How we talk about and teach what we do

These are my notes from the 2012 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference.
Click here for more notes from this conference.

Behavior analyst Dr. Joe Layng gave the keynote speech at the 4th annual Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I absolutely loved this talk and it gave me plenty to think about regarding training animals and teaching people. If you are not familiar with Joe, I encourage you to check out his bio on the ORCA website. He is an expert in the design of instruction. One of his recent projects has been the Headsprout reading program, a computer-based program that teaches children to read fluently in about 30 hours of instruction. Joe’s talk at the conference focused on how we talk about training and how we train others to train. These notes cover a few of the things Joe discussed in his talk that I think are essential to think about when we are training animal trainers.

Teaching discriminations and concepts: When is a chair a chair?

When training animals and when training trainers, we are often teaching concepts. For example, you might teach a trainer the concept of reinforcer delivery: how to reward the animal with food, playtime, or another preferred item after a successful behavior. Likewise, an animal new to training has to learn many basic concepts at the beginning of training, such as how and when to get the treat or other reinforcer.

Joe used two examples here to illustrate his main points, a hypothetical geometric figure called a zepp and the concept of a chair. Pause for a moment before you read on. What makes a chair, a chair? How would you describe a chair to someone from Mars, so that they would be able to identify an object as a chair every time they saw one?

When teaching concepts, trainers and teachers often are good at giving examples. However, according to Joe, the critical part to teaching concepts is to teach both examples and non-examples. Many teachers forget to teach enough non-examples. Non-examples are essential for learning because people learn concepts through recognizing the differences and discrepancies between examples and non-examples.

When teaching, examples and non-examples should be given in pairs that differ by just one essential property. This will help emphasize what the person needs to learn. If examples and non-examples are completely different, it will be impossible for the learner to pick out the critical features.

Also, a trainer needs to distinguish between and teach “must have” features and “can have” features. For example, a chair must have a back and a seat. However, it can be brown, black, or even hot pink. The learner must not only know which features are essential and which features can’t occur, but must also recognize which features can vary (such as color, in the chair example).

What are you doing?

Think about the last time you talked to another animal trainer about training. What sorts of words did you use? Did you use words such as reinforcement, shaping, targeting, consequence, or other words that might be considered “jargon” to someone who didn’t know much about animal training?

We use words like this because we assume the other person will know what we are talking about. However, Joe cautioned that teachers and trainers often take for granted that they all mean the same thing and are talking about the same thing, when sometimes they might not be.

For example, imagine someone told you that he “reinforced his dog for sitting” or that another person told you that she “used targeting to teach the horse to step into the trailer.” Do you know exactly what happened in each of these situations?

What if the first person told you that reinforcement doesn’t work for teaching dogs to sit or the second person told you that targeting doesn’t work for teaching horses to trailer load?

Often, there is confusion during teaching, as well as confusion when discussing training scenarios and problems, because trainers are not clear about describing exactly what happened. In the first example, lots of different things could have been going on. The dog might not have liked the treat, the trainer could have actually been punishing the behavior, or the trainer, because of poor timing, could have actually been accidentally reinforcing a behavior other than sitting.

In order to effectively teach others about training and in order to help people troubleshoot when things go wrong, trainers must learn to be very precise about describing the procedures and methods they use when training. Be very careful when using jargon, even when you think the other person will know what you mean. When giving instructions or explaining a procedure, make sure the other person understands the exact steps and requirements that are needed to make that procedure work successfully.

Using feedback effectively

This was one of my favorite parts of Joe Layng’s talk. Everyone has been in a situation where they have had to give another person feedback on the person’s performance. Joe distinguished between two types of feedback—confirmatory feedback and instructional feedback.

Confirmatory feedback: Feedback that tells the person that they did the behavior correctly.

Instructional feedback: Feedback that tells the person how to change or improve her behavior for the next time she does the behavior.

Now, most people use both types of feedback pretty haphazardly. This is not a very effective way to teach or train. Researchers, as well as expert teachers, have shown that confirmatory feedback will be most successful if it is given immediately after the behavior. Instructional feedback, on the other hand, works most successfully when it is given immediately before the person does the behavior the next time.

If you must be delayed in giving confirmatory feedback, don’t be vague or general! If you do this, the feedback will have little effect on the person’s behavior in the future. Instead, make sure you specify the exact situation and the particular behavior that you want to identify as a job well done.

This is my last post in my series of posts about the 4th annual Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. I encourage you to visit this page to check out the rest of my notes from the 4th conference, as well as my notes from the 1st and 2nd conferences.

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