She never listens! He’s lazy. She’s not smart enough. He has ADD. She’s from a single parent family. He’s stubborn. She’s a Libra. He’s got special needs. She’s too smart. His dad’s a lawyer. Her mom is a feminist. He’s from Boston.
There are lots of labels and excuses to explain why people don’t do what you want or why they behave in certain ways. Let’s just put all those aside for now and think about the most important thing. Which of course is you getting what you want. Sometimes you need others to act in order for you to get what you want and sometimes it is you who needs to act.
The internet knows that the way to get stuff done is to set goals and work on one small thing at a time. Look it up. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” and all that other irrefutable wisdom. Productivity experts agree that we need to break big tasks into smaller ones. Ironically the instruction “break it down” is itself ill-defined. It is particularly vexing for people with no training in behavior analysis to come up with goals that are easily achievable and upon success can be reinforced. This is the reason that most New Year’s resolutions have failed by the end of January (if not sooner). Most people want to do too much at once in order to save time, but the result is that everything takes longer, seems increasingly impossible and is more frustrating for all involved.
Teachers talk too much. Coaches talk too much. Managers talk too much. Parents talk too much. You probably talk too much when you are trying to explain what you want someone else to do. In a teaching situation, particularly, when the learner is focusing and trying to learn something new, fewer words are better. The only thing they really hear and remember are the last few words that you say.
To see a humorous example of this, watch this video from minute 4:44 to 5:20. This illustrates our point exactly.
When we started with TAGteach more than 10 years ago, we realized that too much talking was a big problem in teaching situations. Learner’s faces would glaze over as they were faced with information overload. As a result they would just extract whatever seemed important to them, or whatever they heard last and the result was generally not satisfactory. At first we had a rule, that any teaching goal must contain 10 words or fewer. Once we got more experience in fine tuning the communication between teacher/coach and learner, we revised this to “Five words or less”. (The use of colloquial language is intentional).
If you can focus your goal down to five words, then you have defined it clearly enough that the learner has his best chance at success. The learner can understand, remember and execute the exact behavior that you have defined.
Refining a goal down to five words is not always easy. What about all those other important things that the learner must also remember to do? We addressed the issue of focusing on only one thing in a previous article. You must be a very good analyst of your teaching goals in order to find the most important thing and deliver the final instruction to the learner in five words or fewer.
Here’s an example. Say you’re a tennis instructor. You’re teaching the overhand serve. You want the athlete to toss the ball to the correct height, in the correct place, to strike the ball with enough force and with the racket head in the correct orientation, and to step into the court during the strike phase. Whew! That’s a lot of information.
Imagine yourself as a novice player being given all the instructions and specifications that would go with those requirements, while also worrying about looking foolish or forgetting something. You would be pretty stressed and confused and you would have a hard time doing all those things at once. You may even get them all wrong.
As an instructor who understands the skill and is able to break it down into several components, you could take all the guesswork and stress out of the equation. You could teach the proper grip, the proper way to execute the swing part of the skill and the stepping into the court part as a separate exercise. You could teach the toss on its own. For every one of these parts you could come up with a way to describe the key movement in five words or less.
If you are a clever instructor you could come up with a way to give the learner one goal, in five words or less, that would cause several other elements of the skill to happen naturally. Watch this video of tennis instructor Grant Grinnell as he explains how he uses TAGteach and particularly how he used the tag point “step into the court” (only four words!) to improve several aspects of his learners’ serving technique. Brilliant!
You must agree that this was a very creative and elegant way to solve a teaching problem. It may seem at first that insisting on five-word goals is very limiting. In fact, it takes more creativity and imagination, and a more superior knowledge of the subject matter to come up with a five-word goal than it does to produce a lengthy description and a lot of confusing instructions.
As Benjamin Franklin once said:
I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.
When you are setting goals for yourself, or for teaching others, it is important that you can tell exactly when the goal is attained. This seems obvious, but in fact it takes a certain amount of thought to make this happen.
In order for a goal behavior to be attained and then repeated, the behavior must be reinforced. That is, a pleasant consequence must occur immediately after the behavior happens, and this consequence must increase the chance of the behavior happening again. In other words, the most effective way to teach something requires the following sequence:
Behavior happens >> something good happens >> behavior is more likely to happen again
As a teacher (even if teaching yourself) you strive to explain the teaching goal clearly, notice when the learner gets it right and give reinforcement to the learner so that they know that they got it right.
As an example, say you wanted to teach a dancer to kick her leg higher. You could say to her: “kick your leg higher”. But, how much higher? What do you mean exactly? How will you know if she has achieved the goal? How will she know how high? “Kick higher” is a vague goal that is ill-defined and neither teacher nor learner knows exactly what it means. The chances of getting a consistent performance and being able to give clear, timely reinforcement for a vague goal such as this are slim, and progress will be inconsistent at best.
How can you clarify the goal “kick higher” to make it observable and thus reinforceable and repeatable? The way to do this is to attach some very clear criteria to the goal so that both teacher and learner can agree and understand exactly what it means to achieve this goal. One possible strategy with this example would be to hold your hand at the goal height and define the goal as “Kick to hand”. Or you could put a line on the wall or the mirror and define the goal as “kick to line”. This gives you and the learner a clear definition of what it means to succeed and makes the goal clearly observable for you as the teacher.
Maybe you want to set a goal for yourself to get more exercise. “Get more exercise” is another ill-defined goal. What does this mean? How can you observe this and know if you achieved this goal? In order to be successful and to be able to say to yourself “Yes, I did this”, you need to define the goal in terms of something specific that you can easily track. Let’s say that part of your exercise goal is to use your elliptical trainer more often. A specific and observable goal related to this could be to go 5 seconds longer than the last time. You goal is “Go 5 seconds longer”. Now you have something very specific that you can observe and measure and reinforce yourself for achieving.
Set Goals that Impact the Underlying Behavior
Another aspect related to creating observable goals, is to ensure that the goal actually impacts the behavior so that reinforcement can come at the exact moment the goal behavior happens. This is best explained with an example.
Say you want to teach someone to sink a 50 foot putt on the golf course. The most obvious goal would seem to be getting the ball into the hole. Surely that is an observable goal? The problem with this, is that the behavior (the muscle movements) that caused the ball to travel the correct distance with accuracy happened several seconds before the ball went into the hole. In order for reinforcement to work effectively, it has to occur exactly when the goal behavior happens. The ball going into the hole makes the golfer happy, but it doesn’t teach him exactly what he did correctly to make that happen. The ball falling into the hole happens way too late to reinforce any specific movements. As a teacher you need to figure out what exact movements are required in order to strike the ball with the desired speed and accuracy and teach those one at a time.
Other examples like this include, “run faster”, “hit the baseball farther”, “ get the puck in the net”, “serve the ball inside the court”, “clean your room”, “stop smoking”, “eat less”. These are all end results of some behaviors that happened previously to cause that end result. To create an observable goal that you can reinforce, you need to put aside your concern about the end result and focus on specific behaviors that lead to that end result.
Deliver Timely, Effective Reinforcement
With the TAGteach method we use a click sound to signal to the learner that they got it right. This is called a tag, and it happens immediately to tell the learner “Yes! you got it right”. This is a very effective way to provide immediate, clear, precise reinforcement. As the teacher, it is your job to tag (using a handheld clicker) exactly when you see the behavior happening. In order to tag effectively you need to be able to see the goal behavior precisely when it happens. The goal behavior must be clearly OBSERVABLE as outlined in this article.
Here is an example of a teaching session with a clearly observable tag point. The teacher can see it exactly when it happens and the learner understands what he needs to do to meet the goal.
Make it Observable!
Make the goal behavior (the tag point) observable. Define it clearly so that both teacher and learner agree on its definition. Relate the tag point to specific muscle movements that cause the goal behavior to happen.
The TAGteach Goal Setting Process
This article describes one aspect of the TAGteach goal setting process. There are four parts to creating a clear, precise, consistent goal. These are:
What you want (express the goal in positive terms)
Five words or less
You can easily remember these with the acronym WOOF
We have explained each of these in detail in separate articles. Here are the links to the rest of the series:
You know when you really want someone to learn to do something? And you really want them to do a bunch of other things as well, because all the things are really important? They’re all so important that one can’t be done without the others and they all have to be done right? We’ve got the solution for you! Could it be multitasking?
Actually… it turns out that there’s really no such thing as multitasking as far as your brain’s concerned. Neuroscience research has shown us that when you’re doing many things at once, your brain is task switching, rather than multitasking.
Are You as Good a Multitasker as You Think You Are?
Here’s a simple exercise from Psychology Today that illustrates this (it’ll take you less than a minute – so come on – try it):
You’re thinking about elephants aren’t you? I know you are! Despite the very explicit and clear written instruction in the title and even a carefully designed picture (worth a thousand words apparently), you are doing precisely the opposite of what I have wanted you to do. Is this a reflection of your inability to understand and follow even the simplest of instructions? Perhaps you are stubborn, slow to comprehend, lazy or just plain contrary? Or perhaps I have gone about the whole “not thinking about elephants” thing entirely the wrong way?