Friday, April 2, 2010

Training or Teaching? Part 1: External Training and Behavior

I have spent a lot of time researching the difference between teaching and training in working toward a master's degree. I'd like to clarify that I feel that both are important, but teachers most of all should know the limitations and applications of both in everyday life. The structure of our modern schools allows for little authentic teaching to occur outside of the realm of training. I hope that teachers who read this to connect their own experiences with brain theory.

Training uses pleasure and pain to achieve a desired response to a particular set of environmental conditions. The purpose of training is to get the trainee to perform an action or set of actions with as little thought as possible. Although it is impossible to eliminate all thought from "doing", it is possible to almost entirely eliminate thinking from the "doing" process in a limited environment. Any major change in the environment or situation could result in paralyzing stress on the trainee. A new situation demands thinking which the pure trainee is ill-equipped to handle. Training by it's nature takes thought out of the equation. If the environment is sufficiently different, the trainee will forget their training entirely and look to their own nature and experience for answers. Little thought needs to be given to the trainee's needs by the trainer because every trainer has but one goal. Get the trainee to always do what they say well and without question through practice/repetition. The ultimate goal of training is impossible because the trainee will always have free will, but training is such that a partial goal will reap varying degrees of success. A well trained basketball team that trusts their coach 95% does better than the one that doesn't trust their coach at all. Training has applications in nearly all sports, the military, animal obedience, the safety of young children, police forces, firefighting, emergency medicine, etc. It is impossible to train anyone who doesn't agree (at least reluctantly) to the training. People trained against their will learn to frustrate and antagonize the system and take every opportunity to do so.

Training does have drawbacks that are rooted in the brain and the methods used in training. The biggest one being the ability to think for one's self and problem solve. Training is about following. A good trainee does what he or she has been told without question. Problem solving and thinking for yourself are processes that require some degree of leadership over self and thus no amount of training will develop these skills.

Animal training is a good example. A lion is trained with meat and the whip. Lions have a need for survival; eating and avoiding bodily harm are high on their survival list so they will "agree" to be trained in this way. The trainer stands tall, looks intimidating, and uses his posture and nerves of steel to establish trust with the animals. When the lions begin to trust him the training begins. No trainer starts with the difficult tricks first. In order for the lions to be ready for those they must first learn the basics: How to stand on a pedestal and wait for instruction, how to follow the trainer properly, how to go where the trainer points on command, and so on. As the lions' brains become accustom to these behaviors they begin to do them without much thought.

The repetition of behavior is very important to training because of the way the brain works. The nerve cells in our brains have small gaps between them called synapses. These gaps are needed because they act like switches that control the flow of electricity in the brain. Nerves communicate with each other via chemicals called neurotransmitters. A nerve on one side of the synapse releases neurotransmitters which then travel the gap to the other nerve and the message is communicated. The longer this chemical exchange takes, the more delay we experience in producing behavior, giving us more time to think about other possibilities. Repetition of a behavior physically alters the brain so that the nerve cells involved in that behavior move closer together thus shortening the synapse gap and making the behavior happen more quickly, eliminating extra think time. It is a mistake to think that any trained behavior is cemented. No trained behavior is instant, there will always be time to think. A person who has bitten their nails their entire life will almost instinctively put their hand in their mouth when nervous. This is a self-trained behavior, and the key to changing it is to start training the brain to realize when it is happening and to stop. When nervous, the brain is going to want to take the path of least resistance, nail-biting. These relapses occur because the nail-biting neurons are still close together, but eventually with practice the training for realization will become more second nature than the nail-biting behavior. If you have spent years biting your nails it may take years to practice realizing your are biting your nails and stop. Over-eating, hair twirling, shouting in a classroom, etc. are all examples of self-trained behavior.

Teachers and psychologists stress the importance of catching negative behaviors when the child is young because it is harder to retrain than it is to train. To retrain themselves a person must believe their behavior is bad and be willing to replace it with a new one. Self-control is essential to the re-training process. Since self-control requires self-leadership, external training cannot be used alone to re-train an engrained behavior. Can a person who has not practiced self control retrain themselves? It is possible, but only if the person truly wants it enough. Even then it is a struggle, because the brain always wants to take path of least resistance. Over time the neurons involved in the negative behavior may distance themselves a bit from less frequent use resulting in small amounts of un-training but the person will always have to vigilant. Un-trained just means "out of practice" or "rusty". If they do the negative behavior again the brain will speed-learn and the behavior could reassert itself. Re-training is about the brain learning a new positive behavior neural pathway better than the negative behavior pathway it is currently used to taking to enact real long term behavioral change.

In the same way, it is a mistake to think that the lion is not choosing its behavior. Because the repetition has made the behavior easy, the lion chooses the path of least resistance. A new situation will increase the resistance of the trained behavior, perhaps long enough for the lion to think up a different behavior and choose that instead. The behavior the lion chooses will certainly be one that is well ingrained in its nature.

Let's take for example the lion who has been trained to open its mouth on command. This lion knows that opening its mouth in its limited caged environment on the command of a trainer produces pleasure (or did at one time with meat) The trainer may even feel confident enough to stick his head in the lion's mouth, but what happens when someone brings an old fashioned flash-bulb camera and the light bulb explodes with a loud flash and a pop? This unexpected change in the environment gives the lion think time. Lions that are stressed out in the wild do not sit still on pedestals with their mouths open. Their mouths are closed and they are alert. The lion may choose to close his mouth on the trainer. We all know what lions do when they feel something struggling in their jaws. Incidentally, the most common cause of a trainer being mauled is when the trainer trips while walking backwards. Something as simple as a trainer falling is irresistible to the lion and all of the training in its feline head evaporates as it's true nature comes forward.

I acknowledge the animals themselves are the main attraction, but there is also an element of drama. If training were 100% effective terrible accidents would never happen, and the drama and tension would be lost. Many trainers will not work with a lion who has mauled someone because the lion will always know that killing the trainer is an option and the more practice the lion gets at this, the more likely it will attack. A trained Orca named Tilikum mauled and killed 3 trainers before being retired as untrainable.

So here is the million dollar question. Are your students trained into creating the appearance of "good behavior" while inside their nature to be kids and goof around is just below the surface eagerly waiting for an opportunity to express itself in negative and unproductive ways? What do trained kids do when they have a substitute? What do they do when they have a fire drill after a snowstorm? What do they do when you have an activity with rubber bands? What do they do when one person in a lunchroom throws food? What do they do when they go to college? Is it possible to train our students to behave in every conceivable situation? If so, is that the goal of our public education system?

What if students no longer fear the teacher's punishment or accept their bribes? What do we do with these un-trainable students? Appallingly the current solution in the US is to stick them in self-contained classrooms, give them an alphabet soup of labels that tell the kid what's "wrong" with them, and sometimes drug them into proper behavior. Wake up people! Maybe the kid doesn't learn because he thinks its a waste of time and wants to disrupt the class because its and easy way to impress a girl he likes. That is not a label or a syndrome, its common sense! The kid has already figured out he doesn't have to do anything you tell him to do and accepts the consequences. The answer isn't finding bigger consequences! It's finding a way to meet his needs with the goal of him valuing and choosing learning. Maybe the answer is to pair the two because she is an A+ student. He doesn't want to look dumb, does he? The short term goal is to get him to learn for the girl he likes, the long term goal is to get him to connect that the learning itself feels good by asking him how he feels about his learning, listening, and helping so he will learn for himself.

Some teachers will say that training is an important step that must happen if real teaching is to occur. I would take issue with that. In my experience training just begets more training. When students learn that training is the game they tend to apply what they learn from it universally to other aspects of education and begin to expect it. In fact they may be begin to demand it both because it is familiar and because it transfers almost all personal responsibility to the trainer. By high school students are so good at frustrating and defeating the training model that all of school is becomes a game of cat-and-mouse to get a letter (A, B, C, or D) with minimal effort. Students see training and school seem to go so hand-in-hand and they begin to confuse training and authentic learning altogether.

As evidence consider the kid who can do the problem: 2+3x=14 but has no idea how to do 15=7x+1. Why is that? If the kid has truly learned the processes of inverse operations and equality, this should be a slam dunk. I think is is obvious to any math teacher what is going on here. The kid has learned and memorized an order of doing (training), not a learned a way of thinking. Students are applying their behavior training from follow the rules (sit down, take out a notebook, be quite, take notes) to the learning of math itself. Why else would the order and position of the variables matter so much to them? Students who have been trained into math compartmentalize each kind of problem: "this is what I do when the x is first, this is what I do when their is no number in front of the x, this is what I do when the x is on the other side, etc." When given a story problem outside of their training these kids raise their hands and ask teachers to "set this problem up for them so they can solve it." That's a BIG problem! No one is going to be there to set it up for them in the real world, so by clinging to these repetitious training exercises instead of encouraging open-ended and dynamic real-world problems what are we teaching them? If they can't use the math for anything then I guess we are teaching them how to move X's and Y's around to look pretty and NOTHING ELSE!

Why? There are 2 reasons. First is because we were trained in this way. A few of us honed the curiosity inherent in our human nature and explored math on a conceptual level, but most of us did not. I once had difficulty figuring out how and where a student had made a mistake on a problem involving the area of a triangle. A seasoned 10 year math teacher 'corrected' me that the area of a triangle A=.5B*H was one half the base times one half the height! I was once at a professional development where my group was asked to develop an activity for a computer. Since our activity involved a falling object, and I was in charge of the technology side of the lesson I asked if another group member could make up some real world data for an example by taking a parabolic model and making the data "off" by a little bit to simulate human error. "Any parabola will do, it doesn't have to be earth gravity", I told them. Not a single one of them could do it. "I'm not good at physics", one of them said. That means 3 certified math teachers out of 4 had no idea how to apply simple algebra 1.

Second is that training is so much faster and easier than the alternative. The trainer does not have to take into account the trainee's needs. (although ones who do will have more success) The trainer only needs to find out the students 'stops' and use them to 'force' the student to 'learn'. Johnny isn't learning well so I'll talk to his coach and he won't play basketball again until he can do what I tell him. Sheniqua likes photography, so I'll talk to her photography teacher and let her leave class 15 minutes early to take pictures outside, but only if she does what I say.

Seasoned teachers know that training is almost always made easier when they build and cultivate a relationship with their students. (I think this is why elementary teachers have more success than high school teachers. They have more time to develop relationships and if students destroy their relationship with their teacher there is greater impact on their everyday learning) It seems there is something need satisfying for teachers and students to care about one another and this relationship makes even the hardest training seem easier. The essence of that is the core of real teaching and authentic learning and will be discussed in my next post. True teaching is channeling the nature of the student itself to produce positive outcomes, not trying to change the nature of the student using punishment and/or bribes.

Trained kids cannot adapt to even the simplest changes in routine. This is why so much emphasis is on structure in modern classrooms. Structuring the student's life at school becomes the teacher's job under the training model. The essence of personal responsibility is delegated to an authority figure and it is deemed acceptable by pretty much everyone involved!!! It's not acceptable because unless students learn to set positive goals for themselves on their own (which takes practice), they won't set their own goals or structure their own lives because we insist on doing that for them! This essentially leaves them always looking for some external source to control their behavior and structure their lives for them. (perhaps they'll find a controlling abusive husband, an unhealthy spirituality, join the military for the wrong reasons, or lean on mom and dad forever for structure instead of self-reflecting and growing as a person)

The inability of students to adapt to new conditions is shocking! Students fail simple standardized tests because they 'look different' than normal tests. If they can't do that, what happens to them when they leave school and the knowledge they got there was trained into that particular school environment? What happens when a professor doesn't mark them absent and call home? What happens when The instructor doesn't make special interventions for them when they struggle? THE STUDENT LOSES when we take the easy way by training instead of teaching.

Training isn't all negative. Their are many positives of training. In sports the field and rules do not change. When they do change is is relatively minor and the athletes have plenty of time to adjust their training. The grace and beauty of an athlete free in action is a site to behold. Unencumbered by thought they fly effortlessly down the field awing fans everywhere.

The policeman who is in a shootout or the firefighter who runs into a burning building risk life and limb to save others. When asked by a news reporter after the fact about how they manage to stay cool under fire they will almost certainly say "it's all training"

The well trained EMT assesses the situation and applies medicine quickly to save lives.

The soldier trains for combat is many situations. Elite soldiers can learn to tame every conceivable condition: wind, rain, heat, freezing cold water, exhaustion, etc. The training of these brave men and women protects us and the freedoms we enjoy.

It is for those reasons and many more that we should never get rid of training, but...

...Getting rid of thought is not something we should be doing in the classroom! EVER! PERIOD!

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