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Feb 12, 2020 9:13:40 AM

How To Learn Complex Skills Without Complex Training

Brian Beckcom

Brian Beckcom

Feb 12, 2020 9:13:40 AM

Do you own a dog? If you don’t, surely you know someone who does. In fact, The Washington Post reports that 68% of American households own a pet, and 48% of those have one or more dogs in their homes. One of the most common ways in which we teach dogs new skills is by use of a clicker. When training dogs with a clicker, the clicker has one job: to tell your dog exactly what behavior is correct or desired.

But what do our furry friends have anything to do with learning or teaching new skills to people? Surely the clicker technique used when teaching a dog, or any pet or animal for that matter, new things could never work on us humans. After all, humans are far more complex and are capable of learning astonishing skills like, say I don’t know, orthopedic surgery.

I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Martin Levy, an orthopedic surgeon at the Bronx Montefiore Medical Center in New York. Dr. Levy uses clicker training to teach new surgeons how to quickly perfect the craft of surgery. Dr. Levy was first introduced to the teaching technique that is clicker coaching while training his border collies to perform complex jumps and twirls at the frisbee park.

It was then that he realized he could apply the same teaching techniques to another audience. The dog owners at the frisbee park. Particularly those who were terrible at throwing frisbees. Some skills, like throwing a frisbee, come naturally to many people. But for those who don’t instinctively pick up on frisbee throwing, learning can become a daunting task.

But why could learning how to properly throw a frisbee become daunting? Because most people think it is easy and learning a task that most people think is easy comes with a lot of judgement and emotional baggage. All of which affects one's ability to learn even the most basic of skills. This ideology transpires into a much larger conundrum when we begin to consider who our teachers really are.

How does someone earn the right to teach? They must first become an authority in their field. They must become experts. The same way we may see frisbee throwing as an easy skill, an expert in psychology may find it easy to explain the “psychodynamic approach”, something that to a new comer may seem impossible to understand. This phenomenon of experts becoming teachers creates intellectual biases that make the teaching and learning process come with emotional baggage.

Teaching requires a massive amount of empathy. For someone to teach what they have already mastered to a novice is very difficult. There’s undoubtedly a disconnect. Precisely why Dr. Levy explored clicker coaching.

Dr. Levy discovered that using the clicker to provide feedback to the dog owners reduced friction. There were no “good jobs” or “NO you’re doing it wrong”. Instead, the only feedback is the sound of a judgment-free clicker.

Dr. Levy was so surprised with how effective the clicker was for teaching dog owners that he decided to raise the stakes of his experiment and use the clicker to begin training newly hired surgeons fresh out of medical school. He was pleasantly surprised with the outcome and continues to practice clicker coaching when training new surgeons.

Maybe you have used a clicker to coach your dog or another pet. Or perhaps reading this article has inspired you to use clicker coaching to teach your peers something new. Share your story with us on our Facebook page, we’d love to hear it.