Why Learn More?

rubiks-cube-artI have to admit that I’m something of a training geek.  To be specific, operant conditioning training.  The more I delve into learning about operant conditioning, the more I want to know and understand.  That all comes to a screeching halt when I try to share what I’ve learned with the uninitiated.  And if I delve too deeply, even to people who I thought were well-informed on the subject, I begin to see eyes glazing over.  That’s not to say that I know everything.  I most emphatically do not.  Even my eyes glaze over sometimes, especially when I hear about some detail for the first time.  When that happens, I often think:  “Wait.  What was that?  I thought…”
That being said, for me, knowing more about my chosen craft is essential.  I’ve often said I could be a professional student.  And I don’t always limit myself in the subjects.  But I feel I MUST learn more in order to get better at what I do, even if it is more of a hobby than it is a profession.

So why do others who profess to be interested in operant conditioning/clicker training, too, zone out?  What is it about this process?  Is it that it requires too much thinking?  Sometimes I get that; sometimes I don’t.  Is the jargon intimidating?  Is there too much information in general to process?  I know that when I get in a room full of people who know more than I do, I get a little intimidated and confused.  But at the same time, that unconfidence or not knowing what they’re talking about sends me to the books and the experts.

Maybe it’s my background.  I was a secretary for about 20 years.  I had to constantly know the details of my profession and look for those details to get it as perfect as possible – typos, manuscript style and form, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and on and on.I also danced for almost a dozen years.  Again, constantly trying to improve on those basic dancing skills, looking for more balance, more strength, more fluidity, better technique.  In short, more knowledge.I also rode horses, focusing on dressage, for nearly my whole life.  I started when I was twelve and I still ride today, several decades later – taking seat lessons on the longe line, private riding lessons, group lessons, reading magazines and books – still trying to increase the knowledge base, both physical and mental.

Is it my basic personality or genetics that pushes me to learn more, practice more, strive for more?

In the beginning, I just want a recipe.  A lot of people do.  I get that.  Just tell me which buttons to push when.  Then, when I manage to train myself to do the basics, I want to know why?  Why that button?  Why then?  Why is that a better way?  How do you do that so well?  What do I need to change in order to get better?

drivers-test-texasWhen we learn to drive, it’s simple in the beginning.  We learn the basic mechanics of starting and stopping, turning right and left, operating the turn signals, brake, clutch, and gas pedals.  We start in a big, open parking lot crawling along at about two miles an hour.  As our mechanical skills get better, we speed up a little and get smoother in the operations.  But along the way, we also have to study and learn the rules of the road.When we finally take the test to get our driver’s license, we not only have to show that we know and have practiced the mechanical skills of driving – including parallel parking – but we also have to take a knowledge testregarding the laws of driving in our state and recognize signs, signals, and striping on the road.My ultimate question, then, is what stops other people from wanting to know the details in order to get better or even started on the right path of “clicker training” our animals?

A friend of mine, Jane Jackson of Bookends Farms Ponies/blog, went to a trade fair a few months ago and she promoted her training services and either sold or gave out box clickers.  One woman took one and asked Jane to write down what to do with it and handed Jane a sticky note!  Jane was stumped for a few minutes and finally wrote “Sit.  Click.  Treat.”
Yes, those are the basics.  But there’s so much more to it!
What are the roadblocks for you?

About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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4 Responses to Why Learn More?

  1. gmlimages says:

    You are using positive reinforcement in your clicker training. Operant conditioning includes all quadrants – negative reinforcement, negative punishment, positive reinforcement and positive punishment — therefore all trainers use operant conditioning in some form. Most do not know anything about learning theory so this article may be a bit misleading.


  2. Yes, thank you for pointing that out. Yes, of course, all trainers use OC in some form, with some leaning more toward the +R quadrant and others leaning more toward the +P quadrant. And you’re quite right that they don’t know a thing about learning theory, which is a shame. They really should educate themselves. But I go, trying to force my choice onto them. Bad me.

    Having attended three chicken workshop with Bob Bailey at this point, I’m in a bit of a muddle as to what to call what I actually do. There’s no real good label and I’m still working on what to call it. The most commonly accepted vernacular is “clicker training” and i mostly do +R training using a clicker.

    But I am also trying to expand what I do and how I do it, keeping in mind that no matter how much someone says they work only in the +R quadrant, that’s not really possible. By definition, differential reinforcement means that you’re reinforcing some behaviors and punishing, however mildly by not reinforcing, other behaviors.

    I have now trained a few chickens, albeit rather badly, and that involved punishing the chicken for making mistakes. How did I punish the chicken? By picking it up. The chicken finds that aversive, therefore, that was punishment. Did I use a clicker during the training process? Yes, I did. Would it be possible to train a chicken to do those behaviors without a clicker? Probably. Although it might be a lot messier in the process on all kinds of levels.

    Do I actively use +P when I train my horses? I try really, really hard not to. But I will admit to reflexive actions on my part occasionally. Have I used -P? I think so – by either removing myself from the game or by removing the horse from the game. Again, I try to keep that to the barest minimum I can.

    And I’m sure that there a plenty of times that I’ve used -R or pressure/release. I’m still struggling with what to do about that since I want to ride the one horse and take him off the property. But that’s a long term goal that is on hold for now and I get to avoid that sticky wicket for a bit longer.

    Thanks again for your input. 🙂


  3. Mary Owens says:

    I’ve been pondering that “label” that those of us, the OC Geeks, are in search of. The most accurate one I can think of so far is “efficient operant conditioning trainer”. I think it reflects my goals because you get the fastest, most reliable results, by using mostly +R. Of course, the trick of it, as with use of ANY of the quadrants, is to have impeccable mechanical skills. I am working towards that by practicing daily. It was wonderful to meet you at Bob and Parvene’s Workshop. I look forward to much discussion about operant conditioning and I promise not to “glaze over” too often.


  4. Mary Hunter says:

    Nice post, Laurie. 🙂

    And the discussion in the comments about what to call ourselves is a good one!!

    I don’t have an answer to that, unfortunately.

    Do you like “behavior technician?”
    That term has been used some over the past few decades by people with knowledge of behavior analysis / operant conditioning who work with people.
    Perhaps it sounds a little dry. But, I like that the word ‘technician’ implies an understanding of science and processes, as well as how to apply that knowledge to solve problems.



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