My wife and I have been spending most of the year housebreaking a puppy. It’s hard to picture a purer exercise in teaching and learning, simply getting a young animal to understand the difference between relieving herself outside and in. I’ll admit that as an education worker I brought to the task some hubris.
But progress with young Chloe has been slow, challenging my faith in the Growth Mindset. We signed up for classes. We used a clicker. We tried to attract, sustain, and then direct her attention. When we saw how poorly she was catching on, we paid for the optional after-school tutoring.
Her performance in one class was so bad they refunded our money. She never did graduate, one more attrition statistic. Yet she exhibits few risk factors: she engaged in no off-campus employment, and does not experience food insecurity. Both her parents attended college. She just won’t learn.
Chloe has led me to this apostasy in part because of her powerful intrinsic motivation. She would like to make us happy. She might even want to keep the floors and carpet in good condition, but to her an important part of that is making them smell like dog pee.
Confounding our exasperation: learning for dogs, as for people, is seldom one-and-done. She has indeed pushed herself through a doggy door to go outside where she’s supposed to. In eight months she’s done this exactly twice, to ecstatic praise from my wife and me. The neighbors thought we were watching a ballgame. But in between these rare triumphs have been very long bouts of pure canine incomprehension.
I know how she feels, having grasped and then lost differential calculus more than once.
In fact, this training debacle has persuaded me that across the species barrier learning is pretty much the same. Maybe what’s equally troubling for me is that, even though Chloe is a vivid reminder that learning is “liminal,” something that has to ebb and flow like a tide before it can really soak in, our colleges and universities pretend otherwise.
So we have curriculum maps that suggest you need to learn English composition only once, in the fall semester of your freshman year. Our transcripts convey a comforting yes/no feature of coursework, as if your passing intermediate German as a sophomore means you’re still fluent when you apply for a job years later.
In other words, Chloe’s learning, like mine, looks hardly at all like higher ed record keeping. She and I may figure out something that’s hard for us, but then we forget it, or fail to apply it in a new but appropriate context. Mastery takes slow, ambiguous, and maddening iteration. One day Chloe can hold eye contact on the cue “watch me,” and the next it’s as if I asked her to derive the tangent of a function.
Our student information systems, silicon based, seek the binary. Meanwhile we learners, the stuff of carbon, resist it. I’m not sure how to make an honest institutional record out of something so nebulous.
Come over sometime and we can talk about it.
But watch your step.
Calculus formulas: GlobalSpec.com