Sunday, October 14, 2012

Do overs

Alexander Lacey and lions
Last week, I saw Alexander Lacey's mixed lion and tiger act for the first time. Wow. I've seen a lot of really good lion acts and I can say this is one of my favorites.

One of the things that struck me about Lacey's act was that one of the most impressive behaviors--a series of cat-over-cat leaps around the arena--took two tries.

When they tried it the first time, it fell apart almost from the start. I thought, wow, that one didn't work and sort of expected him to just move on to the next thing. Circus acts are often timed so tightly in the program that taking a lot of extra time can really throw things off for the rest of the show.

But Lacey did NOT just go to the next thing. He put the cats back on their seats, called them down again, and then started them on the same trick. And wow, did it pop the second time. Over and over and over again the cats leapfrogged each other. I could hear folks saying, "look at that that!" to their parents . . . or their kids.

I thought to myself at the time, "good choice!" in starting over. For selfish reasons, I'm glad I got to see it done right. But I also realized that if he didn't make them do it again, the cats may get the idea that they only have to do it when they felt like it. And eventually, they may never really want to bother with such an energetic trick. You know how cats are . . . especially when they realize that you're going to love them and feed them and rub their ears no matter what.

One CAN let it go, then later have a practice session in which it gets repeated over and over and over until nobody thinks it's okay to just skip it. But it works much better if you have a do-over each and every time it doesn't work.

Likewise, in classroom teaching, a series of do-overs is just about the only way to eventually achieve mastery. Remember my previous post Practice, practice, practice?

Sometimes it is inconvenient, even frustrating, to stop the flow of things and work on something that you thought your students had already mastered. One COULD just let it go. Perhaps make a note to practice that part again some other time. But it's much more effective if you just stop at that moment and correct it. And maybe, just maybe, all it takes is that second try. Not a whole afternoon on some other day. And maybe, just maybe, this'll be the time they finally "get it" and it's a finished and polished "part of the act."

Want to see Lacey's act? Check out this video.

You won't find the wonderful leapfrog trick in the video.  The video was published just a few months ago, so I'm thinking that the leaping trick is new to the act.  So I guess it'll be a while before mastery is acheived, eh?

Sunday, July 1, 2012

The learning environment

Photo of Jules Jacot with St. Louis Zoo lion show.
Pedestals placed "just so" or this pyramid will fall apart.
Next time you are at a circus, watch what's going on during intermission.  Or on the ground during an aerial act high above your head.  What you'll see is a flurry of activity as the artists coming up next are checking and testing their equipment. 

Before the lion or tiger act, you'll not only see the big net or cage go up . . . you'll see the lion tamer walking through the whole set up.  He or she will be adjusting the position of a stool here and there.  Looking around for stray items.  Making sure the door locks securely.

If you know cats, you know that anything out of place can be a major distraction.  Which can spell major disaster for both the animals and the trainers.  Besides that, who wants to watch an act that isn't working?  No fun for anybody, then.

Likewise, teachers need to check out the learning environment every day.

Like lions and tigers, students entering their classroom have an expectation that everything will be in its place and working properly.  When it's not, that can be distracting.  That probably won't trigger a deadly fight, as it might in a lion act, but it will definitely disrupt the learning process.  Possibly in a dramatic way.

Here's an example.  I was teaching a class in a large medical school lecture hall.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning I went to the room a half hour early to check out "the arena."  Mine was the first class of the day, so it was easy.  But I also try to do that even when my class comes later in the day.  I'd check the sound system, walk around making sure everything was reasonably clean and in good order.  One day, I walked in to the room to find that the entire ceiling had fallen down!  It was a "drop ceiling" and remodeling of the room above had loosened the ceiling anchors.

I was able to quickly find another lecture to which I could move my class.  I put up signs telling students where to go.  I got my department administrator to make arrangement for a long-term room reassignment.  We didn't miss a beat.  The learning process was not interrupted in the dramatic way it would had I not happened to check out the room that morning.

How many times have we had classroom technology not work correctly just at that "light bulb moment" when we needed it work and bring home a complex concept for our students?  How many times have we found that our students were distracted all day by a flickering light tube? 

Had we checked out these things ahead of time, we wouldn't have those problems.  Or at least we'd avoid spending "learning time" trying to secure help to get things fixed.  Things would have gone a lot more smoothly in terms of teaching and learning.

So just as I did when I was a lion tamer, I take an extra few moments every day to check out my spaces to do what I can to make sure that avoidable problems are taken care of before they harm my students' ability to benefit from the learning environment.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Lion taming team

Assistant letting a lion into the arena
If you've ever seen a lion act, you may not have noticed the men and women in nondescript coveralls along the edges of the ring (sometimes even inside the cage).  You're not supposed to notice them, so don't feel bad if you didn't.  The spotlight is supposed to be on the lion tamer and the lions . . . not the rest of the lion taming team.

Anybody in the entertainment industry knows that the term "solo performer" does not mean that only one person is involved in presenting what you are seeing and hearing.  This is absolutely true in lion taming as well.  One person may take the spotlight, but a coordinated team effort is required to successfully train and present a lion or tiger act.

 During training, assistants inside and outside the practice arena are needed to supply treats (usually bits of fresh meat), position props, and move animals into and out of the arena.  These assistants usually help guide each animal during training and practice, meaning that more than one person is actually training the animals.  Sometimes an assistant guides one animal and the lion tamer another animal as they learn a behavior that requires two animals acting at the same time.

During a performance, sometimes it's the assistant helping to cue a particular animal to leave its seat and move to the middle of the arena, to enter or exit the arena, or stay put on their seat during another animal's time in the center.  The assistants keep watch on the seated animals so that the lion tamer can focus on the animal(s) performing at the moment.  Often, it's the assistants to rush to help diffuse a dangerous situation if it arises.

The best lion tamers are those who know that they alone cannot pull it off.  They are the lion tamers who spend extra time and energy building a team that can effectively work together.

Likewise, the best teachers are those who know how to use the team approach successfully.  

I've known teachers who do not respect other professionals involved in the learning process and fail to involve them in the learning process effectively.  Which often adversely affects the quality of learning in their courses.

For example, do we go out of our way to include library professionals, safety officers, maintenance and housekeeping staff, learning specialists, accessibility teams, and others in our planning and execution of our teaching? 

If we don't develop the habit of including ideas from--and enlisting active cooperation from--our teaching team, then we run the risk of being "eaten alive" when things don't go as planned.

Here are a few ideas to get started in team thinking.
  • Library professionals are often eager to assist in researching content updates and new teaching approaches. They're often willing to walk our students through the "how-to" methods of doing research for their class projects. I've had librarians help me keep an eye out for new books and new articles that I'm likely to find interesting or useful.
  • Safety officers can help us plan some strategies in  dealing with aggressive students or other potential hazards.  Developing a good relationship with your safety team makes all of you more comfortable and confident as you "perform" your daily work.
  • Maintenance and housekeeping staff, when made part of your team, are often willing to assist you in keeping your classroom spaces "just the way you like them" to facilitate teaching and learning.  They often have some great ideas for making your space even better!  By having a working relationship with them, you are more likely to get the help you need--and get it right away--when things go wrong.
  • Learning specialists and accessibility staff often have some useful tips and shortcuts, especially when dealing with challenging students and challenging groups.
Like circus-goers, we often let those team members in "nondescript coveralls" become invisible to us.  But it's better to be more like the lion tamer to relies heavily on their help to succeed. 

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Sometimes, it's the little things

I'll never forget the time that a tiger's claw caught the tendons in my wrist and pulled me to the ground.

I was training a tiger to find his seat and stay there . . . one of the first behaviors any circus cat learns.  I asked him to get on his seat (which he was doing well) and then walking him around the outer edge of the practice arena before asking him to again go to his seat.  Each time he did as he was asked, he got a bit of fresh meat.

The meat was held in a bucket outside the arena by my assistant.  When I needed more treats, she would pass a handful of meat tidbits through the mesh of the arena.  Then she'd wipe the juice from the meat on a towel and stand ready to assist me in other ways. However, that afternoon she carelessly put the towel on the side of the arena, hanging through the mesh, rather than safely outside the arena.

As the I walked the tiger around the arena's edge once more, he sniffed the meat on the towel and lunged for it.  Before we knew it, the towel was now in the tiger's mouth.  It seems that the animal knew he shouldn't swallow the towel. But he wasn't about to give it back to me, either.  I know; I asked him several times to give it back to me.

I couldn't just leave him there until he got tired of it.  First, he'd probably outlast me on that score.  Second, the arena was not secure enough to leave him unattended.  He needed to be leashed and walked back to his den--impossible without him giving up the towel.

So I tried to throw him a treat, then grab the towel as he jumped at the treat.  Not surprisingly, he was a lot faster than me and batted my arm away as I grabbed for the towel.  Ooops.  His claws were out (a reflex when defending his "kill") and one of claws sank into my wrist and hooked around a tendon.  Oops.  If it were a case of him batting me away for any other reason, his claws would not have been out.  But this time, he accidentally got me.

I knew that if I pulled away, I'd have some serious damage.  So I went with his paw as he pulled it back toward him and tried to retract his claws.  Thankfully, the claw retracted and I was left with just a puncture . . . and a perfectly intact tendon.  Whew.  I got up and away safely.  Sure, there was a bit of bleeding and some days of serious infection prevention as the wound healed.  All I have to show for it now is a small scar  . . . and a story.

One of the lessons of that story is that sometimes, it's just a small, seemingly inconsequential, thing that gets in the way of the day's lesson.

For me and my assistant, that towel was a small thing that was not distracting in the least . . . to us.  For my tiger, that towel was the most distracting thing in the universe.  He could not help but go for that unprotected prize.  For all he knew, we were trying to get him to jump for it!

From that day forward, I always inspected every inch of the practice arena before, during, and after every session.  Looking for the little things that could distract a cat and cause a potentially life-threatening problem.

There are so many distractions that can exist in a classroom.  They may not be distracting to us.  At all.  But for a variety of reasons that we cannot possibly fathom, there may be something small in the classroom that one or more students simply cannot ignore.  Telling them to may not work.

For example, I have a college class with three students who sit near the back of the room and chat quietly during class.  I usually cannot hear them.  When I do, I automatically tune them out and focus on the day's lesson.  However, some (not all) of my students simply cannot focus while the quiet chatter is going on.  And if they cannot focus, they cannot learn.

So, like a lion tamer, we teachers need to carefully manage the distractions in our learning environments.  For example, I need to pay more attention to the back-of-the-room chatter and do what I can to stop it.  We need to consider that even though many students should be able to redirect their focus, sometimes they struggle . . . or they simply follow their instincts before they realize they've drifted away.

What if there are little (or big) distractions you cannot manage?  I'll tackle that one in an upcoming post!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Vary times for learning

Charly Baumann teaching his tigers
I was recently thinking about the timing of learning sessions.  What got me to thinking about this was a recent article in Science News citing research in animals that supports the idea that staggered lessons may work better than lessons that are timed at regular intervals.

When training lions and tigers and many other wild animals, I recall that I got the best results when I used a training schedule that included frequent but rather random short sessions.  I didn't have any particular scientific basis for doing that . . . it just seemed more natural to me.  More like how we learn things from our environment in "real life."  Now scientists are seeing that perhaps there is something to this idea.

I know that with my 8-year-old, if I ask him to spell one of his spelling words for the week occasionally throughout the day, every day, he remembers them much better.  Not just on his weekly spelling test, but for a longer term.

I tell my college anatomy students to study their flash cards in random, short intervals throughout the day, too. Those that do this find that it's a very effective way to learn a lot of facts very quickly . . . and retain them in long-term memory.

Perhaps if we can find ways to stagger our classroom lessons a bit, this should leverage the ability of students' brains in ways that help them succeed.\

My high school rotated classes over an 8-day cycle.  I like the fact that math class was not always after lunch!  And sometimes I could start the day with biology . . . a great way to start any day!  Years later, when I returned to the same school to teach I loved this schedule at least as much as when I was a student there.  Maybe moving classes around this way is not only fun, but effective.

Teachers, do you any of you have experiences in which staggering lessons seems to have helped your students?  If so, please share them!

Want to know more?
Staggered lessons may work better
Training at irregular intervals improves learning in sea snails
By Laura Sanders
Science News January 28th, 2012; Vol.181 #2 (p. 8)

[Brief article summarizing recent animal research in learning.]

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Say hello first

Lion tamer greeting
his students
During training sessions, lion tamers are primarily concerned with developing new behaviors or refining existing behaviors.  Likewise, in each class session teachers are primarily concerned with moving on to new concepts.

Lion tamers rarely just "get to it."  They instead take a moment to connect with each animal in the training session.  They literally talk to them and give them a pat or rub.  Lions LOVE rubs! This engages the animal in a way that helps them focus on the trainer and on the training environment.  It also sets a positive, engaging mood in which to begin the "real work" of the session.

Then a lion tamer will ask each animal to repeat a behavior they have recently learned.  Or perhaps an older behavior that relates somehow to the new behavior that will be the focus of that training session.  This gives the animal a sense of success and accomplishment.  Of course, it also brings to their consciousness the whole idea of performing and following directions.  If it's a behavior that relates to the day's lesson, then there's an added benefit . . . it gives them some practice in movements that they'll shortly be asked to do.

Beginning with a positive introduction and a quick review of previous learning is also a useful strategy in the classroom.  

Engaging your students in some friendly banter before the class starts is a smooth way to get their attention focused on you and the learning environment.  And it sure beats an off-putting shout to "sit down and shut up!"  I can't stress this "engagement" concept enough. It enhances classroom discipline and, more importantly, enhances student learning.  Unless and until you can engage your learners, you're going to have a tough time!

A quick review doesn't have to take long.  It could take many forms.  In my anatomy and physiology lectures, I usually start by summarizing the main points of the previous class session.  I may have some extra words about a concept that serves as the foundation for the new topic about to be addressed.  I may even pose a clicker question on a review topic, just to get everyone back in the groove of that previous topic. 

By connecting yourself to your students and recalling a previous topic or two at the beginning of each class, you'll find that your classes work better and that student learning improves!