As some of you know, in addition to my animal training business, I also teach as an adjunct professor at the University of North Texas in the department of behavior analysis.
This year, for the second time, I’m teaching an upper-level undergraduate behavior analysis course called “Building Skills with Behavioral Technology.” I taught this class for the first time last spring. However, it was a pretty busy semester, and I didn’t have time to share any about the course on my blog. This fall, I’m hoping to share a bit of what we cover in the course here on StaleCheerios, as it is pretty interesting stuff.
In the course, the students learn about behavior analytic approaches to teaching behaviors and skills to both humans and animals. (If you’re not very familiar with the field of behavior analysis, I encourage you to check out my blog post, What is applied behavior analysis?)
We discuss a variety of different techniques for teaching and establishing behaviors, as well as different methods and procedures for establishing stimulus control (putting behavior on cue). The students also learn about writing objectives, conducting task analyses, and other skills necessary for designing behavior change programs. For their final project, students have to teach a series of behaviors to a pet.
The art of teaching
There have always been skilled teachers. School teachers who have been able to inspire students and teach concepts quickly and efficiently. Animal trainers with a natural knack for training who make training look effortless and almost seem to be able to talk to their animals.
However, not everyone is good at teaching. And for much of history, teaching has been regarded as an art or a craft. Master teachers passed on ideas to the next generation. Skilled teachers of both people and animals refined their ability over years of practice. Decisions were guided mainly by experience and intuition. Successful teachers weren’t always able to explain to others what they were doing and why it worked.
What is “behavioral technology?”
Over the past 100 or so years, our understanding of human behavior and animal behavior has grown tremendously. Through research in the laboratory and in real-world settings, behavior scientists have discovered basic principles of behavior and learning.
This science has led to the development of a technology of behavior change. That is, systematic methods and techniques that can be used to teach new behaviors and change old behaviors. Rather than relying purely on intuition, teachers can understand how and why behavior changes and what to do to get a person or animal’s behavior to change in a certain way.
Now, technology is kind of a funny word to use here, or at least it might seem so at first. When I talk to people about this, I find that the word technology often makes people think of gadgets and electronic devices, such as laptops, smart phones, digital cameras, and even futuristic flying cars.
During the first week of class, my students and I talk about the meaning of the word technology. The word comes from a Greek word, tekhnologia, which meant the systematic treatment of something. And, one of the currently accepted definitions of the word technology is “the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes.” That’s the meaning of the word technology that I’m using when I say “behavioral technology,” and it’s also the focus of the class that I teach.
We spend the semester looking at how we can apply scientific knowledge about the principles of behavior for the practical purposes of teaching and training. And not just that, but how can we be the most effective and efficient in our teaching. If an animal or child is struggling to learn, can we use knowledge of behavior principles to analyze what’s not working? And then, can we design a teaching program that will be successful for that learner?
These are not always easy questions. The real world is messy and complex. But, an understanding of the principles of behavior can help you start to make sense of both what is happening during the learning process and why it is happening.
This where the fun really starts – when you are able to use behavioral technology and an understanding of basic principles to create teaching plans so that your learner not only learns quickly, but also thoroughly enjoys the process.
So that’s what my class is about. My students learn all about how to use the principles of behavior to design and implement teaching programs that effectively teach new behaviors, concepts, and cues.
If you’re a new reader to my blog, or if you’re not familiar with behavior analysis and basic concepts such as reinforcement, shaping, and stimulus control, I highly suggest that you read Karen Pryor’s classic book, Don’t Shoot the Dog. It’s not too long and full of great information! You can find my review of the book here.