26 January 2014

Dogs, Monks, and Formative Evaluation

Brutus loves walks
This post gives me an opportunity to share a picture of my newly adopted canine friend, Brutus. We have been learning to walk together, and so far Brutus has yet to get the idea of walking in tandem and following rather than leading. I’m no dog expert, and haven’t owned a dog for over 20 years, so when a friend recommended I read the “monk’s book about dogs”, I Googled the phrase later to find out the Monks of New Skete and their popular books about dogs are warmly-liked. I’ve been reading one of them and working with Brutus to learn the heel command.

I’ve been using a retractable leash to walk Brutus, and the leash extends up to 12 feet. Your hand grips molded plastic that contains the spool of leash line Using it felt like using a kind of game controller, with it’s molded grip and leash lock trigger. Sophisticated. But I couldn’t control the dog using that retractable leash. Brutus was non-responsive to my tugs, pulls, and stops. He’d just run out the length of the line and tug his way around the neighborhood.

And then I decided to use a basic 6 foot leather leash. After about 10 minutes it was obvious Brutus was not tugging as his usual self. My hand on the simple strap, I could feel subtle variations in the pressure as we walked. With this kind of feedback, the dog and I were able to establish a rhythm. The dog was able to feel the trainer’s guidance; the simple leather strap helped create a direct line of feedback between Brutus and I. This simple strap afforded a higher degree of feedback and control than the retractable leash, with its plastic grip which dampened feedback by isolating the hand from the lead.

Formative evaluation is a powerful feature of instructional design when correctly applied. Its responsive, it’s sensitive, and it’s dynamic. The quality of the feedback depends on the mechanisms used to sense and respond to learners. Sometimes if there is a problem or a confusion within a learning system, think in terms of identifying important feedback loops and make sure they are of high fidelity. Brutus no longer tugs like a maniac throughout our walks. He knows what to do, and is happy to do it correctly. And he gives all credit to the improved formative evaluation he gets during our walks.