Forgetting the 'learning' stage.

written by Heather Pyne, 9th May 2019

A week ago I was sat frozen staring at my computer screen, tears running down my face and panic running through my mind. “Give two examples of the generation and evaluation cycles in the design of Philippe Starck’s lemon squeezer” was the next question on my Design for engineer’s module which is part of my degree. I don’t understand. Who is this person? What is that cycle? I don’t know and no matter how much I wrack my brain the answer just isn’t there.

After several days of continued panic mixed with strategic procrastination I go back to the question. Again, I sit staring blankly at the words. Hoping the answer comes but it still doesn’t. So, I ask Mr Google but he isn’t very helpful. At this point it occurs to me that I have no choice but to look in my module handbook which has sat in its packaging since the day it was kindly delivered.

Within minutes of reading I find the answer.

It occurred to me that evening that I have been learning ‘wrong’ my whole life. This is in part is thanks to my school who always asked us to try a practice exam paper at the start of the term to see what we already knew. while I completely understand why they did that I responded wrong. Instead of thinking “what areas of the subject do I need greater knowledge of” I responded by asking myself “why didn’t I know that answer that other people did”. This created two situations:

I now feel extreme anxiety around my performance in absolutely everything and become immediately panicked when I don’t automatically know the answer.

I became focused on knowing the answers to the exam questions only and not bothered by my understanding of those answers and not understanding the wider area of study.

So, since i realised what I was doing wrong, I changed my tactic. I put the questions away and skim read through the whole course book which gave me some basic understanding of everything we were supposed to be learning. When I then turned back to the questions it suddenly all made sense. While I didn’t know every answer off by heart I knew where to look for it and when it wasn’t going right, I went back and tried again.

This is what you NEED to do when working with a dog and it’s a mistake I have seen so often in my professional life. For example, a customer approached me and said “my dog refuses to sit”. I ask them to demonstrate. “Sit”, “SIT” the owner saying in a firm voice yanking the lead with each command and pointing. I asked how they taught their dog to sit. They replied they just showed me.

This happens all the time and with all sorts of commands and behaviours. We expect the dog to know what the answer is despite the fact that we haven’t properly taught them and we fail to look further than the behaviour. It hadn’t occurred to this owner that maybe their dog had a sore bottom, maybe they were refusing to sit because the floor is wet and they don’t like sitting on a wet floor, maybe they are too distracted by that terrifying plastic bag over there or maybe they don’t understand what’s being asked of them.

So before asking why your dog isn’t performing (just like I haven’t been doing in this ‘design for engineering’ assessment), go back a step in your training, proof the behaviour and look at other reasons they may not be performing. After all, if you’ve never taught them what to do it’s no wonder they aren’t responding correctly.