Thursday, March 4, 2010

Training Dogs

I exchanged emails yesterday with Dr. Fred Phillips of the University of Saskatchewan. We discussed our teaching philosophies. Those are the kinds of conversations that I love to have but are, it seems, all too rare in college teaching. It is hard to improve if you are limited to the inside of your own head for ideas.

In my discussion with Dr. Phillips, I described a speech that I had given at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia last year. I had decided to speak on “Patterning Student Behavior.” My question to that group was: How do you get your students to do what you want them to do? For example, I want my students to prepare for class, I want my students to find the material interesting and engaging, I want my students to learn both the how and why of the subject matter, I want my students to actively participate in class. Most of all I want my students to develop the ability to think for themselves. How do I go about trying to achieve those goals? Somehow standing in front of them lecturing and working examples doesn’t seem to meet my objectives.

When I was at St. Joseph’s, I talked about some of the things that I do (some of which I have described in this blog) to encourage/push my students along. I try to pattern their behavior. Then, in a 90 degree turn, I started telling the group about a book that I had read shortly before my visit: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. It is a retelling of Hamlet but it is set in the US at a small farm where a family breeds and trains dogs. The author must have known a lot about dog training because he spends many pages describing in detail how this family could get a particular breed of dog to perform so well. Being a teacher, I was fascinated by the techniques they used to achieve successful results.

At St. Joseph’s, I asked the faculty to tell me the secrets to being a good dog trainer. They all looked at me like I was a bit crazy but they quickly came up with a list of eight traits needed to train dogs. What I found most fascinating was that they easily understood how this was done. They clearly knew how to train a dog and do it the right way.

1 – Have a firm understanding of what you want them to accomplish
2 – Get their undivided attention
3 – Consistent treatment
4 – Don’t set them up to fail; build incrementally
5 – Acknowledge proper responses
6 – Correct incorrect action immediately
7 – Repetition Repetition Repetition
8 – Time and Patience

Okay, we are not training dogs to act; we are training humans to think. However, which of these eight does not apply to the teaching of college students? I would argue that if you follow these eight “dog training steps” you will be a pretty good teacher. And, I think that is true whether you are teaching accounting or English or history or biology or whatever. We all teach differently but I think there are some fundamental steps that simply make the learning process work efficiently.

Now, I have two challenges for you.

(1) – Take each of these eight and grade yourself. How did you do? Be honest. To improve, you need to know your strengths and your weaknesses. Where are your As and where are your Cs? How can you turn a C into an A?

(2) – What would you add to this list? The group and I came up with a quick eight to train dogs and then tried to see if we could apply those to college students. If we were going to add one or two more, what should we add?


  1. As a former corporate trainer as well as a dog trainer, I can say that for college students number 6 (Correct incorrect action immediately) is inappropriate. My logic is that we can learn much from our mistakes. In fact, allowing a student to fail and fail again teaches something that might be even more important then current assignment. Persistence. My 2c :-)

    Dino Dogan

  2. Okay, I find this quite interesting. And, I even understand that failure can teach us more than success. But if a student in your class says "the moon is made of green cheese" or "the world is flat," don't you feel some compulsion to correct the statement? In many such cases, there is no eventual "failure" to serve as a correction. Or, the failure is so far into the future that the learning process is broken. Isn't saying, right then, "you are wrong" an immediate failure for them that creates the learning immediately?

  3. Which of the 8 would you remove and why?

    Also, (and perhaps on a different note suited for a different post) are you sure we are teaching students to "think"? I mean it globally, not specifically.

    I maintain that college graduates are trained, not educated. On a whole, I am very disappointed with our school system which makes us ill-equipped for thinking.

    I hope you will check out my post and offer your thoughts on the topic.