There was a time, when we had much less experience than we have now, that we suggested to people that they might use the word “good” or another verbal marker to signal success to the learner. In practice this has turned out not to work as well as using a clicker or other non-verbal signal. We have used taggers with elite athletes, tiny tot ballerinas, commercial fishermen, kids with autism, kids with Down syndrome, business professionals, prison inmates and medical students to list a few examples. Using the tagger absolutely works and it works with every population of learner that we have encountered.
The verbal marker becomes very repetitive and annoying very quickly. It seems condescending in a way to say “good, good, good” over and over especially to another adult. It’s also very difficult to keep the tone of the “good” the same each time. People tend to want to convey additional information with the verbal marker. They tend to vary the tone and give a more expressive “good” if there is a particularly good effort. It’s hard to avoid the big excited “YES” when they finally get it, or the desultory “yes” when you’re tired, hungry and have a headache.
A topic that seems to come up with some frequency in our interactions with TAGteachers relates to the sound of the tagger and what kinds of sounds (or other stimuli) can be used with TAGteach. Here is a sampling of some of the concerns that have come up:
I work with children diagnosed with autism. They are very sensitive to sounds and will be upset by the sound of the traditional tagger (clicker).
I work with people who are hard of hearing. They won’t be able to hear the click sound.
I teach riding to children and adults and all my horses are clicker trained, so I don’t want to use the same sound for the people since the horses might get upset or confused if the hear the click sounds and don’t get a treat.
I teach people to clicker train dogs (or other animals) and I am worried that the animals will be confused if I use the same sound for them as for the people.
I would like to try peer tagging, but with so many taggers going off all over the place I don’t think anyone will know which tag is for them.
Let me preface this discussion by saying that in all the many years and many applications in which the TAGteach founders, faculty and experienced TAGteachers have used TAGteach, we rarely use anything other than the traditional box clicker (tagger) to make the tag sound. We have tried other things, but in the end they break, we lose them, or they didn’t work any better anyway. Even with children diagnosed with autism, noisy roomfuls of kids tagging each other and in the presence of clicker trained animals, we have had great success with the box clicker – as have others.
In trying to decide the best way to deliver the tag stimulus, a TAGteacher needs to consider the following:
Can the learners perceive the tag?
Does the learner like to get a tag?
Is the tag distracting other learners (including animals)?
The first two are easy to assess. All you have to do is ask the learners.
Does the Learner Perceive the Tag?
We have often been astounded that learners hear their own tag even if there are lots of other taggers and other noise going on. If they don’t hear their own tags, then you might need to spread out more, change the position of the person with the tagger so they are closer to or within the line of sight of the learner or take turns with tagging so that fewer taggers are going off at once. You will most likely find that once the learners become tag savvy, they don’t have any trouble hearing the tag that is meant for them.
Does the Learner Like the Sound of the Tag
Some learners find the tag sound aversive. This is more often true with adults than kids. They may dislike the sound for no particular reason, may experience physical pain (very rare) or may have a past negative association with the sound. Generally they will not suffer in silence and will be quick to let you know that you are causing them grave suffering. Sometimes this aversion can be remedied by associating the tag sound with a tangible reinforcer (candy, stickers, chocolate etc). Sometimes they get over it when they see others progressing well and the want to have some of that success for themselves. The tag sound has not been a problem for professionals working with children diagnosed with autism. These children seem to adapt well to the tag sound, most likely because it is associated with a primary reinforcer (popcorn, a sip of soda etc) and because they quickly learn that this is the sound of success and something that they can control in an otherwise largely uncontrollable world. This latter is just speculation, since we haven’t conducted any studies, but it has been a surprise to some to find that sound-sensitive children are not bothered by the sound of the tagger.
The tag sound is generally not distracting to other learners who are also engaged in the tag session. For example a roomful of gymnasts or volleyball players all tagging in pairs or groups will not disrupt the others. They get very good, very quickly at concentrating and hearing the tag that is meant for them. In a quiet situation in which a teacher is tagging one student for reading skills, while the others work quietly, the tag sound could be distracting, so muffling the sound or using something quieter may be best.
Many people are using TAGteach to teach animal-handling skills. In the majority of these cases the animals are clicker trained, or are being clicker trained and so the tag for the person could be distracting for the animal. Some people are concerned that the power of the click will be diminished if the animal hears a lot of clicking and doesn’t get a treat. People who teach group clicker training classes, train animals in a group situation or have multiple clicker trained animals at home know that animals very quickly learn that not every click is for them and not every clicker session involves them. They learn to read environmental cues, pay attention to where the trainer’s cues are directed and most importantly to where the treats are coming from and where they are going. Animals become very good at knowing when it’s their turn.
When animals are first learning about clicker training, or if the animal is likely to get excited and become a danger, then an alternative approach is needed. This may involve using a different sound or working on the human skills with the animal out of the picture at first. In some cases it may be appropriate to have the click and the tag be the same. For example, if you are teaching loose leash walking and the tag point is “leash hand at waist”, then both dog and person could get a click/tag at the same time. If the use of TAGteach for teaching animal handling skills becomes confusing and problematic, then you need to take steps to simplify. We always recommend that the animal be out of the picture until the person learns the skill.
But I Need an Alternative Signal!
Sometimes you really may need an alternative signal for the tag, whether it be a different sound or a different signal altogether. Here are some alternatives to the traditional box clicker (tagger) that have been used or suggested by TAGteachers:
i-click (quieter click sound)
Clicker+ (makes 4 different sounds – these are no longer in production)
Muffle the sound of a box clicker with a cloth, your hand or from inside a pocket
Car key fob (from the dollar store – makes the sound that your remote car door opener makes when you unlock your car)
Squeaker from squeaky toy
Click from ball point pen
Click from hand-held counter (also counts the tags, which can be useful)
Juice bottle lids that pop when pressed
Ding from triangle instrument
Sound from phone app
TAGteachers have also used non-sound markers with hearing impaired students and in other situations in which the tag sound is inappropriate or would be ineffective:
Flash of light
Tap of finger on shoulder or hand
Hold tagger against the learner’s back so the feel it, if they can’t hear it
Virtual tag – pretend to tag by making the tag motion without tagger
Slide a ticket or a block or other marker from one side of the desk to the other
Pull down a bead on a tagulator
Here is a video that shows a shoulder tap being used as a tag:
There is a book called “Punished by Rewards” by Alfie Kohn. I saw the title and thought “how can that be?” and so I bought the book. Dr. Kohn explains how endless stickers and charts and ribbons and praise and approval to children for every single accomplishment no matter how small is creating children who cannot function without outside approval. They have no confidence in their own abilities and low self esteem because they judge themselves through the eyes of others. They are not self motivated and do not derive satisfaction from achievement for its own sake since they have been systematically trained to look to others for approval as a result of the frivolous doling out of rewards by parents, teachers and coaches. This is of course an over-simplification, since it is quite a long book with lots of scientific references, but you get the idea.
The Praise Junkie
Theresa McKeon (TAGteach cofounder and professional gymnastics coach) calls these kids “praise junkies”. They are the ones that always want the coach to look at them. They can’t work independently. They are not focused on learning, but are focused on what the coach (parent, teacher, etc) thinks. They require constant approval and encouragement. They may even misbehave in order to have the attention focused back on them if other children are getting in the way of this.
Last week TIME magazine ran a cover story about paying kids cash money to get better grades.
The objections to cash ‘rewards’ for schooling have been around for a long time and can lead to tremendous political uproar. There are moral objections—children should do what’s expected of them without reward. There are philosophical, theoretical, religious, and of course financial objections.
Well, this fellow at Harvard, economist Roland Fryer Jr., decided the first thing to do was to find out if paying kids to do better in school actually worked or not. Forget all the existing studies and opinions. Forget those specific schools where reinforcers, large and small, are built into the system. According to TIME, Dr. Fryer “did something education researchers almost never do: he ran a randomized experiment.” (Just think about THAT for a minute. They opine stuff and put it into the schools and they don’t TEST it?)
Parents, teachers and other adults need to realize that it is all very well to hope that an innate sense of moral obligation will cause Jimmy to clean his room or raise his hand in class, but if you want the job done easily and well, then you need to pay with currency that kids value.
What do kids really want for reinforcement? How can we possibly find out? Social worker Lynn Loar PhD decided to ask them. The simple answer was candy, for one thing; money for another. But it’s more complicated than that, as these kids explain in an article published in the the Summer/Fall 2009 issue of the Latham Letter. The article is authored by Lynn Loar and five young co-authors.