Teaching Kids vs. Training a Puppy: Is there a difference?
Though Cheyenne, my puppy, was a special source of comfort for me after the death of my mother (for details see, Going Your Own Way) I was in no way prepared for the crate training nightmare, potty accidents, or an adorably cute, totally energetic, completely strong-willed golden, little bundle of fur that refused to move when on a leash, but galloped with glee when unbound. I did what any normal puppy parent would do: enrolled in puppy kindergarten.
Five years later, I can honestly say that Cheyenne is much better behaved than she used to be. She’s not the perfect pooch, but she responds to numerous commands and is willing to do all that I ask especially when thinks that she’s going to get a treat.
Most teacher training programs require at least one psychology class where B. F. Skinner’s research on operant conditioning was discussed. In short, operant conditioning uses rewards and/or punishment in order to encourage or discourage specific behaviors. (For a more detailed look at operant conditioning, see Basics of Operant Conditioning: Introduction to Operant Conditioning.) An explanation of positive reinforcement in practical language is as follows: if someone does something you like, praise them or give them something nice. They associate their nice actions with nice things and repeat the nice actions so they can receive more nice things.
Operant Conditioning and Puppy Kindergarten
As I reflected on Cheyenne’s experience in puppy kindergarten, it didn’t take long for me to realize that operant conditioning was the school of thought to which that training school subscribed.
Nearly their entire program was based on operant conditioning. I didn’t realize it at the time, but positive reinforcement was at the core of everything Cheyenne was taught. One of the first things I had to teach Cheyenne was to look at me when I called her name. Whenever she looked at me after I called her name one time, I praised her and gave her a treat. When I taught her to sit, stand, lie down or walk on a leash, there were various forms of positive reinforcement that I used, from treats to toys to wooden spoons dipped in peanut butter.
Though it took a great deal of reinforcement in the early days, there’s no need for reinforcement now. Cheyenne does what I ask her to do when I ask her to do it. She’s not perfect by any means, but she’s definitely a good dog. Sometimes I reward her when she obeys, but for the most part there are no rewards.
Relating it to the Classroom
One evening not too long ago, I sat on the floor so I could organize a stack of papers. Since Cheyenne thinks that when I sit on the floor it’s playtime, she kept disturbing my papers. Out of frustration, I said, “Move.” To my surprise, she did what I told her. So I decided to see if it was a fluke, and said, “Come here.” She quickly obeyed. Just to be sure that they weren’t coincidental incidents, I spent the next few minutes alternating between, “Move” and “Come here.” Cheyenne obeyed every single time.
My mind immediately travelled to several of my most challenging students. I thought, “If I can get a dog – an animal – to do what I want her to do when I want her to do it, I should be able to get my students – young humans – to do what I want them to do when I want them to do it.”
Then I realized that I had done it many times before.
- Class Store – My first teaching assignment was that of a second grade teacher. I created a class store. At the end of the day each student who behaved appropriately, received five cents. Their goal was to get a quarter by the end of the week. They could purchase one piece of candy for ten cents or three pieces of candy for twenty-five cents. As there were other items available for purchase in the store for various prices, some students chose to save their money for later purchases and some never spent a dime. When I was absent, I would give double money to students who behaved well for the substitute. My system worked remarkably well. As the year progressed and I began to run out of money, I didn’t reward them as much – maybe every other week, or so. However, since they were so “conditioned” at that point, most of them still did what was expected even if there was no money attached to their behavior.
- Bonus Bucks – When I moved to the middle school level, I knew that the class store would not work because I didn’t have enough “money” to issue to the students. Beyond that, I had nearly quadruple the amount of students than I had at the elementary level and increased non-academic responsibilities, so it would have been virtually impossible for me to manage the class store. Plus, I didn’t think 7th and 8th graders would get too excited about earning five cents a day. I decided to create Bonus Bucks. They were little tickets that the students were able to earn by participating in class discussions (in meaningful and positive ways), answering questions that were asked either by me or by their classmates, or presenting thought provoking questions to the class. Each Buck was worth one bonus point on the quiz or test of the students’ choice. They could use as many (or as few) as they desired and would simply staple them to their quiz or test before turning in the assessment. In other words, if a student received a grade of 85% on quiz with 15 bonus bucks attached, their final grade on the quiz – the grade entered into my grade book – was 100%. My students LOVED the Bucks so much that would do extra work just for the chance of earning some Bucks. As the year progressed, it go to the point when they never knew whether or not they would receive any Bucks for me, but that didn’t stop them from being active participants.
- Zingers – Zingers were effective at any grade level. They were simply small pieces of candy that I tossed to students who answered questions correctly or did other little things that I expected them to do – cleared their desks immediately after being told, responded quickly and appropriately to my quiet signal, were not distracted by class interruptions, etc. I started out giving jolly ranchers, but those took too long for kids to eat. I ended up giving smaller chewy candies (starburst, tootsie rolls, mini snickers, mini three musketeers), and I also had sugar free candy for students who were diabetic. The only conditions were that students threw away their trash and that they ate the candy in my presence. I told them (especially the middle school students) that if they got in trouble for eating in another teacher’s class, I would not take up for them because the candy was suppose to be with me. Another condition was that they accepted whatever I tossed at them at them time – unless I gave them a snickers and they were allergic to peanuts – but they could trade with a classmate, if they desired. On extremely rare occasions, I would allow a student to trade after class with the understanding that I would not write a tardy pass for them to their next class. As with the previous examples, there were some “zinger-less” days, but students still did what they were supposed to do.
- Treats – Treats seemed to work best for younger students. Students who maintained exceptional behavior were awarded a cookie or whatever special treat happened to be in my ceramic teddy bear cookie jar. The treats were changed every week or so, and students never knew quite what to expect. It was really effective in the sense that students who did not receive a treat were especially disappointed, and it motivated them to be on their best behavior the next time. This was used sparingly because I didn’t want to contribute to childhood obesity by rewarding my students with sugary baked goods on a consistent basis.
- Raffle Drawings – As an elementary physical education in the inner-city, I have to come up with creative and unique ways of getting students to do what I need them to do. Prior to my arrival, their physical education classes were not very structured, so it has taken some students a while to adjust to my expectations. They know that after they enter the gym, they are to sit quietly in their squads as I take attendance. However, there are times when some choose to do their own thing rather than follow my instructions. During those times, I simply call the names of compliant students one-by-one. Then I give them a ticket. After writing their name on the ticket they put in a bucket. At the end of class, I draw two names – one boy and one girl – and those students received a special prize. The drawing takes place once a week and students are able to earn more than one ticket each time they report to my class. Even though students have a slim chance of winning, they are still encouraged to be on their best behavior. They know that the better they behave, the more tickets they’ll receive, and that translates into more opportunities to win.
- Homework Passes – This worked really well at the middle school level. In order to encourage students to complete their homework, I stirred up a little friendly competition between my classes. I placed a jar in front of the room for each class. The class that had the highest percentage of completed homework received a marble in their jar. After a specified number of weeks, I tabulated the marbles, and every student in the winning class won a homework pass.
No doubt there are tons of teachers who use operant conditioning in their classroom without even realizing it.
My advice to teachers who have classes or individual students who pose intense challenges with what they are asked to do, is simply this: don’t give up. Instead think about Cheyenne, and tell yourself, “If Cheyenne can be taught to move out of the way on command, I can teach my student(s) to follow my class rules.”
Here are a few practical steps you can take:
- Think outside the box – Every student will work for something. All you need to do is find out what they’ll work for and let that be the basis of your training program.
- Be prepared to spend a little money – Unless, you are able to receive funding or donations, it will take a little money to start your training program. Be advised that you will have to spend more money at the beginning than you do in the end. As students grow accustomed to the new system, they will not need to be rewarded as much.
- Praise the slightest improvement – In “How to Win Friends and Influence”, Dale Carnegie says that praising even the slightest improvement boosts productivity. It’s a sure fire way to lead students to buy into your training program a lot quicker, which will result in the need for fewer “treats”.
Summing it All Up
In answer to the question that serves as the title for this hub: there's no difference in teaching kids and training a puppy.
I'm not saying that puppies are as intelligent as children or that children somehow resemble puppies in their behavior. What makes each process one and the same is the approach. In both instances, you simply use operant conditioning in order to get an unwilling, oftentimes strong-willed, individual - whether canine or human - to do what you want.
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