Sunday, March 27, 2011

Learning from K-9 Friends

Recently during our recent unit of study on community helpers, we were visited by the K-9 unit of the local correctional institution.  Officer Mike Stallings happens to be the husband of Mrs. Stallings, one of my KG colleagues.  He and two other officers were kind enough to share their expertise in this field. 

They brought along two bloodhounds and a beagle named PeeWee.  They told us all about these talented animals and the important job they do.  During the presentation I kept thinking of parallels to how our Kinders best learn.  It was fascinating, and I thought I would share a few comparisons with you.
  • K-9 dogs are trained to use multiple senses to do their work.  At times their sense of sight and hearing will be overrun by their sense of smell.  Young children experience learning through all of their senses, too. At times a learning activity will require the use of one sense more than another.  It's important that as teachers we remember to incorporate a variety of activities when exploring a new concept that utilize not just the senses of sight or hearing, but that of touch, taste and smell as well.
  • Teaching K-9 dogs to track is very specific and intentional.  The officers who train them have set goals in mind and the strategies they use target those goals.  We need to remember that our classroom instruction needs to also be very intentional.  We always need to keep the essential learning question in mind as we design lessons, activities, deliver instruction, and assess progress.
  • The officers practice the basic routines of tracking with their dogs everyday.  We know that repetition is the key to mastering concepts with young children. We also know that they learn best with rich, engaging learning routines in place.  They have a sense of success when these routines are accomplished and then reaccomplished again and again. 
  • When PeeWee the beagle successfully picks up a scent when tracking, he lets his officer know by barking and yelping. The officer, in turn, knows that they are headed in the right direction. This reminded me that successful learning is not intended to be always be quiet.  Sometimes we view chatting and talking out during instruction as disrespectful and off-task behaviors. We need to be intentional to listen specifically to what our students are saying and provide appropriate feedback. Often they are showing that they are totally engaged in our instruction and want to relate new knowledge to prior concepts.  It's those linkages that are so powerful in learning.
  • When the target is reached, the K9 dogs are rewarded with both intrinsic praise (verbal praise, pats and petting) and extrinsic rewards (bones for chewing).  The officers offer the extrinsic rewards only occasionally, so that the dogs don't expect them, and they never lose the sense of excitement and surprise when they receive them.   As teachers we need to remember that stickers, skittles and trips to the treasure box are effective and exciting for our students.  But it is the feeling inside of pleasure for a job well done that is the ultimate reward as learners and builds self esteem.  We never need to underestimate the power of focused praise, a pat on the back....and great big hugs.
Living with animals can be a wonderful experience,
especially if we choose to learn the valuable lessons
animals teach through their natural enthusiasm,
grace, resourcefulness, affection and forgiveness.

                                                                                                   — Richard H. Pitcairn

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