Imagine if you could drop out of this world for two months and live somewhere where positive reinforcement ruled rather than punishment. Where teachers understood how people best learn. Where people taking a class were there to learn, not work for a grade. Where people noticed what was good and remarked upon it. Where people said please and thank you. A lot. Where “cheating” didn’t even need to be discussed. Where the teacher understood the qualities of effective reinforcement so well that she made herself available by email and text to EVERYONE and often responded in less than 5 minutes.
I got to live there for two months, mostly on Thursday nights but also for a large part of my weekends. I took Dr. Susan Friedman’s class: Living & Learning with Animals (LLA).
The best thing about the class for me was not the course material. People who have taken it are free to gasp in dismay at this point because the course material is absolutely incredible. But I bet they know where I am going. For me it was even overshadowed by the application of learning theory to our experiences as students.
I’m one of those perennial students. A couple of decades ago I found myself working at a university where I could get essentially free tuition. After a background in performing arts, I thought it would be fun to exercise a part of my mind that had had little former training. I had always been “good in math” but had taken the music path instead. So I started taking math, science, and engineering classes. This culminated in a master’s degree in engineering science in a rigorous program. With a bachelors and masters in music performance, I had to get into the program through a loophole and basically work my ass off for years to catch up with those who had “appropriate” undergraduate degrees. But I did it. For fun.
I had little to no interest in a career in a related field. I was curious. I was there to learn. So I became keenly aware of the conflict between how to learn in order to understand the material, and and how to learn to get a good grade. At first I was naturally inclined, and later I made a conscious effort to keep to the former method. For example, I was amazed one day when a chemistry professor said to the class, “Now, I hardly expect you to do ALL the problems at the end of each chapter.” Oh, naive me. That’s what I had been doing.
As I got in over my head and my life got busier, working to get a good grade started to hold sway. I lasted several years after the masters, was an ABD, but eventually quit because it just wasn’t a pleasure anymore.
Fast forward back to today. The first thing I fell in love with in LLA was the approach to our homework. The teaching assistants work one on one with each student on their homework assignments. They employ what Dr. Friedman calls a soft Socratic method. Whatever your answers, whatever your level of experience, they will ask you questions to improve your understanding and gently guide you along.
I’ve been in a lot of situations where my work was critiqued. I used to be an orchestral musician. (That means I had to live with a very public level of critique.) I worked as an academic editor for someone with a PhD in English (a great job with lovely bosses, by the way). My major professor in engineering was, if possible, even more particular about my writing. I’ve always wanted feedback, but it was really really hard on my ego. When I would get my work back with the red pen marks, I would literally put it aside so I could gird myself for the corrections. I’m not kidding: I would look at it out of the corners of my eyes at first. Finally I would get up the courage to go through it and quickly make the corrections, then hide it from myself again.
It took only one iteration of the homework exchange in LLA for all of that trepidation to vanish into thin air. A lifetime of performance anxiety took its leave. This exchange was FUN. The teachers were there to help. You could write casually, with an occasional joke or casual remark, and they would be real people right back at ya! And with incredible expertise at helping you lead yourself to understanding. You could write things like, “Man, this part is hard but I think….” and “Am I on the right track here?” For the first time in my life I looked with happy, non-stressful anticipation for the responses to my homework. And believe me, those hardworking people were fast, too!
I realized that this is what my animals might feel like when I am doing really good training with them. It’s a game they can’t lose. The worst thing that can happen is a gentle delay of reinforcement before “getting it.” The homework game was incredibly fun. I loved being the trainee.
Another thing I loved was the method of participation in the actual teleconference. Early on Dr. Friedman mentioned that she doesn’t use the webinar software providers where people have a visual display of the presenter’s PowerPoint presentation on the computer. She has participants from all over the world and has found that the webinar technology is just not up to the challenge of serving everyone well. But there is another benefit to her format, which I am positive she is aware of. She uses an audio conference call (group telephone call) system. She gives us all a link to her presentation with embedded graphics and playable videos. So while we listen to the audio, we have control over switching from slide to slide and playing the videos ourselves on our computers. Also we can unmute our phones to ask questions or text them in using a standalone chat program.
It made a huge difference to me. I’ve generally disliked webinars, and find it irritating to watch someone controlling their presentation from afar. (Besides which most people have no clue how to use AV materials well and merely read their PowerPoint presentation to the audience.) Also it’s irritating especially at the beginning when their screen is already visual and we get to watch them struggling to open their presentation and get it on full screen.
Dr Friedman presented evidence in a lecture that control over one’s environment may be a primary reinforcer. Primary or secondary, it’s powerful. That small difference of advancing the slides myself and hitting Play on the videos; well, silly as it seems, it was really empowering. I could even go back to look at something again, although I had to be quick about it!
Also, the fact that she answered people’s texts during the class was so cool. Usually in “webinars” the questions texted in are handled by a moderator and passed on to the presenter at the end. Whenever the rest of us were watching a video, Susan was obviously catching up on her texts and answering questions in real time, right when they were relevant. Occasionally she would pause her lecture–and say so–to do the same. The opposite of the impersonal, inexorable drone of a disconnected lecturer. She would answer some questions online and share some on the call. Far from bring an interruption, it was helpful. We got a breather too, got another reminder that she and all the others were real people too, and got a sense of community. And she stayed after class on the phone! Opportunities for more questions.
Speaking of community: the students are broken up into four groups who submit their homework and questions through a Yahoo group. Everyone’s homework exchanges are visible to anyone else in the group. Dr. Friedman never said ONCE not to copy other people’s homework. The assumption is that we were there to learn, we were adults, and we were in charge of optimizing our own learning experience. Which obviously would be better if we did the work ourselves. I made a point of not looking at anyone else’s before submitting my own each time. (OK, in the very first assignment I opened one email and took a glance, literally a glance, to see the format of their answer to make sure my presentation method was at least in the ballpark.) Then afterwards I would dive into the wealth of teaching and information exchange going on with the other folks. We got to watch the process of the others and learn even more about learning.
Now for the two things in the actual course material that changed my life. First, I have always had a knee jerk reaction when people joke about using positive reinforcement or punishment to their own ends. Often in husband and wife jokes. I have been really uneasy with the idea of one person in a relationship with an animal or human making contingencies on the other’s behavior. This is not something to be taken lightly. Part of this is probably related to the “cultural fog” around behavior and learning that exists. Susan mentions that people so often express trepidation to her about using positive reinforcement: isn’t it just a bribe? Won’t we make the person dependent on it? Won’t it kill their intrinsic interest? etc. And she says that not once has anyone expressed those trepidations about punishment. I’m sure part of my distrust came from the cultural fog. But part of it I think was a valid concern. It applies to using both punishment and reinforcement. What gives us the right to consciously affect another’s behavior with either method?
Susan Friedman rested my heart with one statement. First, the outside world reacts to behavior “problems” with punishment. Better, we as thoughtful trainers improve on that; we approach the problem humanely and with an eye to training a new behavior rather than punishing the old. Our approach is usually, how do we fix the problem?
Best: Dr Friedman’s approach: FIRST what does the animal (or person) want? That’s the starting point. It comes before “how are we going to change its behavior to suit us.” With that small (HUGE) difference in approach, it all became OK for me. It recognizes that particularly with animals, but certainly with children too, we are the ones holding the cards. We have the key to the food cabinet and the outdoors and connection with society and all the good stuff. The power difference is acknowledged. So we must always start with what the other guy wants and needs. It’s only fair. She puts a huge amount of consideration into ethics before intervening in an animal’s behavior. She respects the animal. And the person.
That’s love, folks.
The other piece of the puzzle for me was in the very last lecture. She mentioned that it goes all over her when someone responds to an encouraging comment from her with, “oh, you are using that training stuff on me aren’t you!” (Actually I think she said something closer to, “It ticks me off.” I don’t remember exactly.) She then proceeded to talk about praise needing to be genuine. Well, sure. But how does one do that? By paying attention. By being a keen observer. And when you are on the receiving end of that, you can tell instantly. The praise resounds like a bell inside you. This person SAW me. They noticed who I am. And they noticed a partially good thing I did. And they SHARED it with me. That is the first thing you will notice about Susan and her teaching associates. They are so very genuine. And they are paying attention.
In the homework, we typically received a comment on every section or paragraph that we wrote. Anything from a “Yes,” to “I loved how you worded that,” to “Not quite, have you considered…?” I have the utmost respect for the stamina and the level of attention of those folks! Their comments were never false, empty, or automatic.
As a dog trainer, I had already been learning about the importance of learning dog behavior and body language. In the course I learned all over again how that observation, with whatever species, is absolutely essential in our lives with others.
I just got a glimpse of utopia for two months. I’m doing my best to bring it home with me and share it. Thank you to Susan, Billie, Julie, Dana, Shauna, Margo, Wendy, and Cynthia. And all the rest whom I didn’t get to work with this time but look forward to for next time.
P.S. Dang it, now I want a parrot.