Planning for instruction: Not just for humans!

My wife and I welcomed a new member to our family a couple months ago. Meet Mileaux:

His name is a play on the more standard Milo, with the end spelled in the Cajun way as a tribute to Josie (my wife’s) roots. He’s now around six months old. We’re not exactly sure what he is – the current theory is a mix of a Pekinese and a Pomeranian, but there are hints of a whole bunch of other dogs in his behavior. His hobbies include chewing on towels and begging on command with his paws clenched together like an Italian soccer player trying to get out of a yellow card call. You have to see it to understand how spot on this description is.

Training him has been really interesting. As with every other part of my life since I started teaching, it serves as yet one more source of data on how learning occurs naturally. A disclaimer:

Yes, I know that my students are not dogs. I am saying, for the purposes of understanding the learning process, that outside of the supremely unnatural structure currently called ‘school’, that some aspects of learning are universal. As another comparison with my students, I can say for sure that Mileaux doesn’t like when I lecture him either.

Mileaux shows a lot of behavior that makes sense when thinking about how learning really should happen. He responds more strongly to positive reinforcement than negative, and the negative (when we do resort to it) has the consequence of sometimes leaving him confused rather than corrected. He sometimes gets tired of learning when he’s had enough. Sometimes he just needs to take a break in order to get it the next time.

One command we hadn’t tried until today was to lay down. We hadn’t really figured out the best way to do it. Yes, there are videos¬†with suggestions on how to do it, but it’s fun to try to figure out how to communicate what we want him to do. I went for a quick 20-minute run to think of how I wanted to approach it. Here was my process:

  • I knew what he already knew how to do – specifically to sit. That seemed like a good entry point into getting him to lay down.
  • He just had his Lepto shot yesterday and was consequently a bit stiff and sore today. I didn’t want to use a leash or pressure to urge him into the down position. I wanted him to be able to figure out what we wanted him to do, and do it on his own.
  • There would, of course, be treats involved in the process when he did exactly what I wanted him to do.

Since he knew how to sit, I could put a treat within his reach laying down on the floor in my fingers. Any time he got up to move toward the treat, I would again give the sitting command. After around five minutes of doing this, he figured out that he needed to stay seated, and chose to stretch out into an awkward leaning position with his head arched down toward the ground. Then came strained reaching and pawing toward the treat on the floor. Soon after, he realized that laying down was a much more comfortable option for getting the treat, and started doing that every time. Copious petting, treats, and praise followed.

The connections to teaching content?

  • There is no paragraph in the textbook introducing the concept of laying down. Mileaux and I didn’t read it together and then do a share-out. I just needed to clearly define what I wanted him to learn, and this didn’t involve words.
  • While it is true that the skill of ‘sitting’ is one that he needed to have beforehand for my method to work, if he didn’t, I would have chosen another entry point to the activity. He lays down every day. He knows what it is. My goal for him was to make the connection between this skill of laying down with the verbal command. The knowledge he already had was really useful in helping him understand what he needed to do, but the background knowledge was not necessarily a prerequisite for the task we were doing.
  • I posed the problem in a way that had constraints that he figured out on his own. I couldn’t tell him not to move his hind legs. That limitation needed to be obvious to him as part of the activity. Managing this limitation as part of getting the delicious snack was what led him to learn the command as quickly as he did.
  • I had him go through this activity from a number of different starting points – standing up in the kitchen, sitting next to the couch, begging in the doorway – because I needed him to see that in these different contexts, the one skill I wanted him to learn was to lay down on command. He figured out that it was the common thread, and not any of the other simpler cues or tricks he could have used as a crutch or shortcut.
  • He didn’t do exactly what I wanted him to do, and felt alright about that. He knew it was just fine to get things wrong. The key to his getting it right in the end was clearly communicating when he did what he was supposed to do.

Granted, this may be strained. I accept that this may not be immediately be applicable to everyone’s classrooms. I do think it’s important to think about what we are asking our students to do, how we are communicating those objectives, and how we are helping them develop a healthy mindset toward learning along the way. We need to be thinking about knowledge in the context of figuring out problems. Solving them is an innate part of living in the world, whether as a snail, a dog, or as a human. The more we can create learning experiences that connect to this need to challenge and interact with our world, the more effective these experiences can be for our students.