I’ve been training our new dog, Elsie. At first I thought she was a genius because she learned “down” after two tries. But the truth is she’s probably of average dog intelligence. She hasn’t, for example, learned not to pee and poop in the house (although her preferred spot is in the bathroom, which should count for something).
Her new “trick” is giving me a hug (see photo). She learned this in two tries, too. This is how it works: I crouch down and ask her to sit, and then I put my hands in front of her and say, “Elsie, give me a hug,” whereupon she immediately (I mean really, really fast!) sits up and wraps her paws around my wrists. Seriously cute.
But if I’m honest, I didn’t really teach Elsie this. Instead, I rewarded her for doing what she wanted to do (give me a hug) and molded her behavior through treats so that “hug” meant sitting up and wrapping her paws around my wrists rather than jumping up on me and pawing any which way she wanted while she licked my face. It’s much harder to teach her things she doesn’t want to learn, like not peeing and pooping in the house or coming to me when it means leaving behind uneaten pears under the pear tree (no wonder she poops five times a day!).
What does this have to do with topics I normally write about, like MOGO living and humane education? A lot.
Thirty-one years ago I interviewed at colleges, and I remember in particular my interview at the University of Pennsylvania. The interviewer asked me if I had any questions about Penn. I know you’re supposed to have questions, but I didn’t. So I said I didn’t have any questions, but I wanted to tell him just how excited I was about Penn because on the trip down I was going through the course catalog (the size of a city phone book!), and I couldn’t believe just how many courses were offered. I wasn’t just sucking up; I meant it. There was so much to learn at this big university. Now, in retrospect, I know that only about 20% of those courses would have been of interest to me. The rest would have left me bored, frustrated, daydreaming or anxiety-ridden by work that didn’t come at all naturally.
Like Elsie, it’s easy, rewarding, and pleasurable to learn what engages us and already comes fairly naturally. So why do we so often force students to learn so much that is painstakingly miserable for them through teaching styles that don’t come close to matching their learning styles? Why don’t we do as they do in other countries and allow young people to specialize much sooner, veering toward the arts and letters or science and math? I think we don’t do this because we believe that it’s important for every eighteen-year-old to be able to do algebra and geometry; understand chemistry, physics and biology; write a good, well-thought out and cogently-argued five paragraph essay, and know basic historical information. And frankly, though some who read this blog may be surprised by this, I think this is a good thing. Just as I think it would have been a good thing for me to take an occasional finance or engineering course at Penn. There are things worth learning whether they are easy for or seemingly interesting to us.
But we must be careful that we do not bore or intimidate our children or crush their love of learning. I think it’s a travesty when we do this, and we do it all the time. We’ve skewed the ratio of forced, unpleasant dumping of information to engaging elicitation of knowledge and new skills such that too many kids hate school, which too often translates in their own minds into hating learning. This is so sad it makes me want to cry. Every teenager should look at a big university’s course catalog enthralled by the opportunities to learn.
Elsie needs to learn to stay and to come. She doesn’t much like doing either at times (unless coming to me means a treat better than fresh pears), but she must learn it. But stay and come get interspersed between the hugs she loves so that the gestalt of her “education” is positive, and she jumps up and runs to me at the opportunity for learning new “tricks.”