Just recently this spring I acquired my very first dog, and in some ways getting a new dog is much like getting a new class: you have to establish a means of communication, set expectations and develop good habits. Puppies, like children, continually test your limits. There is nothing malicious about this either from the children’s part or the puppy’s part, it is just who they are.
If you have been a reader of this blog, you will already know that an essential tenet of my classroom practice is the social construction of meaning in the classroom: that children learn best when they collaboratively engage to discuss and derive meaning together, while their teacher helps to facilitate their learning. Some examples are my previous post on Creating Agreements, or the post on the Re enactment of the Ancient Agora. So, you might wonder, is this a sudden departure into behaviorism? Am I forsaking all that I hold dear, and am about to tell you that a stimulus-response approach is the way to cultivate a collaborative classroom? Not in the least. However, what I have discovered is that in engaging in meaning making with a dog leads me to reflect on meaning making with children. In a way, a dog is an extreme example of the communicative challenge that confronts us all whenever we try to convey our intent. While a shared language can give the illusion that communication should be simple, the actual truth is that all communication is complex.
Communication of intent goes far beyond the words we say. It begins with that fundamental response to posture, energy and bearing by our primitive brain, popularly known as body language. Dogs respond to positive energy and a calm demeanor and this can be essential in gaining the confidence of your dog so that she can relax with you and know that you’re in charge. When you greet your incoming class with a bright smile, a positive outlook, and an open, yet authoritative, body posture, students subconsciously evaluate that body language and make decisions on how to respond to you within milliseconds of seeing you.
It is easy to fall into the trap of wishful thinking both with dogs and with children, working under the assumption that you share a common understanding of purpose. My goal is for my little dog to be able to run freely around the house without ever leaving any small puddles anywhere. But the truth is she’s not ready for that yet and though I long to have her company and see her happily wandering around the house after me, the truth is that her understanding of which spaces are sacred and not to be pee’d on is much more limited than mine. I have not yet managed to fully share my complex human interpretation of what seems to me an entirely self evident truth, at a level that is comprehensible to doggy logic. And in the same way we teachers can often assume that students know what school is about and share our common purpose, when in fact children have their own private logic which drives how they behave. We adults assume that children should understand the logic of the adult world and meet our expectations, forgetting that the rationale behind our behavior may be just as incomprehensible to them as their behavior can appear to us!
When attempting to make meaning explicit while training a puppy, consistency is the key to success. You need to repeat and repeat and repeat, doing the same thing in exactly the same way until it became becomes ingrained into the very ‘is-ness’ of your dog. Repetition allows the dog to test and retest its interpretation of your wishes until a mutually agreed upon consensus is achieved.
Milou taught me that I was a lot less consistent than I thought I was! When children fall into bad habits in the classroom and misbehaviors are beginning to creep in again that I thought I had eradicated weeks ago, I realize now, when I reflect on my classroom practice in the light of dog training, that the problem isn’t with the children, it is with me. I have started to become inconsistent. The truth seems to be, that any behavior that you reinforce be it with dogs or children will persist, so, if I start to respond to students who call out without raising their hand then I reinforce that behavior. It becomes rewarded and therefore it persists. Could it be true that just as “there are no bad dogs there are only bad owners”, that there are no undisciplined children there are only undisciplined teachers? Now that’s a scary thought!
Mr Theo and Ms Xenia, our dog training team who run the Dogs in Learning Program here at ACS Athens, continually remind me to set my dog up for success. This means controlling her environment and structuring her freedom so that she is not put in a position where she can fail. We can apply the same concept of setting up our students for success to teaching elementary children: structuring the classroom environment by assigning seating, or planning ahead groupings for collaboration to avoid unsuccessful partnerships. Similarly, the energy in the room can be successfully channeled by thoughtfully varying activities from independent seat work, paired reflection, hands-on investigation to group work. A timer can be used to focus bursts of intellectual activity and increase productivity by overcoming procrastination. Contrast this setting up for success with the ‘laissez faire’ classroom of low expectations where students fool around with their friends, where time is unstructured and unproductive, or work is routine, monotonous and physically confining.
In frustration, when tensions rise and things go wrong, it is easy to want to scold a dog or a child for not meeting our expectations but both dogs and children wilt under chastisement. Such venting of negative and unstable energy disrupts their confidence and security in the stable leadership of the teacher or dog owner. It is kinder and much more effective to calmly repeat the procedure that is required, with a confident, “Let’s try that again!”
When we want dogs (or students) to meet our goals, we have to challenge our assumptions that goals that are meaningful to us are equally meaningful to them. We need to decenter and look at what the situation might look like from their point of view. We need to observe their actions and ask ourselves what they reveal about their understandings and misunderstandings. If every action is essentially a communicative act, what are students (or dogs) trying to communicate by their misbehavior?