Friday, February 19, 2010

The History of TAGteach

We had a great time at Clicker Expo in Porland OR in January, and the highlight was the plenary lecture by Dr. Julie Vargas (eldest daughter of B.F. Skinner). Julie gave an entertaining and informative talk about the history of operant conditioning with glimpses into life with her famous father. Usually the Sunday plenary session at Expo is only about half full, but this time a packed audience stayed to hear Julie - and were glad they did! To our surprise and delight Julie dedicated a significant portion of her talk to TAGteach. As we sat and listened to B.F. Skinner's daughter, who is an accomplished and well-recognized behavior scientist in her own right, talking about our methodology and using language that we had created, it started to dawn on us that maybe we are making a significant contribution here. I was talking to Theresa's husband Brian later in my hotel room (while she was out partying, as usual, sigh...) and he said, "Did you see that time line?". "Yes - so what?". "Skinner's daughter just showed a time line with B.F. Skinner, then Ogden Lindsley, then 40 years of essentially no notable developments in the human application of marker-based operant conditioning and then you guys!". OK - that is pretty cool when you put it that way. So we asked Julie if we could share the time line with you in our blog. She said yes and here it is in a modified form. The original version showed the development of clicker training with animals along the top, but I have left that out here (click on the image for a larger view).

TAGteach is relatively new, but its roots go back to the 1940s, and B.F.Skinner. The principles that apply to TAGteach and in fact all learning, were first demonstrated by Skinner with rats and pigeons and later were applied with many species of animals. Skinner was the first to discover that behavior is controlled and can be shaped by the consequences that follow. Karen Pryor talked about applying marker-based operant conditioning to people in her book Don't Shoot the Dog (which people often mistakenly think is a dog training book) and used this approach herself in various applications over the years. If you haven't read this book then you must!

Gymnastics coach Theresa McKeon learned about clicker training and used it with an unruly horse. She thought that the sharp sound of the clicker would be useful in signaling to her gymnasts during acrobatic moves when voice was just too slow. Theresa posted a message about her experiments with gymnasts to a KPCT online forum, where Karen spotted it. Theresa did not get any support for this strange activity from gym management or other coaches and then moved from Florida to North Carolina and a new gym and was reluctant to resume clicking. Meanwhile, in Canada, I had learned about clicker training and was training dogs and then rabbits and then cats this way. I thought that this method would be really effective with the Special Olympics rhythmic gymnasts that my daughter's school teacher coached. I thought it might be a bad idea to experiment with the SO athletes first and sent Karen Pryor a message to find out if anyone was using clicker training with gymnasts. Karen remembered Theresa's post to the forum and  Theresa and I started talking via phone and email. We did a little study in the fall of 2002 to see whether this clicker training could really help with gymnastics and found of course that it did! The gym study is described here if you want to see the results.

Theresa and I decided that this needed a new name since it was rapidly becoming more than just clicker training for people. Also some parents objected to having their kids trained like dogs. Ironic really, since clicker training is much more humane than traditional coaching methods. So we came up with the name TAGteach where TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. The parents thought that this new TAGteach thing was terrific. They even started signing their kids up for extra private TAGteach sessions.

In the spring of 2003 Theresa and her daughter Katie left the comforts of North Carolina to visit us in the wilds of Canada. This was our first face to face meeting since we had started working together the previous fall. During this visit and many others back and forth between us we tagged every kid we could we get our hands on... gymnasts, volley ball players, Special Olympics athletes, golfers, basketball players, cheerleaders, high jumpers, long jumpers... It didn't matter whether we knew anything about the sport, we just needed a coach who did, or videos/photos showing correct form. Theresa was tagging her gymnasts with fantastic results, but the overall culture in the gym was not tag-friendly. We needed someone who would allow us to implement TAGteach from the top down through the entire organization so that we could really showcase how well it works.

Enter Beth Wheeler... Beth and Theresa were roommates in college and Theresa was sure that Beth would be up for this new challenge. Beth was excited from the moment she heard about TAGteach and she invited us to come to her dance camp in the summer of 2003 and gave us free access to all the students. We all had a blast and we got a great chance to refine our techniques even more. Beth joined as a partner and we started the company TAGteach LLC. Beth implemented TAGteach fully at her dance studio, A Dancer's Dream and was thrilled with the improvement in performance, improvement in happiness of the dancers and improvement to the bottom line.

The great Karen Pryor joined us as well in Marblehead MA for dance camp and this was our first meeting and the start of wonderful friendships. Karen and KPCT President Aaron Clayton invited us to the first Clicker Expo where we presented our TAGteach videos to an audience of Karen, Aaron and maybe four other people, all of them fellow Expo presenters. In 2004 we held the first two TAGteach seminars, one at A Dancer's Dream and the other at Bentley College in Boston, co-hosted with KPCT. Later that year TAGteach International LLC was formed as a joint partnership of TAGteach LLC and Karen Pryor Clickertraining.

Since then we have held TAGteach seminars all over the world and there are more than 400 certified TAGteachers in more than nine different countries. "You have changed my life" is the most common comment that we hear from attendees. We have learned from our many hours of tagging and from the many people who have come to our seminars. We have refined and improved our techniques so that now TAGteach has developed far past its original clicker training roots (this will be subject of another article!). TAGteach started out as an application for kids and sports and now is being used with adults in occupational and business settings for physical skills and management skills as well as all sorts of other settings with both kids and adults. Essentially any type of teaching and learning can benefit from the incorporation of the TAGteach approach. We are grateful to all our early adopters who let us experiment on themselves and their kids and who took what we taught them and helped us grow it into something even better.

Here is a video showing Theresa tagging the first ever tag taught gymnasts. The tag point is "shoulders to ears". The athletes can get a tag in the set up before the first handspring, when their hands hit the floor and again at the end in the finish position. They can get several tags for each tumbling pass, but the tag point itself is exactly the same each time. The last one is an easy one - but watch them adjust until they hear the tag. If they don't hear a tag at any of the possible places where the tag point occurs, then they know they need to self assess and try again. Notice how this eliminates coach babble and lets the coach and the athletes focus on one thing and keeps the practice moving along quickly.

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