Ann Bergeron: On Facilitating a More Positive Learning Experience, More Effective Skill Acquisition, and More Creative Artists.

As many kids do, my two little ones started asking for a dog when they were 5 and 3 years old.

At the time, our answer was a hard no. I mean, managing two kids already felt like a lot. We couldn’t imagine adding a high-maintenance ball of fur to the equation.

So as many parents do (or so I’m assuming), we kicked the problem down the road for future us to deal with, saying that while we didn’t think they were old enough to take on the responsibility of dog ownership, maybe in five years, when they were 10 and 8, we might reconsider.

We assumed that they’d forget about it. But of course they didn’t. And to convince us that they were responsible enough to have a dog, for 30 days, the older one woke up every morning, dragged himself out of bed, down the hall, out the door, down the elevator, out of the building, and took a selfie of himself on the street “walking” his non-existent dog.

So we got a dog.

And the first thing we learned, is that we had no idea how to train a dog. How to get it to sit, stay, pee outside instead of inside…the little furball didn’t come pre-trained with any particular commands, so we were kind of at a loss.

Err…clicker training?

A bit of Googling led us to discover clicker training, which basically is a way of positively reinforcing or highlighting desired behaviors and providing feedback to the dog, so it knows when it has done something good. Which is a contrast to the more aversive approach to training that involves using pain or fear to get a dog to repeat a desired behavior.

This more positive approach resonated with us, so we gave it a try we delegated all of the training to our daughter. And, it all seemed to work out pretty well.

So I was understandably intrigued, when a few years later, I was listening to a Hidden Brain podcast episode and an orthopedic surgeon named Martin Levy described how he was using clicker training with – wait for it – his surgical residents. That’s right – clicker training for humans.

Apparently, this way of teaching helped to take negativity and judgment and anxiety and fear out of the learning process, and seemed to improve skill acquisition as well. And there was even an organization named TAGteach which had a whole system developed specifically for humans. Which made me wonder…might this approach to teaching also work with musicians?

Umm…so does it?

Meet Ann Bergeron

Director and choreographer Ann Aiko Bergeron is a professor of theater and dance at the University of Minnesota Duluth. She has directed and/or choreographed over 60 musicals and plays, and her work, teaching, speaking, and performing has taken her around the world, from China to Australia to England, Finland, Hungary, India, and many other countries. And – Ann is also a certified TAGteach teacher!

In this episode, we’ll explore:

  • How clicker training reduced negativity and failure-avoidance thinking in Ann’s classes. (3:44)
  • Ann describes what the process of TAGteach would look like using the example of a pirouette. (10:00)
  • Why it’s important to be less wordy. (11:38)
  • Where does the clicker factor into the equation? (13:22)
  • How to use clicker training in a group class setting, and the benefits of peer tagging. (14:56)
  • Ann explains how this method can lead to more risk-taking and more creative artists (16:35)
  • A couple of keys to reducing frustration in the learning process. (19:33)
  • Ann shares more insights and specifics on how to use TAGteach in a group class setting. (22:55)
  • How do you connect smaller skill elements into a single fluid movement? (13:22)
  • How might this approach to learning help with unlearning bad habits? (30:59)
  • The “touch and go” concept, and how this can lead to more resilience and faster recovery from mistakes in performance. (35:15)
  • The biggest challenge Ann faced in trying to integrate this into her teaching. (38:59)
  • Did any students find this demeaning or resist the clicker training approach at all? (44:04)
  • How the TAGteach approach can lead to more creative behaviors, and creativity on the part of the learner, in lessons or in the classroom. (42:05)
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Noa:
My kids had wanted a dog for many years. And about six years ago, they finally wore us down and convinced us to get a puppy and neither my wife or I had any real dog or puppy training experience previously. So when it came time to train our puppy, we read some books, we watched a bunch of YouTube videos to try to figure out what we were doing. And one of the things we came across pretty early on was clicker training, which if I understand correctly is sort of a way of reinforcing desired behaviors and making it really clear and easy for the dog to understand when they’ve done something correctly that we want them to continue to do more of. I have to confess that we never really stuck with the actual clicker and the training, but the idea stuck in my head. And so I came across this hidden brain podcast episode a couple of years back on clicker training for humans, which at first I thought was kind of hilarious.

Noa:
But then as I listened to the episode and understood how it was being applied to surgical training and heard the rationale for this type of training, it all made pretty good sense to me. And it made me wonder if this was something worth exploring more broadly as a method for teaching motor skills and other domains like sports and music and so forth. So it’s been a couple years since we initially had this exchange of emails, but this idea of clicker training popped up onto my radar again, maybe a month or two ago. And so I wanted to get back in touch and ask you more about this kind of learning and also find out how you have incorporated this into your own teaching and how it might benefit other teachers and learners as well. So I wonder if maybe a good place to start might just be to ask you to share a little bit about yourself, like your background, what you do currently and how you first encountered or got involved in this particular method of learning and teaching.

Ann:
Well, my career, most of my career has been teaching at the university of Minnesota in a musical theater acting and dance program. And so I kind of encountered this, just sort of like was introduced to it by the same way you were by training my dogs. I had a puppy, a border terrier puppy, and I took him to a traditional class. And then within the first five minutes doing the traditional sort of punishment style training, he sat down and looked at me and wouldn’t move. And I thought, okay. And I picked him up and I left the class and I started to do my research and I figured they had to be better way. And so that took me to clicker training and I went to clicker expo, try to learn as much as I possibly could, brought it home, worked with him, and it was like night and day because the tag teaching or the clicker training, really, it becomes a game.

Ann:
You know, it’s kind of like a gamifying learning, right? Because the organism, the dog, the person, the exotic species are always trying to figure out what the answers are? Now with humans, we get to tell them what the answers are, which is fun. Right? So that’s kind of how I transferred as I was working with my dogs, and I started, I met up with, um, at the clicker expo with, uh, Theresa McKeon and Joan Orr who were the founders of tag teach international. And we started having these discussions because Theresa has been using this with her gymnasts and I thought, wow, okay, this is super cool. And I was watching the videos and seeing how the students are responding to the idea of working towards a very, very specific goal, that’s not broad, like it’s very, very specific in like toes pointed, shoulders to ears, and looking at those very specific instructions in terms of motor skills and being able to reinforce exactly the moment when that motor skill was successful, as opposed to one of the things we say with tag teaching is tag don’t nag.

Ann:
So, you know, so many times, you know, don’t do this, don’t do this. No, no, no, that’s not what I want, right? What do you want? The idea is what do you want and that the teacher has to really define what the yes is, and then to be able to mark that very moment of success. So we’re setting up these moments of success for the student. So I thought, oh, that’s pretty exciting. I’m gonna take this home, right? As a dance teacher, I thought there are opportunities for me to use this and see how it goes. Fortunately, I was tenured by that time and Theresa sent me a box of clickers and I thought, let’s go, just go for it. And I went into the classroom and I told the students, I said, hey, you’re my guinea pigs.

Ann:
Let’s do this. Just try this. I said I don’t know if this is going to work. I don’t, you know, I’ve never done this before. Let’s work together and let’s see what happens. And so that was kind of the beginning of it. So I started off sort of slowly and gradually. And as I started to work with my students more and more, and got a little bit better at creating the tag points and the whole, the whole genre of tag teach in the dance class, the things that I discovered were really super positive in you as a performance psychologist, I see how you were interested in this because what it did for the students was get them out of the negativity. It was getting them out of their heads in terms of every time they didn’t succeed. I mean, you know how that is, right?

Ann:
When the musicians, they don’t succeed and they dwell on the no, they dwell on what they didn’t do. Not on focusing on what they want to do, what the goal is. And so it took for most of these students, it took about two or three years to get them to a point where they could recognize and reassess a non-success as opposed to failure or thinking of it as failure, right, and then keep working towards the goal and also learning how to actually self approximate their goals, break down the behaviors into smaller and smaller pieces for themselves. I start doing, setting up those goals as tag points, but I call this, you know, just tag thinking is when a student can actually self approximate the progression towards their goals. I found that it took about three years to happen, but it was really cool. And what I found was just overall happier, more self-confident and more risky and creative artists, which for me was just really exciting.

Ann:
And to see them sort of just psychologically healthier because as you know, artists are pretty hard on themselves, right? And so for me, that was for me, that was a really important thing about how tag teach was successful for me as a teacher. I am now retired, but I’m very interested in now integrating the tag teach work that I did with my dance students and my acting students, we actually use for acting too, any movement skills, and, uh, we’re kind of, I’m working with different fields now and to trying to integrate this, and I’m seeing right now, the reason I want this to happen is the psychological reasons because it’s bringing, um, as you know, young people have many challenges these days. And I think getting them to think in this new, in this, it’s not new, but getting them to think this way habitually has really helped their wellness. So for me right now, I think that’s, that’s why I think this work is really important.

Noa:
Definitely want to explore the psychological aspect of things and how it changes the experience of learning, and it sounds even like the emotional experience of learning, but maybe a good place to start, and some of this might be a little bit scattered and disorganized because there’s going to be a bunch of random things that pop into my head at various points. But I wonder if maybe the first thing to do would just be to ask you whether in the context of music theater or acting like what’s an example of what this would look like, like what would teaching somebody in this way look like with a specific skill?

Ann:
Okay, so with a specific dance skill, for instance, to do a pirouette, right, turning right this, when we look at the behavior itself, there are actually about 21 component parts to doing a proper pirouette. And traditionally, the teacher would go, do this and demonstrate, and then no, no, don’t do it that way, do that. You know what I’m saying? And a lot of no, a lot of nagging, a lot of not succeeding as opposed to, okay, right now, we’re going to focus on getting the eyes around, spotting the eyes back around to the front, and maybe we’re going to just do those in quarter turns. We’re not going to try to go all the way around the first time we’re going to go a quarter and focus and focus and focus. And then we work on the eyes and when the eyes become known with body memory, right,

Ann:
the physical memory, then we go onto the next thing. Now we’re going to do the placement of the toe in relationship to the knee and we work on that and that becomes a tag point. Or, and then we work on the placement of exactly when the arms are going to come in, tag, tag, right? And so we break down the whole behavior, which is huge because it’s a lot of component parts, but make it very clear. It’s pretty analytical. You have to, as a teacher, be able to break the behavior down, but for the student is like, oh, I know what you want. I know exactly what you want. And that I think for so many of us or all of us as learners, we get so frustrated when our teachers go well, don’t do that. Yeah. It’s like, no, what do you want? That’s the question that keeps coming up.

Ann:
What do you want? And so if we can really specify what we do want, it becomes a lot easier for the learner to focus on that. Also with tag teach, I’m being very wordy right now, but what tag teach, what we do is we actually funnel down the ideas. We create instructions, so this is why we’re doing this. And then we narrow it down, and at the very bottom of this funnel, we create what we call the tag point. And the tag point must be five words or less. So we get rid of, we try to get rid of all the blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, okay, now go. We take the idea and then we narrow it down to the instructions. And then we narrow it down to the actual tag point. And that gives the student really specific focus.

Noa:
So initially you would explain to the student the skill that they’re trying to learn, but then eventually for them to focus on in the process of doing it, the tag, sorry, the phrase or the point, I forget the terminology, but the tag point would be five words, kind of like a, not a mantra per se, but just like a really honed in focus on what to keep in mind that won’t overwhelm them in the moment,

Ann:
Correct. Toe to knee. And I can explain up here, I can explain why we need to do that. Right? And then I can say the instructions are when you start the pirouette, take the toe to knee, the tag point is toe to knee. So like I said, it is kind of a mantra it’s it gives a very specific focus to the action.

Noa:
And how does that get used? Like where does the tag point come into play?

Ann:
So we use the clickers and exactly at the moment, just like a dolphin that’s jumping up high, right? And when they use the whistles, the whistle happens at the point at the apex of the jump. And the whistle is the bridge marker that tells the dolphin, now I can go back and I will be rewarded for that. What we’ve discovered, and this is the fun part about working with humans, and we’re doing a lot of studies on this too, I think cause I am not a scientist. I come from the arts, but, and so all my observations are obviously empirical, but it is crossing over to the science world now, and they are starting to a lot more studies on why this works in terms of, the neuroscientist is looking at why is this working? We know it works, and empirically as artists,

Ann:
We know it works. We’re just, now we’re trying to get a little bit more scientific about it, but we discovered very, very quickly with humans is they didn’t need the primary reinforcer. They didn’t need the primary reinforcer of food or in the case, children, we were giving them, you know, beads or something with every successful behavior. What we discovered though that with most humans being right, is enough, right? The yes is enough. That’s all we want is like, okay, without judgment. And that’s a huge part of it. When you get the yes, with the clicker, it’s like, okay, good. Again, I want to do it again. It’s not, oh, that was so good and we don’t have to sugar coat it or, you know, do all that other emotional stuff when we’re trying to please our teacher or that kind of stuff. It’s just very narrowed down to the information,

Ann:
and as learners, we like just saying information. So that’s a really positive. So, basically what I would do is I would start working on a tag point demonstrate on…because it’s really hard to do with it. You can’t do it in a group of 20 students, right? But I can demonstrate it on one student. And we do, what’s called peer tagging where they will go off pair up and they will tag each other and then reverse. Amazingly enough, they know which one’s theirs. Even if you’ve got all these clickers going on in the same room, just like the dogs, you can do this, we do this at clicker expo. We take a bunch of dogs, your dog knows which ones belongs to him. That’s pretty wild. And the nice thing about doing those well is by watching each other, they learn to teach because their eyes, the perception of what is happening gets sharper.

Ann:
And by reversing that they really learned to teach, that’s one benefit. The second benefit is by tagging each other for success, they get very invested in each other’s success, which I have found has been, you know, probably as you know, in the dance world, it’s very competitive. It’s a very, you know, this side looks and comparing me to everybody else and right? And it’s always been like that. So to kind of get them out of that head space and get them into the place where they’re there to help each other creates a different energy in classroom. So for me as a teaching at the university for about 40 years, and so it just made going to work that much more fun because the students were happier. You know, it was just really wonderful. And some goes back and forth between the people and my dogs is all the same.

Ann:
You know, it makes me when I pick up a clicker, my dogs are like, yeah, let’s go. Right. They know the clicker is their chance to make choices, to be creative, actually be creative, which is super cool because they’re trying to figure out what you want with the dogs. We call it the shaping where we’ll bring a novel stimulus into the room and just see what they do. A dog that’s been trained to shape, we’ll look at that thing and then try to start trying things out right, until you click it. Oh, okay, that’s cool. See If I can make them do that again, right? For people, I think it opens up creativity because they’re much more willing to take the risks.

Noa:
Can you say more about that in terms of what that would look like? I mean, the example makes me understand that in the context of dog training, yeah, they’re just trying to do things, hoping that one of those is the desired behavior, but yeah, like you mentioned earlier more risk-taking artists, can you paint a picture of that?

Ann:
It happens because the fear of not doing it perfect goes away because they’re not going to get reprimanded by the teacher. And you know, as well as I do that, some of the most beautiful things come up as mistakes. There are mistakes and we’re like, yes, hold on to that. Right. It’s not what we, I mean, beyond what the teacher would have come up with, right. And that the student in that zone, in that place where they feel free to not be perfect, they often come up with amazing, amazing things. And so creating that place in their head, I think is just really great place to be, not constantly fearing that they’re not going to be perfect. It’s a way of thinking. It’s not, you know, it takes practice just like anything.

Noa:
So maybe what I should ask first is if you could say a little more about how this changes the students’ emotional experience of learning, you kind of started alluding to how, you know, there isn’t as much of this sort of negative judgment involved in teaching and, you know, words have been stripped away and there’s not as much explanation. There’s also not as much criticism, it sounds like. Um, and that was one of the things that kind of stuck out to me most listening to that episode where the physician was talking about how his students weren’t as afraid of getting yelled at and being negatively judged by their instructors. And I wonder if you could kind of explain how that comes to be.

Ann:
You know how sometimes when you make progress when you were a child and your teacher was looking over you and just waiting for you to make a mistake, or you, you were proceeding, my teacher’s watching me waiting for me to make a mistake and that’s constantly going on in your head, right? And that makes you make a mistake. It’s that same thing, like Dr. Levy says, you know, we’re working on eggplants and pineapples and watermelons. We’re not, and that’s where we start, right, until we can build those skills. So yeah, the fear of, if the teacher breaks the behavior down in small enough increments so that the student can be successful. And then, and then you don’t say, oh, you really messed that up. You don’t say that. You just say, okay, let’s change the criteria. Your new tag point is, and as a teacher, you back off the criteria and student doesn’t even need to know that you’re backing off the criteria. They’re just, it’s a new criteria. So it’s not a judgment to say, oh, you didn’t do that very well. So I have to make it easier.

Noa:
Oh, right. So meaning if a skill was, was too complex, it hadn’t been broken down into small enough increments.

Ann:
And then you take a responsibility as a teacher to say, okay, how can I break that down into smaller pieces so that students can be successful without, so without passing judgment on the student, or you weren’t able to do that, I need to make it easier for you. You don’t say stuff like that. Right. You just say, okay, let’s change the tag point and you have to analyze it and break it down and create a new tag point that you believe that that student can be successful at. And then repeat that a few times. And then if they’re successful, then you just move it up. Step it up a little more. Yeah.

Noa:
This might be me being too curious about the details of this, but how many, I don’t even want to use the word failures, but like how many, like misses or incorrect repetitions does one get before the tag point changes?

Ann:
Yeah, there’s not a perfect number. You want to make sure that your student doesn’t get frustrated. Right? So if you create a tag point and they do it and they don’t get tagged and they don’t get tagged and they don’t get tagged like eight times, that’s not good. They’re going to shut down just like your dog. Is she a dog walk away? They’re frustrated. Right? Because they don’t know what you, it’s just, you think about your dog. You’re not giving them a tag, the click. They don’t know what you want. They’re trying to figure out what do I need to do to get the click and get the food? And they’ll just walk away. They don’t want to play the game anymore. So it’s the same thing where people, you know, we have to listen to them. We have to watch them. We have to listen to their eyes sometimes and take those physical cues.

Ann:
Cause some students are persistent and they’re driven by that. And some are not, like we say in the dog training business, train the dog in front of you, you know, train the organism in front of you. And then as much as we can listen with our eyes and our hearts, you know, everything, we can be better teachers, but again, it’s that process of breaking things down does take some time to, um, one of the things I was talking about with Theresa is that, um, for me, as a theater person, as a dance person and as a music person, I’m a tap dancer. So I that’s my musical instrument. We improvise, we try to build our skills so that we can go into a situation and roll with the punches and to create something, right. That’s part of our training. We try improvisation is part of our training. And I think by thinking of our teaching as improvisation, it’s like, oh, okay, I can take these skills, I’m going to play in the moment. I’m going to listen to my learner and make choices that hopefully serve my learner. Not, I’m going in with this lesson plan and this is what we’re going to do. Because that often does it many, many times it does not work, right, the fixed, this is my lesson plan. You know that.

Noa:
Speaking of improvisation, I’m curious how you use the word self approximate goals earlier, which I’m also curious about as a concept, I’m wondering like how close does the learner’s behavior have to be to what’s optimal or ideal? Does that change? I mean, do the standards change as the skill becomes better learned or if the needs to be more precise change or I’m wondering if that evloves.

Ann:
From class to class, that evolves. But for instance, this is an example. So I would have a class where I had a certain set of movements that it was in chat class and the students in the class were at different learning levels. I mean, some learn slower and really had to repeat, repeat, and someone would get it right away. And so I would say is, okay, this is what we’re going to do. We’re going to move across the floor and we’re going to do X. You choose, here are four different criteria that you can use to do this exercise, ABCD, four different levels of complexity. And I would say, you know, and each one is as good as the other. I’m not going to judge you on what you choose, choose what feels good to you. And then when you feel like you’ve got that, when you can move on to the next one, but you get to choose that.

Ann:
And what I would often discover is choice while we’re learning too, that choice is really important for the learner. And so by feeling, oh, I’m not going to be judged if I do it the easiest way, it’s like, okay, I’m going to say, I’m going to start with this and then they’re rewarded by their success. And they were willing to move by the time they move, I give them those four options. I move them across the floor. They all go across, they all go across, they all go across, they all go across. By four times, they’re all doing the same skill. They just all got there differently. Some of them started with ABCD. Some of them started with D and just got more refined. Some of them started with A, A went to B, went to C, backed up to B, backed up to C, oh back to B, oh back to C, okay, now I can do D, and they were able to choose those choices and set themselves up for success.

Ann:
So that’s kind of the idea of self approximating. And then once this kind of got the hang of that of me giving them four options, then sometimes they could actually do it themselves. Do a piroutte. But this time I’m just going to hit my perfect spot. This time I’m really going to think about zipping up my center, this time I’m going to really think about embracing the beach ball, whatever, you know, but that they could really focus on one thing at a time and they would go across the floor and I would say, okay, what was your tag point? Each of you choose your own tag point for this time across the floor. And they would know what they need to work on. And they would just pick that. And then they just tell me what it was. So that’s kind of the self approximating thing.

Noa:
So does that relate to being better at teaching oneself essentially during practice?

Ann:
It should. Yeah, it does. It does because they, when they’re get to go in the studio, work themselves, they go, oh, okay. I can break this down, but they learn that they can approximate for themselves. So when they’re working out at the classroom, they learned to do that as it just a skill to do naturally, which is great.

Noa:
I’m curious about how it comes together, right? Because I think you mentioned with pirouette there’s 21 potential tag points and there might even be more. Those are the only ones I’ve been able to break down. LIke, is there a particular process? And it sounds like it’s very organic and depends on the student and how they learn and where they’re at with things. But I’m curious about the process of these individual components of skills, then turning into a seamless whole, right, and how it gets inserted into the story.

Ann:
Basically, you build on them. It’s like back chaining of behavior for your dogs. You start you back chain and you build a new build, a new build. So the additive process. So once it’s the body knowledge is there, then you add on the next thing, then you add on the next thing so that they, they own this before they do this. And then they right, oh, that’s not working. Let’s, let’s go back to this, focusing on this. So you can, you can keep doing this or you can go back up, you know, get to those key component parts and make sure that those are really owned before you expect before you expect the other stuff, as opposed to saying, okay, do this. Okay. Oh, that wasn’t very good. Do it like me, or do it like Susie, or do like Fred, right?

Noa:
Does students seem to need a rationale for this type of teaching or do they just dive right in? Or like, how does it work with introducing them?

Ann:
Well, most of my students, once we done it, they’re like, can we, can we, can we tag teach this thing that we’ve been working on? They’ll ask me and I’ll say, sure. And I’ll bring him in the clickers and we’ll do a session. You know, I don’t do it for the whole class, but, um, we’ll do it for a specific thing that they’re all working. We really need to work on this. And they’ll say, really, I needed to work on this, bringing in the clickers and we’ll just focus like 15, 20 minutes on that particular skill or getting this particular part of this particular skill. And they also get really good at watching each other and analyzing, oh, so-and-so and they’ll like help each other out because to see what the component part is that isn’t fitting together. So it just kind of helps train the team, you know, the students to be teachers, which is a real plus I think.

Noa:
Am I understanding that this is a sort of thing that wouldn’t necessarily be used all the time, but maybe for a particularly challenging skills?

Ann:
Yeah, yeah, no, it would be, it would be pretty tedious, I think, to use it all the time in a dance class. And you know, when you’ve got a class of fully functioning, passionate adults that are trying to dance, it would be too tedious because you know, it really breaks things down. So for me, it wasn’t, I would never do a whole class with it, but just particular skills that we would work on just for that day.

Noa:
Is that one of the challenges for the, for the teacher trying to break skills down? I mean, was it an adjustment for you or did you already kind of think in those terms or,

Ann:
Well, I kind of thought in those terms because of the dog training, so it all crosses, it’s all the same, right. In terms of now, how am I going to get this behavior from my dog? Am I going to back chain it I’m going to start from the end or how am I, you know, what’s the best way do I get him? Like, do I get him to just acknowledge the thing or to, to look at me, you know, just small, small little behaviors when you’re starting with your dogs. I mean, you’re, you’re clicking them for just flicking their eyes and looking at you, you really capturing the very smallest moments. And so, yeah, so it’s basically, you know, by doing the dog training, you do start learning, oh, how do I make this successful? How do I communicate that this is what I want?

Ann:
It’s a little different because we don’t have language of animals until those words become cues. With humans, we can generally, you know, bypass some of that just because we do have words to work with. And with someone humans, we don’t have words to work with. And that’s why it works with them because the, the words we’re working with, the autistic children, sometimes the words are just too much. Right? But we can keep it really, really simple. And this creates this, this creates the success. Yeah. So that’s that those applications are just, you know, we’re discovering more and more. It’s so new still, but I’m finding more ways and more ways to apply it. Um, Theresa does all sorts of amazing work, uh, with working with fishermen on the boats, up in Alaska to try to get them to do their procedures, to really lock them down for safety. Their injuries have just plummeted. It’s been great for them and they’re proud, you know, they’re proud when they’re good and that’s cool. Get these guys to be, yeah, okay, cool. I was, I did this, you know, and I was successful and I get old pin on my hat. So there’s all sorts of amazing applications.

Noa:
This is making me think also of habit correction. One of the questions I often get from both teachers and learners is, you know, I’ve been doing things this way for a long time without realizing it. And now it’s really hard to change and, and I can change it when I’m thinking about it. But then when I’m not thinking about it, it goes back to the old habits. How does this relate maybe to, to changing habits?

Ann:
Substitution. So if we keep thinking, I shouldn’t do that, shouldn’t I shouldn’t do that. It’s like, and this is just a self thing, but you know, when you tell a teenager not to do something, what are they going to do? When you tell them not to do something, what you’ve done is you’ve created the focus for that, that thing not to do. Right? And so that even though they’re like, oh, that’s where their focus becomes. And so if with habits, when we think don’t do that, don’t do that. Don’t do that thing. Don’t do that thing, where we’re still thinking about that thing. So it’s like, it’s like when we train our animals, right. Instead of yelling at them and for barking, we teach them on cue how to be quiet. Now you get to bark. Now you get to be quiet. Now you get to bark, now you get to be quiet. Right. So, so set idea of how you, how do you figure out ways to reward a substituted behavior for the old behavior and make that, oh, that’s a point of success. Not that I failed when I did this other thing, but I succeeded when I did the substitute behavior.

Noa:
Is that kind of what it would look like? I mean, cause what you described now with the dog is getting them to do the undesired behavior on cue as well as the desired behavior on cue. I mean, is that what it would look like with the tag teaching also? Cause, cause it reminds me a little bit of, there’s a little bit of research on these different types of habit extinction protocols, where one of them involves exaggerating the error and the old way. And the other protocol involves kind of like alternating and contrasting the desired behavior and the undesired behavior so they’re a little bit more consciously accessible. Um, is that related in some way to help us?

Ann:
Yeah, it could be. Yeah. That it’s clear that this is this and this is this. And then once you start making this choice and that becomes habit then becomes new habit and that’s what we want. Right. To become new habit.

Noa:
You mentioned that it took a while for your students to get to a certain point of familiarity or comfort with this way of learning. I’m curious what some of the challenges might have been or, or what, what are some of the things that, that take time to, to develop or get better at?

Ann:
The thing that takes the most time for them to do is to, I call it, it’s kind of a Zen thing, but it’s just touch and go that you acknowledge that you didn’t succeed in your whatever and you move on as opposed to I didn’t succeed, I’m awful. I’ll never get that, you know, and just dwelling in that place. I’ve found, you know, in the, certainly in the last 15 years or so, they dwell on that because they’re told when they’re children that they need to be perfect. So which has been very, very difficult to untie those knots. This really helps to really, to try to untie those knots that are like, I have to be perfect. That stress, that anxiety that they bring in with them is pretty phenomenal right now. You’ve probably seen that with some of your students. And so if we can get them to that point where they acknowledge it, but that it does, it’s not a personal judgment on them and they get real and so fun because I can see it in their eyes, I’ll say yes.

Ann:
And I’ll point to them. I said, that was awesome what you just did. And it was nothing that they did. It was just that they failed and then they just let it go. I can see, I can see them sort of just that moment of letting go. You can, you can see it in the body and then moving on. And I would, I would always tag actually vocally tagged that. Yes. You just let it go. Good for you. So I would try to tag that, that moment of letting go, because I thought that was really important. But again, that takes like anything the letting go takes practice too. And so I would, I would say for most of them who got really good at it, it would take a couple of years in making it habit. Like you said, making it, so the habit, the old habit was I’m going to get down on myself.

Ann:
You know, if I get down on myself, then I don’t know that people will know that I know that I’m bad. You know what I’m saying? That whole, those stories that, that artist have in their heads. And so getting out of that habit and celebrating their successes, and then often I would do something called spontaneous combustion where if a student achieved something that they’d been working on or working on and working on, I would say, please just jump up and down and scream and say yes, yes me, you know, just go for it. And then we will, we will join you in that celebration. So those are fun moments too.

Noa:
Did you find the letting go becoming easier. I mean, it’s sort of rhetorical question. I’m assuming I know what the answer is, but did you find that really transferring to performance too? Because one of the things that I think is, is challenging on stage is we get so accustomed to this habit of analyzing, critiquing, judging, dwelling, that it’s difficult to not do that on stage too, especially when the stakes are higher at that point. Absolutely. And if this becomes a habit that takes some time in the practice room, I’m assuming that that transfers to the stage as well. I mean, was there some observations of that?

Ann:
Absolutely. Um, I would say a lot of the performers felt like, you know, once, because they weren’t so afraid of failing, it got rid of a lot of that anxiety. What happens, what happens if I make a mistake I’m going to be okay. I mean, I know in the music world it’s so, you know, it’s, but you know, they’re going to be okay. Right. And I know it’s hard, you know, getting to their classes and making the cut and all that kind of good stuff that happens, but it does, it gives them a, uh, I would say in some interviews that I had from students, it gives them a freedom a little bit to get out of that idea that they must be perfect all the time.

Noa:
Well in theory, it seems like it would naturally cultivate this habit of, of aiming for excellence as opposed to trying to avoid screwing up, which I imagine that’s something that’s reinforced and practiced daily even mentally naturally translate a little bit. Um, you had mentioned tagging something verbally and I mean, is there a meaningful difference between tagging verbally versus with the clicker or like, is it important that one do it in a certain way if it’s verbal or,

Ann:
It depends on kind of what it is. Um, if it’s a very specific physical action, we find that that actual clicker is better. Right. Because it’s, non-judgemental because it doesn’t have the emotional baggage that goes with it. Yes. Does have some emotional baggage, but if you don’t have a clicker in your hand and you see something that was awesome, right. You just, it still works. And sometimes you do use words. It’s not as for the app working with humans, it’s a little bit more flexible because as humans, we know the click means yes, yes means yes. So that means, yes, whatever we create, whatever our bridge marker is, we can, we can say, okay, yeah, all of those things mean, yes, so that’s great. Consistency with the animals, this is a little bit more important because it’s always the same. Even when we say yes to our dogs, it’s different, we’re bringing emotional value. Yes, yes. That’s judgment, right? Yes. All those are three different judgements and the dog might not recognize. And the human, you see that, how the human response to that, those three different options? The click becomes information. And that’s why it’s a little bit pure

Noa:
Having done this for a long time. Now, maybe you’ve forgotten some of these things, but were there any particular frustrations or challenges that you experienced when you were new to this and just learning it?

Ann:
Um, just learning to break stuff down. Sometimes we get frustrated. Cause I think in my mind, this is how it worked. Right. And then I would put it on the bodies and it’s like, oh, there’s more steps. I need to get a better, I need to be able to break it down into smaller parts. And that just becomes practice. It’s it’s hard at first because we’re so used to seeing the big picture and that’s not the way I was taught. You know, I was taught, was do what I do kind of thing. And not being able to break it down more systematically. There was none of that, you know, analysis that I can think of, except for, you know, when we labanotation and we had to break the behavior down and your very, being able to diagram everything we did for dance, but that wasn’t carried over into the classroom.

Ann:
That was probably the, the hardest part is to getting to the point where I could be more successful with that. In terms of the students, rarely, maybe a couple of students, just, I think just, they just didn’t want to be treated like dogs, but that’s okay. You know, you don’t have to use it. We don’t have to do this. Okay. It’s cool. But for some of them they’re there, most of them was just like, well, and I would also say to them, you know, when I first came in and say, okay, first of all, you have to understand that my dogs are the center of my universe. And I love them so much. And I working with my dogs and seeing how much happier they are and how they love to learn and how well, of course they were already smart. We just had to communicate.

Ann:
I just had to find the way to communicate with them positively so that they wanted to work with me. I said, so that’s the foundation role is the fact that I really love my dogs. And I really love you guys too. So I want you to be happy too. So that’s why I’m doing this, you know? And I think, I think by telling them that my training you like dogs, I’m not degrading you by any means, I’m elevating you. Right. I don’t know if you knew about, did you hear about that show that was in the UK? A lot of controversy about it. Train your baby like a dog. Oh yeah. They titled the show, train your baby like a dog, because they were using tag teacher positive reinforcement with babies, which was very, very successful. But the company decided they were going to call the show, train your baby like a dog. So that met up with a lot of controversy, shall we say?

Noa:
Yeah, cause I imagine unless someone understands the rationale and what the benefits of these are, it does come across, I think naturally is being a little bit demeaning.

Ann:
It’s operant conditioning. Right. Crosses species. It’s not, it’s not species specific.

Noa:
Are there things that I should have asked about that I forgot to, or that I didn’t know to ask?

Ann:
Oh, okay. So I’m going to cross this over into, I talked to you about chattcon.com. So it’s the convergence of human and animal training and technology. So we’ve got behavior analysis, animal trainers, and high-tech people coming together to brainstorm and finding out how we can contribute to each other’s work. And it’s been really fantastic, right? Because we’re learning so much about training humans by training animals and about training animals by what we’re doing with humans and how we’re using the technology, integrating technology into this learning process. That was pretty exciting. It was pretty fascinating, but I spoke at it a couple of years ago. And one of the wonderful things I got to do was just do connections who are foremost, former tap dance students who became a dolphin trainer. I was able to go down to Sea World San Antonio and I got to spend two days there with the trainers watching, just, just observing.

Ann:
I wanted to see what the crossovers were in terms of training, where these amazing species and how it was like working with my dancers. And so I got to observe it was amazing. I think I got to watch every, every species that they had just about being trained. And the coolest thing was when I went to the orca training session, because this is what I was really curious about. Does this training because of the nature of it allow for creativity. And one of the first sessions I went to was their creativity session. They actually have a signal means showing me, show me something new. And they did and it was amazing. And if it was something cool, they would capture it as a behavior. So for me to say, this is so cool. If we can train a killer whale to think on its own and they come up with something new, it means we’re not beating them with a stick to get to do these things, right. Obviously that’s not the way these orcas were trained. They had creativity, they were showing joy. They were having fun, trying to come up with new stuff. I thought that was pretty cool. And so when I came back, I had that signal. I use the same signal with my dancers in the middle of class. I would give them that signal and they just have to show me something. So that idea that this freedom from perfection opens them up to creativity. I think that’s a big piece of the picture.

Noa:
I can see how this would seem to fit really nicely around training or problem solving technical issues. But I’m sure there are some people who might hear about this and be like, okay, I could see how this would be useful for technical issues. How does this relate to cultivating more artistry or more creative behaviors?

Ann:
And I think those are the two sides of the coin. It really does help with the specific technical stuff. And then once you own that technical staff, right, it’s the improvisation thing. You have to be a master at the technical stuff before then you can take like, take that and then improvise on it. This is the way it is. So it’s just that side to the coin. And I think pretty beautifully, it does help both things, the technical side and the creative side,

Noa:
If someone were interested in getting more involved in this. And I don’t even mean in terms of getting involved in the organization or taking any training, but it was something they wanted to just out of curiosity, maybe explore or experiment with on their own, is there a low investment way of doing that? Just to kind of itch their curiosity?

Ann:
Yeah. They’d go to the TAGteach international website and there is actually a sort of a primary course there that, that they can do for free to really introduce them to the concepts. And then, then if they want to dig deeper, they can dig deeper, but they can start off with a simple concepts and just try it on for size, you know, and see how it works. And once they start getting, and there’s some great videos out there too, of people working with children to swim or teach, uh, there’s a really great one that Joan put about teaching her neighborhood kids, how to jump over a high bar. And you know, this is, there’s a lot of great videos out there in terms of seeing tag teach in action with the gymnasts, uh, with golfers, with tennis players. Um, so they can again go to tag teach international, and there’s a lot of, uh, resource material there that kind of, kind of introduced them to the concepts, see some of it in action, and then they can take it further from there in terms of learning more and getting certified, that kind of thing.

 

Notes

  • Here’s a link to the Hidden Brain podcast episode where I first heard about using clicker training for humans: When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning
  • Ann references TAGteach founders Theresa McKeon & Joan Orr. You can learn more about them and their background here.  And here’s a more in-depth video with Theresa, where she gets into many of the interesting how-to aspects of TAGteach – The art of delivering instructions – TAGteach tools for teaching the human!
  • Ann references Dr. Levy – as in, Martin Levy, an orthopedic surgeon who directs the orthopedic surgery residency program at Montefiore Hospital in NYC. Here’s a 42-min talk where Dr. Levy talks about his own journey with TAGteach and how this fits into skill development in his world: TAGteach and the Training of a Surgeon
  • Ann mentions CHATTCON – The Convergence of Human & Animal Training and Technology

More about TAGteach

Example videos

Here are a bunch of short videos demonstrating TAGteach with different movement skills:

  • Learning How to High Jump With TAGteach
  • Coaching Parkour: Lazy Vault (coaching past fear)
  • TAGteach Golf Lesson
  • Learn to Tie Shoes With TAGteach
  • Gymnastics (peer tagging)
  • Tennis coach on perceived benefits of TAGteach

Article

Here’s an article Ann wrote, where she describes more of her experience with TAGteach in the dance studio, and her students share some of their experience as well:

Free course

TAGteach offers a path to certification as well as an on-demand home-study course, but they also offer a free fundamentals course, that would probably be a good place to start:

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice,
Why Are Performances Still so Hit or Miss?

It’s not a talent issue. And that rush of adrenaline and emotional roller coaster you experience before performances is totally normal too.

Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing – a home-study course where you’ll explore the 6 skills that are characteristic of top performers. And learn how you can develop these into strengths of your own. And begin to see tangible improvements in your playing that transfer to the stage.

Comments

6 Responses

  1. This is super-interesting. I wonder how much of it is due to the fact that the click isn’t linguistic. I think sometimes once words are involved, it takes too much processing away from the task and the processing takes place too “high up” in the brain. The click is fast and simple, and happens lower down in the mind. It’s processed below the self-monitor and hence more freeing.

    I tend not to like the “left/right brain” stuff, but it’s be interesting to put someone in an fMRI and seeing what lights up when someone is instructed verbally — even praised — versus with a clicker.

  2. TAGteaching is awesome! I’ve been doing it for several years. I had those who were teaching for me at an academy of performing arts have a training session on it. The main focus must be only one item to correct at the time and the TAG will cure most problems in that way. It is amazing and the students love it because it works. They at first thought, “Oh, we’re being tagged like a pet to train.” But, they quickly learned that it was an awesome way to learn and what had been termed “Teaching with Acoustical Guidance” quickly changed in our vernacular to “Totally, Awesome, Great!” for the teaching out come. I highly recommend this method of correcting “problems,” from wrong notes to fingering or counting for music students.

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