Saturday, October 15, 2011

Old lion tamers

Jules Jacot, St.Louis Zoo
A few months ago I saw Jane Fonda on The Tonight Show and when Jay Leno chided her that maybe she was losing her faculties because of aging, she quipped "I may be losing my eyesight but I am gaining insight."

Of course, she's right.  Neuroscientists continue to demonstrate that our brains do indeed become much more capable of insight, wisdom, and problem solving as we age. This train of thought got me thinking about old lion tamers. Really, I swear to it!

Sometimes people ask me who the best lion tamer is or was. Although in my mind there are several close contenders, my immediate response is always Jules Jacot. Jules was the elderly lion tamer at the St. Louis Zoo when I was growing up. He was the first lion tamer that I ever saw perform and even now, looking back through the lens of an experienced lion taming enthusiast, certainly the best.

Whenever other animal trainers find out that I grew up in St. Louis, they asked me if I knew Jules Jacot. Although he never became famous to the public, he was very well known and respected among circus people and zoo people. 

When I first began working with big cats, I noticed that most of the new acts were being put together by elderly lion tamers, most of whom did not perform in public anymore. Jules Jacot had just put together a new act shortly before he died (in his sleep) at age 81.

At first I wondered why it was the older trainers, rather than the younger and presumably more energetic trainers, that were being hired for these challenging jobs training new groups of lions and tigers. It's one thing to present an existing act but quite another to quickly put a new act together with young, untrained wild animals.

Eventually, I came to realize that the older trainers were so good at training cats that they could put a really good act together in a much shorter time than a younger trainer could.  Of course!  These older men and women had experimented over a lifetime and their experience allowed them to apply their distilled wisdom to each new training assignment.

I soon learned that if I wanted to become a successful wild animal trainer, I needed to seek out the wisdom of these experienced trainers. A few of them have written books that contain the fruit of their experience. I read and reread as many of these books as I could. I sought older trainers and asked them to tell me stories about how they do what they do.

When they offered to let me watch them train and practice and perform, I jumped at the chance! It was amazing to me how quickly each of them could read their animals and use that information to train them quickly, efficiently, and with very little stress to the animal or the trainer.

I think this is a good lesson for us as educators. Teachers who have spent a lifetime experimenting with different approaches and techniques, teachers who have seen hundreds or even thousands of unique students over their careers, can be a wealth of information and insight for beginning teachers. For all of us.

In my modest experience, I have seen some new teachers quickly blossom into effective teachers and others not fare quite so well.  And most often, the difference is whether they invested time and effort into reading and watching the "old masters" at work.  

No matter where we are in our teaching careers, I think we can benefit from sitting in on a class or two taught by an experienced colleague.

Here's a good place to start . . . What the Best College Teachers Do

Monday, March 14, 2011

Thinking like a lion (or tiger)

Circus Pages
One of the many things that most folks just don't get about lion taming is that you have to try to think like a lion.  To have any chance of success, a lion tamer has to get over that ingrained human habit of assuming that animals think like we do.

Many of you reading this have done that, right?  You think that your dog sees the world the way you do, supposing that she recognizes you by your face, when really it's your smell and your voice.  You think that poor lion sleeping in a circus wagon is bored and miserable, when in fact he feels secure in having a snug, safe place to sleep.  You think that your cat loves you and missed you while you were gone when she rubs up against you, when she's just scent-marking you with her facial glands.  Most of us cannot fully appreciate that animals perceive the world differently.  We cannot fathom that they process thoughts differently and have different motivations, fears, and desires than humans.

That's why there aren't a lot of lion tamers in the world.  OK, that and the basic human fear of being eaten by lion.  It also explains why there are good animal trainers and not-so-good animal trainers. The good animal trainers really get it . . . and make use of that insight.

I think Temple Grandin really nailed this point squarely in her book Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.  In it, she relates that each animal's view of the world is far different from what we humans imagine.  She feels, and I agree, that her altered perceptions of the world as an animal expert with autism helps her to see the practical importance of seeing such differences. What is insignificant to us can be huge to a particular species, or a particular animal, and vice versa.

When I read her book, it really hit home with me.  On every page, I heard myself saying out loud, "yes!"  (Hmmm, now that I think about it I wonder how many others heard me talking to the book!)

When working with big cats, I remember learning that it's a snap to get most tigers to sit up and even stand up on their hind legs--but not so easy with lions.  Why is that?  I can't say for sure, but I'm pretty sure that it's because in nature tigers just naturally sit up and stand up when playing or sparring with each other. But lions rarely do.  Besides, the structure of a lion's tail just doesn't lend itself to sitting up as easily as a tiger's on a flat surface (like the ground or a pedestal).  You can get a lion to sit up easily only if they don't have to bend the base of their tail much (see the photo). If you don't take these things into account, you're going to be frustrated with those "stupid" lions that can't learn sit-ups as easily as those "brighter" tigers that can.  When it's not about smarts at all.

As a teacher, I wonder how many times I make this kind of mistake with my students and how I teach them.

One mistake I know I've made is that I used to assume that my students have all the study and learning skills that I do . . . or that I did when I was a student at their level.  It never occurred to me that I had somewhat advanced academic skills and very solid educational background.   Yikes, those are not valid assumptions for all my students!  I cannot assume that my students have the same skills and strategies for taking notes, or for reading a complicated text, or for memorizing facts, or for drawing inferences from those facts. Or that they even have similar personal and cultural experiences as their context.

Once I realized that, I found ways to provide a variety of resources that can help fill in the unique gaps in each of my diverse array of students.  And what a difference it has made in the success of my students!

Beyond that, I also realized that not all students experience the world the way I do.  I've not had some of the varied and sometimes traumatic experiences they have had.  I don't have all the same physical and perceptual limitations as do my students.  Some of these differences are profound.  But most are extremely subtle.  Subtle enough that they're easy to miss.  And easy to dismiss.

I've found that when I have the lion tamer's approach of looking for and examining the unique perspectives and limitations of different groups of learners and of individual learners, I can more easily help them succeed in learning.

Good lion tamers take time to learn about the characteristics of species and take time learning about the characteristics of individual animals. They learn to see and think like a lion. They find that it helps them quickly find success in teaching their animals.  Mediocre lion tamers think all animals should be able to do certain trained behaviors and should all be able to learn them the same way and at the same speed.  And are puzzled over why they don't have consistent success with their animals.  And sometimes experience frustrating or tragic results.

Great teachers are those that consistently help their students succeed by learning what works and what doesn't for different learners. They realize that their students don't necessarily think like they do. The great teachers try to think like their students to see where the challenges and fears are, so they can be overcome. The great teaches realize that "one size fits all" simply isn't possible when dealing with a diversity of learners.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Practicing . . . some more

Lion practice.
In a previous post I ranted about the necessity of practice, practice, practice. I'd like to follow up with another example of how repeated practice can be facilitated in an active and engaging way in the classroom.

One of the most engaging ways to facilitate active, fun practice in the classroom involves the use of student response systems (clickers).  I've written about my use of clickers in my other blog The Electronic Professor. Although the first generation of such systems were difficult to use, the current systems are as easy as pie and extremely reliable.

In my anatomy and physiology courses, which are rigorous courses that serve as a foundation for all of the health-related careers, I have found clickers to be a wonderful tool for practicing problem-solving. My online tests and in-class exams are chock-full of case studies and other applications that require the ability to analyze situations, apply concepts, and solve problems. As you can imagine, students struggle with these items. At least at first. When I introduce an example of one of the trickier problems that students will encounter on a test as an in-class clicker question, it allows them to practice solving it is a group. And with me there to help.

Often, the graph showing how students have answered the item tells me that most, if not all, of them have failed to answer it correctly. That's because I try to choose the type of question that I know from past experience students give my students trouble. So when the results of the clicker poll are revealed, I can tell them that they've missed the mark and then ask them to try and figure out what went wrong.

With some leading questions, I can usually coax the correct response out of them. I usually only after some discussion and some group practice in analyzing the situation and applying concepts effectively. This way, they get a chance to make a mistake without penalty and completely anonymously.

And they get a chance to collaborate on fixing the mistake. In doing so, they are practicing the skills needed to solve such problems. And they are reviewing the concepts needed to apply to the problem situation. My coaching helps them learn where to start in solving a problem and what steps to take to get to a solution.

In a brief supplement course that accompanies my anatomy and physiology courses, we use the clickers to do another kind of practice. This one is more like a traditional drill. But not quite the boring rote learning of days gone by.

One of the things that my students really struggle with is how to identify anatomical structures in dissected specimens, models, and charts. They know that they will be tested in a so-called "practical" exam. That is, they will be given a specimen and asked to identify which structure is which. In other words, they have to be certain that they have found the right structures, they have to memorize a large number of these structures' locations and characteristics, and they have to be able to apply this knowledge at a moments notice in the presence of the lab instructor. Not having had much if any experience with this type of learning and testing, and being faced with an overwhelming number of such concepts to learn and apply, they struggle.

So what I do in my supplement class is let them practice on paper first. That is, they do "virtual" dissections of photographs. Then they go to their lab course and do the actual dissections. After that, they come back to the supplement course where I give them examples of what they will see on their practical exam. But instead of answering individually, they use the clickers to answer all at once. And anonymously. I reveal the graph of results from the clicker poll and we see how many people were successful in correctly identifying a particular structure.

If most people in the class were successful, then I either move on to the next item or a briefly remind them of the identifying characteristics of the structure to reinforce what they at least tentatively already knew. If a significant number of students were unsuccessful, then I can ask some pointed questions that will lead toward the correct response. This allows me to give them some additional tips on how to locate and identify structures. Such tips would likely fall on deaf ears at the beginning of the lesson. Learning such tips immediately after failing to identify a particular anatomical structure shows the student hi useful they really are.

I usually set up these drills in a sort of game show format with the timer and buzzer so that the students have to respond immediately, as they would during the practical exam. And like a game show, they seem to really get into it and cheer when they nail it (or groan when they miss it). Because the system allows them to remain anonymous, they are not afraid to make a stab at each answer. They can make their mistakes during our drill and not in a practical exam. By having a large number of such items, many of which show up in more than one drill, they get in a lot of practice, practice, practice.

Do you have some other ideas for effective practice of course concepts and skills? If so, I'd love to hear about them!