Monday, April 25, 2011

Turning Burnout into Engagement

n article on education in a recent Science Daily  really set my mind a-flurry.  The author of the study report, which was borrowed from the Academy of Finland, analyzed secondary school students for their level of burnout versus their level of engagement with very interesting results.  What was interesting to me was how easily the results could be applied to training animals as well as humans.
Zip, totally Cliff

According to the Academy, vocational students (Yay for Shop Class!) experience roughly 13% more engagement than do academic students.  The average upper secondary academic student in the study was engaged 20% of the time, while the average vocational student was engaged roughly 33% of the time.  How exciting!  Given my own secondary educational experience (as a student, that is…we all know I was 100% engaging as a teacher), I’m guessing both numbers are higher in Finland than in the US for reasons having to do with endless winters and a shortage of iPhones, but that’s neither here nor there.

What is engagement?  Well, it’s not about hindquarters and frames.  It’s a psychological construct which, for our purposes, is the opposite of burnout, for one thing.  Burnout happens when the student [enter Fuzzbutt, stage left, trotting] isn’t feeling the love in either direction.  He’s not liking the subject matter at hand or the presentation, and he’s feeling unloved and under-appreciated himself.  The engaged student is one who is happy, fully involved in the learning process, and feeling as if the teacher actually sees and hears him and wants him to succeed.

[Fuzzbutt frisks the closest human for cookies.  Cookies = love.]

The Finnish researchers concluded that burnout can be turned into engagement by applying this set of parameters:
  • Study guidance should be provided on all educational levels.
  • Resources and strengths should be emphasized.
  • Study skills should be taught on all educational levels.
  • The competence, coping facilities and motivation of the youth, parents and teachers should be nurtured.
  • The sense of community should be cultivated.
Starting at the top, how can we guide the study of our students?  Well, first we have to stop bullying them and get a grip on “guidance”.  This means demonstrating the lesson to be learned in a way that the student understands and correcting, not punishing, errors along the way.  Fuzzbutt understands that if he stands quietly without chewing my sleeve, he will earn praise and maybe a cookie, depending on the difficulty level of the achievement.  Maybe he’s not nearly so clear on the under-saddle part, but that will come with time and patience.  If he’s worried about incurring my wrath for screwing up, he’s not feeling “guided” so much as “intimidated”.  

The second rule suggests that we offer positive reinforcement for even the smallest success and try to ignore some of the less attractive behaviors that accompany said achievement.  Fuzzbutt gets props for not chewing on me, and I’ll overlook his ears-laid-back glare at the cat making a bed on his hindquarters.  We want him to feel good about himself and his abilities.  If the errant behavior isn’t interfering with the learning process, then it doesn’t count.

Third…clicker training!  Yes, I can work that in almost anywhere.  It actually applies here, though.  The best attribute of the clicker-training process is that it teaches the animal how to learn.  With human students we can tell them about making note cards and using post-its and turning off the iPod while they write.  It’s less clear-cut with equines.  But once the horse has been introduced to the clicker (or any other stimulus-response) routine, he has the concept needed to move forward with his studies.  He can go from touching the cone to macramé with baler twine in a few short sessions.

Everybody wants to be nurtured, and the trainer needs that as much as the trainee, hence the fourth suggestion.  The trainer needs to feel good about the process.  Feeling good is very motivating.  It makes the trainer feel all tingly and want to come back to train another day.  S/he doesn’t want to feel as if there’s abuse involved or frustration or anger, just lots of good vibing.  Fuzzbutt also needs motivation in the form of feeling as if his competence, sketchy though it might be in the larger framework of the experience, is appreciated and approved of.  This is where the “end on a good note” meme originated.  Even if it means setting up the situation so that success is guaranteed.  Fuzzbutt is excellent at lowering his head to sniff the cat’s butt.  He does it with 100% accuracy.  Knowing this, I can make sure the last thing that happens before I turn him out and grab the cocktail shaker is that the cat finds its way into the barn, or that I train Fuzzbutt to lower his head in response to some actual non-cat-related cue and praise the heck out of him for it.  It’s his best thing; who am I to tell him it’s not prize-worthy?

Finally, there’s the “sense of community” in need of cultivation.  You’re thinking, “He’s got community.  He’s out with his buds 10 hours a day.”  Right.  But he also needs to see the learning process as part of the community activity.  You are community.  His horse and human friends who are “not-you” are community.  Every living thing and every activity attached to his daily life is part of his community.  The Thinking Horseman can clearly see that when training becomes a community event, something everyone takes part in and which happens on a regular basis without onus and with lots of pleasant fanfare, then learning goes from project to process and burnout is averted.  It’s the difference between a hostile work environment with a boss and coworkers that don’t share anything but animosity and one where coworkers and admin are all moving as one toward a common goal with lots of coffee and donuts and funny e-cards to keep thing copasetic.

So it happens that the ongoing plan to work with my personal burnout case finds support once again in the literature.  A few weeks ago I took “No” and “Stop that!” and “You son of a bitch!”  out of my training lexicon when working with Zip.  Risking muddying the waters with an additional variable, I also began using PAX horse to give Zip that warm-fuzzy that he seemed to be lacking and get him focused on me as Community Member instead of me as Harbinger of Doom.  I won’t jump the gun (as I am wont to do) and say outright that success is ours, but I can definitely attest to the fact that my student who, delinquent-like, was in the habit of making himself scarce at training time and filling the air with his bluff and bravado while he shook in his shoes, is a quiet, calm learner again who comes at a trot when called.  We’ve got a long way to go, but the experiment is proving well worth the time spent as the entire community is calmer, happier, and more focused.  I have engaged Zip, and all his base are belong to me! 

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