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An ode to transferable skills

I am beyond thrilled to introduce you to Rhea! This little creature joined our family last month, and re-ignited in me feelings of joy, playfulness and of being crazy in love!

We spend a lot of time together. She helps me discover things about myself, including my new identity as a pet parent. I was unprepared for the toll sleep deprivation would have on me in the span of a month, but it has been an effective motivator in making me re-examine and re-set my priorities. (It turns out I would rather nap and play during the day!)


By keeping her safety and well-being our top priority, my partner and I decided that communication is very important. I am her designated person for training. I don’t have prior experience training dogs, and it’s been fascinating to notice how my higher education teaching skills come in handy! Clearly, I am not facilitating reflective inquiry, but here are 7 guiding principles for teaching that seem to apply well to humans and puppies alike:


1. Knowledge is not ‘passed’ from the teacher to the learner. Knowledge is constructed in the learner’s brain, based on their prior experiences.


Rhea doesn’t understand what the words out of my mouth or my arm gestures mean. She has to make her own associations, based on her prior experiences. For example, if I say “sit” and she manages to get a treat from me, it’s up to her to figure out what went well and how she can get a treat from me the next time I say that word.


2. Specifically, learners learn best when they build on accurate and relevant prior knowledge.


It’s certainly a process to reach the desired behaviour. For example, the way Rhea figured out one lies down, is by first sitting and then sliding the legs forward.


3. Foster creativity


When I gesture or say something new, Rhea is hilarious: she tries all sorts of different things! I am fascinated by what she comes up with! Even though we are aiming for a desired outcome, it’s important not to discourage the irrelevant guesses. After all, we will need that creativity to decrypt the meaning of new words and arm gestures in the future.


4. Formative feedback makes all the difference


Fundamentally, formative feedback is about the process. To reach that desired outcome, Rhea needs to get feedback that she is guessing in the right direction. She is not tricking me by having many treats for incremental progress. She is learning to get there, by putting in effort.


5. Summative feedback reflects high expectations


After she has reached the desired outcome a few times (and in a few training sessions), the treat is hers when she demonstrates the instruction perfectly.


6. Short lessons, frequently and consistently


Don’t underestimate what 5-minute training sessions can do, 3 times per day, every single day! When she is focused, her performance seems to be way more advanced than the expectations for pups of her age. When she gets tired, good luck getting her attention!


7. Consider a ‘healthy challenge’


This one is such an important factor for engagement and motivation in humans, and in the case of Rhea it is crucial for setting her up for ‘success’. Sometimes I would get over-enthusiastic when she had demonstrated perfect “down”s and “stay”s and “leave it”s, that I would increase the difficultly a step too far for her abilities (e.g. by increasing the duration, the distance or the distractions). Her ‘failings’ prompted me to reflect on the assumptions I held about what she should have been able to do in that moment. Was is costly to take a step back? Not really. With the frequent and consistent lessons, what she couldn’t do on one day, she could do a day or two later. Worth the wait.


Bonus:

8. You give love and you will receive love


At the heart of this is my why. Why am I teaching her in the first place? / Why are we teaching our students? When I reconnect with my why, then I remember that teaching is not about the specific lessons per se, but about my larger motivations. In the case of Rhea, it is to care for her and give her love. And when you give love, you get love back. Be it from puppies or students. 💖



What skill-sets or frameworks have you applied from one context of you life to another? Which were unexpected and which intentional?


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