At its simplest, clicker training uses a marker (often, but not always a clicker) to inform the learner when a desired behaviour has been performed and, once it has been paired with a reward, that a reward is forthcoming. Pairing the click with the reward uses classical conditioning, discovered by Nobel prize winning scientist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in the early years of the 20thC. The development of the technique to train animals using what was then termed as operant conditioning came in the mid-20thC with BF Skinner.
Karen Pryor discovered Skinner’s work in the 1960s when tasked with training dolphins, since when it has been used to teach a wide variety of animals without using the punishment that was often directly and indirectly applied by trainers. She can also be credited as a pioneer in spreading the technique throughout the dog world.
Theresa McKeon, Joan Orr and Beth Wheeler then adapted the technique for teaching humans and named it TAG Teach. It has not only been used to train dog owners, but athletes, golfers, dancers, business managers, occupational safety trainers and managers and in students with special educational needs, especially autism.
The principles behind clicker training and TAG Teach can be applied to any learning. Positive reinforcement has been proven in many studies to be far more effective that traditional correction-based teaching and can be an important aspect in maintaining good mental health in traditionally pressured learning environments such as dance and medicine.
Now that achievement has been recognised by the science community in the awarding of an IgNobel prize to Karen Pryor and Theresa McKeon for their published paper describing how TAG Teaching improved the teaching and learning in students and practitioners undertaking two complex surgical tasks.
The Ig Nobel prizes were first awarded in 1991 by journalist and Harvard graduate Marc Abrahams. Some awards are pure jokes, satirising anti-science such as homeopathy and even being “awarded” to fictional characters. However, many reward genuine scientific achievements, albeit those that are regarded as being a little off the beaten track.
Of course, those of us that use clicker training and TAG teaching in our daily practice think that nothing could be more normal, but if the “improbable research” label helps it to become more widely known, all power to its elbow.
…and congratulations to the winners.