even need to be able to identify just what it is we’re getting. We only need clear, well-timed neutral feedback—sight, sound, touch—that indicates whether or not we’ve done it right. With enough repetitions, our below-the-surface brain narrows in on the ‘right’ answer. Over time, we come to predictably produce the desired result. We get knowledge even if we lack detailed awareness. We can guess the chicken’s sex. We know which plane is friend and which is foe.
Even if we’re working on skills we can articulate, these simple but surprising stories present a radical challenge to the ways we usually teach. I, for one, love explaining things. An aspiring poet of precision, I hope that my words can bring light to darkness and clarity from confusion. Given enough time—or even on the fly—I’ll look for the cleanest, clearest, most concise way to describe what’s needed. Ideally, I’m a master craftsman drawing from a broad and deep instructional toolkit, one I’ve spent years developing. I know I’m not alone among teachers. We like sharing the secrets of our subject. The words justify the investments we’ve made. But these stories suggest the self-importance might get in the way. That’s all well and good, they interject. You can have all the verbal fluency you want. It just may not be necessary for good teaching.
Behavior accomplished? A circle of clicks.
I don’t have enough information from Eagleman’s stories to know for sure how the chicken sexer and plane spotter trainers signaled ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to their learners. Maybe they simply spoke the words. Or perhaps they punished wrong answers with a slap of the wrist. Whichever method they used, the positive reinforcement method of TAGteaching seems an elegant refinement. [2] In TAGteach, we don’t need to hear the ‘no,’ see a red light, or feel any sort of shocking buzzer. We just need to know when we’ve done it right. Click. Green light. Instant tap. Without that affirmative reinforcement, the learner knows he needs to adjust and does so—on his own—until hearing the click. No words, vocal instructions, or social dynamics muddy the instructional waters. The student—or at least his unconscious brain—sorts it out and waits for the simple, neutral message: ‘yes, that’s it’ or ‘keep trying.’
Note well that, though words don’t matter nearly as much, the teacher still does. For one, she needs to know and be able to spot the correct behavior as it’s happening. If the target behavior can be broken into smaller chunks, she needs to choose which steps will lead most fluidly to the desired ability: too easy and learners get bored, too demanding and they’ll get frustrated. And she needs to mark the behavior with exquisite accuracy, capturing the ‘yes’—even anticipating it— in real time so the reinforcement holds with maximum depth and duration. Not everyone has the patience for such painstaking precision. Not everyone has the emotional savvy to maintain an even keel throughout the struggles and successes along the way. Not everyone has the flexibility to adapt on the fly when a learner keeps getting stuck. You still need skill to teach well.
An amazing learner, even without words.
Let me declare, then, that I intend to develop such precision, neutrality, and flexibility in myself. Like almost everyone else I know, I’m still struggling to dismantle the well-calcified model that suggests teachers and coaches dispense information like soup from a pot or software from a server. Transmit. Bequeath. Download. Building a new model will take some unlearning of the old and much steady practice at the new. Still, I’m committed. Like the chicken-sexers and plane-spotters of old, I can rely on the sub-verbal intelligence of my learners. I can trust the brain’s ability to integrate indescribably complex information. Pedagogical elegance through experiential design rather than through wordy exposition? Yes.

[1] This quotation and the chicken sexer and plane spotter stories come from David Eagleman’s Incognito, Vintage Books: New York, 2011, pp. 57-58.
[2] In TAGteaching, the learner and instructor determine a desired behavior or ability. We may be able to articulate with words the elements that compose the skill or we may not, like with the chicken sexers and plane spotters. It doesn’t matter so much. What does matter is breaking the behavior down into achievable steps and working through those steps one at a time, using consistent, neutral markers to communicate the moment the task has been performed correctly. For example, a powerful and efficient softball throw includes multiple micro-components, each of which could become a TAG point: proper grip on the ball; a cock-and-flip motion of the wrist; correct position of the glove hand and throwing elbow in the ready position; weight shift of the feet; and so on. The smaller the task, the greater the likelihood of success in learning it quickly.
With this method, the ‘yes’ feedback can come through visual or tactile channels—via a flashing light or a precise press against the skin, for example. That said, most TAGteachers use a distinctive sound like a snap or a click, and that’s where the method’s name comes from: you create a “TAG” by Teaching with Acoustical Guidance.

Monday, November 19, 2012


by Emelie Johnson Vegh

Jag testar berömutmaningen från Adecco – det är en app för smartphones där man får en berömutmaning om dagen. Tanken är att man ska få öva på sin förmåga att både ge och ta emot positiv feedback under tio dagar. I beskrivningen av tanken bakom appen anges lönsamhet och hälsa – företag där anställda får beröm är mera lönsamma och beröm gör oss friskare.
Jag har bl a ägnat helgen åt att föreläsa om att underlätta lärande och TAGteach tillsammans med min kollega Eva, och tycker så klart att alla såna här insatser och projekt är intressanta. Adecco försöker sätta strålkastaren på något som borde vara självklart – inte bara beröm i allmänhet, utan ett smart tänk kring positiv förstärkning.
För inlärningsteorin lär oss att det är förstärkning som driver beteende. När vi föreläser om att underlätta lärande pratar vi om positiv förstärkning  (”jag gör därför uppnår jag”, en konsekvens läggs till som gör att beteendet ökar i frekvens, styrka, etc) och de grundläggande principerna:  Förstärk det du vill ha mera av, låt bli att förstärka beteenden du inte vill ha mera av och styr miljön så att det blir lätt för de beteenden du vill ha mera av att dyka upp (så att de kan förstärkas).
Att fokusera på det positiva är win åt alla håll och kanter! För dig själv – fokusera på det positiva gör oss gladare, det vi fokuserar på är det vi kommer ihåg. Det är i samma anda som tacksamhetsdagbok, happiness jars, etc. För den som får berömmet – positiv uppmärksamhet gör oss gladare, om inte annat! Adecco nämner också rena hälsofördelar (sitter väl förmodligen ihop med glädjen!). Att få uppskattning är ju fint. För omgivningen – att få se någon annan få positiv feedback gör att chansen att vi själva upprepar något ökar. Vi lär oss och även som omgivning blir vi glada av beröm. Och utöver allt detta bygger vi dessutom och får mera av önskade beteenden!
Jag är halvvägs genom min berömutmaning och blir glad av att få ett nytt uppdrag varje dag!
(Känner du för att nörda loss kring förstärkning  och annat inom inlärningsteori och träning rekommenderar jag Evas blogg Djurtränarskolan)

Friday, November 16, 2012

Check List Epiphany

By Carly Champion Fleming

I want to share a realization that I had. Maybe it will help someone else, too. Check lists work very well with TAGteach, and I'm sure a lot of people already use them. I had tried so hard to use check lists to help me be more productive, but it never seemed to work. What I realized is this: I find writing lists rewarding, not checking off items. So essentially I was rewarded before I actually did anything. Not only that, but I felt like a failure when I got to the end of the day and there were still items that didn't get checked off.

What I have started doing instead is keeping a running tally of everything I do during the day. Now after each thing I accomplish, I get rewarded by adding that item to my list. At the end of the day I have a page full of things that I've done. My productivity has sky-rocketed. I actually seek out things to do just so I can add it to my list.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Congratulations! Luca Canever - Level 3 TAGteacher!

We are thrilled to announce that Luca Canever from Italy is our newest Level 3 TAGteacher! Luca joins eight other elite TAGteachers who have put in many hours of teaching with TAGteach and teaching about TAGteach in order to reach our highest level of certification. We are very proud of Luca and his achievements and grateful that he found us and is now teaching others. Here is Luca's story:

I started 10 years ago pushing in the lid of a jar, and using the popping sound as a marker. It was Sunday, all shops were closed and I was in a hurry to try this “new stuff” with my Golden Retriever Iris. My discovery of Clicker Training was the starting point of a very long chain of events.

In 2008 my son, Alessandro, was born. For the first time I realized that all the things I’ve learned while I was clicking my dogs could be useful also with my son. I didn’t realize I could also use the marker with people until 2010. I was sick and stuck in bed and I read “Reaching the Animal Mind” (the book had waited for me some months on my bedside table). Chapter 11: TAGteach! I  read the chapter, closed the book, opened the PC and did a Google search for TAGteach. The next day I was already booked for the Hamburg seminar!

The seminar showed me a brand new world, exactly what I was looking for.

Back to Italy, I started to work on my certifications. I tagged with Medieval swordplay, volleyball, dog training, self tagging and of course, Alessandro.  When he was two years old we started our first tag sessions. Our goal? Cutting nails. Our reinforcement? Salami tidbits! (of course are we Italians or what?).

In 2011 I hosted Theresa for the first TAGteach primary certification seminar. This year a few weeks ago I co-presented with her and Laura Monaco Torelli at the “Dynamic Duo Workshop”. This completed my Level 3 certification requirements. Now  that I have completed my journey through the certifications and I feel ready to spread TAGteach’s concepts, I want to share with you this idea of mine:

There is a lot of talent lost because we don’t have the tools to grow it. For me this is the worst shame. Children and adults, that could achieve great goals in every field they choose, are stuck because they don’t find learning and training reinforcing any more.  Everybody (humans or animals) deserves the right to develop their talents as far as they want and can. Everybody has the right to be the most complete and beautiful  being that is possible.

All of us want a better world for us and for our children.  It is my opinion that the world will be a better place as soon as all of us will be the best tennis player, teacher, trainer, parents that we can be. We just need to practice the new skills that being “the best possible…” require. TAGteach is one (the most useful for me) among the technologies to develop our talents and to practice these new skills.

The journey that I have taken from that jar lid ten years ago is all about this. I want to be the best person in the best possible world. I would like to say thanks to Theresa, Joan, Laura, Karen and to all the others amazing TAGteachers and good friends I have met through my journey.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Upcoming TAGteach Events

TAGteach Primary Certification and Training Seminar
Date: Dec 1-2, 2012
Location: Asheville, NC
Get more info and register 

TAGteach at Clicker Expo - San Francisco
Date: Jan 25-27, 2013
Location: Burlingame, CA
Get more info and register 

TAGteach Primary Certification and Training Seminar
Date: Feb 9-10, 2013
Location: Marysville, OH
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WOOF: The Eastern European Training and Behaviour Conference
Date: Feb 22-24, 2013
Location: Milton Keynes, UK
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TAGteach at Clicker Expo - Stamford CT
Date: Mar 8-10, 2013
Location: Burlingame, CA
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TAGteach Primary Certification and Training Seminar
Date: Jun 8-9, 2013
Location: Dripping Springs, TX
Get more info and register