Today, I’m musing about learning. I have concluded that there is no such thing as teaching, there is only learning. For example, if I were to raise my voice and angrily say to Sophie (pictured with me above), “I’m going to teach you a lesson!” no learning would occur. Sophie is at once a bad and a good dog for me to attempt to illustrate what is on my mind. Sophie is extremely sensitive. For her to learn something new, she needs to be in a safe environment with someone she trusts. Me yelling at Sophie would re-traumatize her. It would take time to recover from what would be a huge withdrawal from the trust account.

This past weekend, I attended the Annual Meeting of the Wisconsin Veterinary Medical Association. I attended a talk titled “Don’t Leave Me Home Alone! : Diagnosis and Management of Canine Separation Anxiety”. Dr. Meghan E. Herron, a veterinarian who is an expert in animal behavior, showed us a video of a woman getting set to go to work. She was giving treats to a calm and contented greyhound lying in its cozy crate. This dog had once been a wild-eyed house demolisher each time he was left alone. The training focused on four objectives: 1) encouraging independence, 2) creating a safe environment, 3) downplaying departures and arrivals, and 4) decreasing the dog’s overall anxiety. As I listened to Dr. Herron’s talk in more detail on each of these four objectives, I was reminded of a research study I heard about earlier this year involving learning in children.

I was attending an event at the UW Center for Investigating Healthy Minds with parents, educators, day care providers, students and interested community members. We came together to hear presentations about the relationship between neuroscience research and learning in children. The research study that startled me was one that examined the findings of a lot of (207) separate research studies combined (what scientists call “a meta-analysis”). There were 288,000 students from urban, suburban, and rural elementary and secondary schools in the United States that were studied. Just like what I have seen in Sophie and the greyhound, the systematic attention to and training in establishing a calm and safe classroom setting, the students learned more! Compared to students who did not receive the training, school grades and achievement test scores improved—scores were 11 percentage points higher in the students that received the Academic, Social and Emotional Learning.

We are making a lot of changes in public education in Wisconsin in a short amount of time. I wonder if we can capitalize on the aforementioned studies and from our personal experiences in training dogs? I wonder if, not only Sophie and Jack and our dogs, but our community might benefit from systematic attention to and training in establishing a calm and safe classroom climate that is respectful of all—students, teachers and administrators alike?

Published in the Waupaca County Post East newspaper,  10/27/11.


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