27 July 2008

The wag reflex

Glenn Reynolds has diverted me to yet another minor delight and some more homespun heuristics from a post on Wag Reflex by a Sarah Wilson, who describes herself as "..a pet behavior specialist, author, media personality..". Sarah's little nugget of insight is:

"Food for thought: When people teach tricks they are generally success-focused. They laugh and cheer every small attempt the dog makes, and the dogs stay relaxed and happy and LEARN. When people teach “commands” we, all too often, become fault-focused. We get intense and concerned that the dog isn’t doing it “right,” and the dog picks up on that, losing confidence and slowing down.
Take home message? Teach everything as if it were a trick! Seek out the best efforts to reward then have fun, and keep at it. Be success-focused to be successful!"


I like it; the exploitation of the human "wag reflex" as a pathway to learning. My tail is wagging at this. It reminds me of an insight I fancied I gleaned (but have too often forgotten) from a terrific little marketing book called "Make it Stick", that made, the probably obvious but to me hitherto unrealised, distinction between, on the one hand, self learning by discovery of new ideas or concepts and, on the other hand, learning by being taught by others who have already acquired ideas and concepts they want to impart.

My experience has been that self directed heuristic struggles to learn by trial and error are so painstaking and error prone that when you finally convince yourself that some new insight has been acquired, you are unlikely to forget it. But when the learning is something told to you, you are only likely to internalise it and truly acquire it as learned, if there are appropriate hooks that have incentivised your acquisition.

The notion that the best teaching is acquired in games that reward the learner is simple and almost self-evidently true. The best way to bring others to a learned view that you need to share is mostly not to recreate the journey of self -discovery that the teacher might have gone on to gain that hard won nugget, as I am doing here. Rather it is to impart the supposed learning, through techniques that encourage and reward the learner. Hence the power of examples, stories, narrative and actual experience imparted by people who listeners have reason to believe in.

So Sarah's observation that "teach everything as if it were a trick" rings true. Many of us have successfully (or, in my case, not, for want of patience) taught our dogs new tricks with consistentcy and reward. And therefore appreciate that this technique works.

The problem is that you can't always be sure that what is to be taught is worth all the effort that playing such games involves (why bring the ball back if the human oaf is going to throw it away again?) Worse still, is the concomitant realisation that perhaps much of what we have already learnt by such tricks of emotional reward, may just be a stunt to keep humans amused. Dogs seem to get this much better than we do.

The unpredictable journey of learning by self inflicted mistakes might yet be the only reliable route, especially in a universe where selling a bill of goods is world's mojo of choice. It all becomes, as is so often the case, a question of trust.

But who is their to trust: the media? scientists? Obama? Kev? pastors? activists? sceptics? believers? you?

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