Friday, February 19, 2010

MAKE it Happen

By Theresa McKeon

The most productive tag points are those that cause what you want to happen. For example if you wanted someone to jump to a certain height, tagging at the correct height would not be the best thing to do. By the time the athlete gets to the correct height, the muscle movements that caused the jump are long past. A better tag point would relate to the preparation before the jump so that you can tag something that actually causes a higher jump.

Example #1:

Coach David thinks his gymnasts need to speed up their vaulting run. They have previously timed their runs and he would like to see them beat their old times. Coach thinks through the running process and creates a tag point from a behavior that would cause the athlete to run faster and therefore produce a faster time.

"Ok, we need to speed up these sprints. Pumping the arms properly will cause a cascade of actions that speed up a run. To get the correct arm pump, the fist needs to rise to the level of your cheek. During our next set of sprints, let’s tag the point when the fist is level with the cheek. I've set up two cones 15 feet apart. This is where we’ll tag the runner for 'fist to cheek’. When everyone has a total of 30 tags we'll time the sprints again and see who improved enough to beat their old time. The person with the biggest reduction in time wins all the money in my pocket." (When my coworker used ‘pocket money’ incentive, he rarely had more than lint in his pocket. Everyone knew it was just for fun, but somehow it still added a little excitement.)

"Ok, let's try the sprints again. The tag point is…fist to cheek."

David did not use the tag point "run faster" or "complete the run in 5 seconds" because the first of these is ill-defined and both of these are end results and would not affect the key movements that will cause faster running.

Example #2:

Miss Sara, a math teacher, decides to use a bit of TAGteach with Matt, one of her students.

The teacher’s first thought is to make the tag point… correct answer, which is what she ultimately wants. After thinking the process through, she decides to create a tag point that will cause the correct answer. In Matt’s case, he understands adding, but occasionally forgets to ‘carry over’ which leads to an incorrect answer. Miss Sarah believes that if Matt circles the carry over number, he will be more likely to remember to include it while solving the problem.

Miss Sara gives the tagger to Matt and asks him to tag her first. “I’m going to perform this addition problem and when I need to carry over a number I’m going to write that number on top of the proper column.

The tag point is… circle the carry over number.” Matt correctly tags when his teacher circles the carry over number. Matt feels a sense of accomplishment and Miss Sara has assessed that he understands the instructions. Now Miss Sara gives the tag point to Matt. “Perform the next three math problems and if you need to carry over a number, the tag point is…circle the carry over number.”

In this scenario Matt learned how to get the right answer and was reinforced for learning the process that would produce the proper product.

A video example:

Watch this video of a boy learning to tie his shoe. He has had lots of frustration with this in the past and the traditional way of teaching has not worked. His biggest problem is making the loop too big. There is no point in saying to him "the tag point is make a smaller loop". If he knew what was meant by a smaller loop he would have been taught this easily before now. I gave him the tag point "string at elbow" since placing the end of the string at his elbow would cause the loop to be the right size. This is a good example of the type of tag point we are talking bout here.

The History of TAGteach

We had a great time at Clicker Expo in Porland OR in January, and the highlight was the plenary lecture by Dr. Julie Vargas (eldest daughter of B.F. Skinner). Julie gave an entertaining and informative talk about the history of operant conditioning with glimpses into life with her famous father. Usually the Sunday plenary session at Expo is only about half full, but this time a packed audience stayed to hear Julie - and were glad they did! To our surprise and delight Julie dedicated a significant portion of her talk to TAGteach. As we sat and listened to B.F. Skinner's daughter, who is an accomplished and well-recognized behavior scientist in her own right, talking about our methodology and using language that we had created, it started to dawn on us that maybe we are making a significant contribution here. I was talking to Theresa's husband Brian later in my hotel room (while she was out partying, as usual, sigh...) and he said, "Did you see that time line?". "Yes - so what?". "Skinner's daughter just showed a time line with B.F. Skinner, then Ogden Lindsley, then 40 years of essentially no notable developments in the human application of marker-based operant conditioning and then you guys!". OK - that is pretty cool when you put it that way. So we asked Julie if we could share the time line with you in our blog. She said yes and here it is in a modified form. The original version showed the development of clicker training with animals along the top, but I have left that out here (click on the image for a larger view).

TAGteach is relatively new, but its roots go back to the 1940s, and B.F.Skinner. The principles that apply to TAGteach and in fact all learning, were first demonstrated by Skinner with rats and pigeons and later were applied with many species of animals. Skinner was the first to discover that behavior is controlled and can be shaped by the consequences that follow. Karen Pryor talked about applying marker-based operant conditioning to people in her book Don't Shoot the Dog (which people often mistakenly think is a dog training book) and used this approach herself in various applications over the years. If you haven't read this book then you must!

Gymnastics coach Theresa McKeon learned about clicker training and used it with an unruly horse. She thought that the sharp sound of the clicker would be useful in signaling to her gymnasts during acrobatic moves when voice was just too slow. Theresa posted a message about her experiments with gymnasts to a KPCT online forum, where Karen spotted it. Theresa did not get any support for this strange activity from gym management or other coaches and then moved from Florida to North Carolina and a new gym and was reluctant to resume clicking. Meanwhile, in Canada, I had learned about clicker training and was training dogs and then rabbits and then cats this way. I thought that this method would be really effective with the Special Olympics rhythmic gymnasts that my daughter's school teacher coached. I thought it might be a bad idea to experiment with the SO athletes first and sent Karen Pryor a message to find out if anyone was using clicker training with gymnasts. Karen remembered Theresa's post to the forum and  Theresa and I started talking via phone and email. We did a little study in the fall of 2002 to see whether this clicker training could really help with gymnastics and found of course that it did! The gym study is described here if you want to see the results.

Theresa and I decided that this needed a new name since it was rapidly becoming more than just clicker training for people. Also some parents objected to having their kids trained like dogs. Ironic really, since clicker training is much more humane than traditional coaching methods. So we came up with the name TAGteach where TAG stands for Teaching with Acoustical Guidance. The parents thought that this new TAGteach thing was terrific. They even started signing their kids up for extra private TAGteach sessions.

In the spring of 2003 Theresa and her daughter Katie left the comforts of North Carolina to visit us in the wilds of Canada. This was our first face to face meeting since we had started working together the previous fall. During this visit and many others back and forth between us we tagged every kid we could we get our hands on... gymnasts, volley ball players, Special Olympics athletes, golfers, basketball players, cheerleaders, high jumpers, long jumpers... It didn't matter whether we knew anything about the sport, we just needed a coach who did, or videos/photos showing correct form. Theresa was tagging her gymnasts with fantastic results, but the overall culture in the gym was not tag-friendly. We needed someone who would allow us to implement TAGteach from the top down through the entire organization so that we could really showcase how well it works.

Enter Beth Wheeler... Beth and Theresa were roommates in college and Theresa was sure that Beth would be up for this new challenge. Beth was excited from the moment she heard about TAGteach and she invited us to come to her dance camp in the summer of 2003 and gave us free access to all the students. We all had a blast and we got a great chance to refine our techniques even more. Beth joined as a partner and we started the company TAGteach LLC. Beth implemented TAGteach fully at her dance studio, A Dancer's Dream and was thrilled with the improvement in performance, improvement in happiness of the dancers and improvement to the bottom line.

The great Karen Pryor joined us as well in Marblehead MA for dance camp and this was our first meeting and the start of wonderful friendships. Karen and KPCT President Aaron Clayton invited us to the first Clicker Expo where we presented our TAGteach videos to an audience of Karen, Aaron and maybe four other people, all of them fellow Expo presenters. In 2004 we held the first two TAGteach seminars, one at A Dancer's Dream and the other at Bentley College in Boston, co-hosted with KPCT. Later that year TAGteach International LLC was formed as a joint partnership of TAGteach LLC and Karen Pryor Clickertraining.

Since then we have held TAGteach seminars all over the world and there are more than 400 certified TAGteachers in more than nine different countries. "You have changed my life" is the most common comment that we hear from attendees. We have learned from our many hours of tagging and from the many people who have come to our seminars. We have refined and improved our techniques so that now TAGteach has developed far past its original clicker training roots (this will be subject of another article!). TAGteach started out as an application for kids and sports and now is being used with adults in occupational and business settings for physical skills and management skills as well as all sorts of other settings with both kids and adults. Essentially any type of teaching and learning can benefit from the incorporation of the TAGteach approach. We are grateful to all our early adopters who let us experiment on themselves and their kids and who took what we taught them and helped us grow it into something even better.

Here is a video showing Theresa tagging the first ever tag taught gymnasts. The tag point is "shoulders to ears". The athletes can get a tag in the set up before the first handspring, when their hands hit the floor and again at the end in the finish position. They can get several tags for each tumbling pass, but the tag point itself is exactly the same each time. The last one is an easy one - but watch them adjust until they hear the tag. If they don't hear a tag at any of the possible places where the tag point occurs, then they know they need to self assess and try again. Notice how this eliminates coach babble and lets the coach and the athletes focus on one thing and keeps the practice moving along quickly.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Upcoming TAGteach Seminars

Urbandale, Iowa (02/20-21/2010) Please call 704-995-9237 if you want to attend this seminar.

Frankfort, KY (02/27-28/2010)
Norwich, VT (03/27-28/2010)
Portland, OR (04/17-18/2010)
Boulder, CO (05/15-16/2010)
Golden Valley, MN (06/19-20/2010)
Brisbane, Australia (09/11-12/2010)

Dates coming for New Zealand and Germany

Even trainers like training!

TAGteach will be presenting a workshop for the Keepers at the Niabi Zoo.

The keepers have already begun their TAGteach training with Laura Monaco Torelli and are looking forward to two additional days of training from TAGteach cofounder, Theresa McKeon. The keepers will learn to use TAGteach to improve their clicker training, handling and husbandry skills as well as proper body mechanics needed to work long hours in a physically demanding profession.

Colleen (Head Keeper):
"TAG teach made me more conscious of what I was doing as a trainer"


TAG teach made me realize that what I was trained to do is actually what I'm doing right"

"It was great positive reinforcement as a trainer to let me know I was moving in the right direction"


"It was interesting and helpful to have positive feedback on "my training" behaviors, not always how I am working with the animals"


"TAGteach was helpful because it made me focus in on exactly what I was doing at a certain moment. It's always nice to learn through positive feedback!"

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Karen Pryor Wins Dog Writers Award

We are very pleased and proud to let you know that our friend and business partner Karen Pryor has won a prestigious Maxwell award from the Dog Writers Association of America for her book Reaching the Animal Mind. We know that a huge amount of work and effort (not to mention furniture rearrangement) went into this book. The book is a treasure and the honor bestowed by the DWAA is richly deserved.

Karen has dedicated her life's work to humane and scientifically based animal training and this book provides insights that she is uniquely positioned to supply. Karen's courage, willingness to share, talents as a writer and communicator (and let's face it - downright stubbornness) has changed the lives of millions of animals and hundreds of thousands of humans for the better. This book is a unique gift to the world, with its balance of accessible science and intriguing story telling. Click here if you want to buy a copy (and you should!).

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Why Host a TAGteach Seminar?

Many of our TAGteach seminars are hosted by people who have already come to at least one seminar in the past. Why on earth would anyone want to come to see the same thing twice, let alone run the risk of having us actually show up on their doorstep? The seminars are never the same twice since the attendees are always different and interesting and come from many walks of life. More than half the seminar is spent interacting and doing hands-on activities so it is never the same experience twice.

We decided to ask some seminar hosts what made them decide to host a TAGteach seminar and we will post their responses at the blog from time to time.

Here is what Jane Jackson of Bookends Farm had to say:

After attending a TAGteach seminar last August, I looked forward to coming home and putting my new education to work in my lesson and training business. I had been using “clicking for people” ever since hearing about TAGteach and acquiring a Clicker+ but I learned so much more at the seminar about applying TAGteach for humans as it differs from clicking for animals.

My students last year ranged from age 5 to age 70, and from complete beginners to folks active in jumping competitions, as well as people learning to train their own horses with clicker training (so I was training the owners to be trainers). The obvious use for TAGteach with riders is working on physical skills such as body position and movements. But I also found wonderful mental and emotional benefits as well. Sometimes I was actually focusing on these skills, such as the young boys who would come, worn out after a long day at school. They were tired of following directions all day. So I could use TAG points to engage them in catching ponies and working on grooming them which soon brought smiles and cooperation to the afternoon. Other times, I was focusing on physical skills, but because of the nature of TAGteach, the emotional benefits were icing on the cake. A student frustrated with her abilities over fences and anxious about making progress would hear repeated confirmation of her success with each ping of the Clicker+. Having a specific TAG point, as defined by the four criteria given at TAGteach seminars, made instruction and skill acquisition much more successful.

I anxiously look forward to my next seminar in the end of March!
Jane's seminar will be held in Norwich VT at the public library, 368 Main St on March 27-28. The early bird deadline is Feb 26. The seminar will be led by Theresa McKeon, TAGteach co-founder.

For more information or to register: Click here.

Watch this snippet from a TAGteach seminar:


By Theresa McKeon

TAGteach – A means to promote positive interactions that encourage skill acquisition and retention

Self-Tagging – A means to promote positive interactions with yourself, to encourage skill acquisition and retention

The means and methodology of TAGteach start with providing focus. Focus is generated through well defined goals which are broken down into easily achievable points, presented with minimal verbal intrusion, and clearly highlighted and reinforced as they occur. (Note: Success for many humans is very reinforcing. The sound of the tag highlights success and quite often becomes a conditioned reinforcer.)

When we self-tag, the same rules apply. Goals must be broken into easily achievable points, delivered appropriately, highlighted and reinforced as they occur.

Real Life Example:

I know there are many things in my personality that could be improved. (Say it isn't so! - editor's note). I also know from experience that if my goal is to be better organized or eat better or be more patient I will feel like a failure by my second cup of coffee. (which automatically ruins “eat better” and casts serious doubts on any ability to be “more patient”). I can pick one thing, a single tag point and begin there. For my self-tag scenario I chose to begin with something that did not involve food, coffee, or patience. I chose… my cell phone.

I hate the sound of a cell phones ringing. The faster I can get to my phone and answer it, the faster the ringing stops. Quick access to my phone is vital. Unfortunately, I always throw my cell phone into the heart of the infinite void I call my purse. I then yell at my cell phone when it can't be found beneath the chewing gum, receipts, and abandoned pennies. I bought my current purse expressly because it had an outside pocket just big enough for a cell phone. Even with that pocket, I still hang up and toss the phone into infinity instead of taking 4 extra seconds (yes, I timed it) to place it in the outside pocket. TAG time.

I knew I didn’t want to jump right into the end-goal behavior. If putting my cell in the outside pocket was an easy behavior for me I would have done it already. The first tag point should always be a point of success so I came up with a tag point that I was 99% certain I could and would do.

“Before throwing the cell phone into the purse, say, outside pocket. The tag point is…say outside pocket”

Finally my phone rang. Yadda yadda, yadda, blah, blah, blah, and my conversation was over. I looked at my purse, said “outside pocket”, and without guilt, threw the phone into the black gaping mouth of my purse. “Yes! Success!” I tagged and pulled a bead on the tagulator* that was attached to the outside dedicated cell phone pocket of my purse.

Turns out I only needed about 5 “say outside pocket” tags and was eager to move on.

I felt a silly, yet profound moment of exhilaration as I planned for the new tag point. “It will be more challenging than the first, but now I am ready. The tag point is…phone in outside pocket”. Bring it!

I wanted to stay in the moment and the dang phone wouldn’t ring so I forced the issue and made a phone call to my daughter away at college.

“Hi Kate, how are ya…no just calling to chat…you got an A in photography? Fantastic!...Yep, I put some money in your account…Your coming home next week?…Ya, we’ll be here…Ok…I know, you gotta go…I’ll talk to ya later…Love ya, bye.”

I ended the call and triumphantly put my cell phone in the dedicated outside pocket. Woo hoo! No one saw or cared that I had done this bit of self-improvement but in my mind it was a success worth noting. I tagged and pulled a bead to highlight my success.

It took about 20 tags until I felt safe that `phone in outside pocket' had become a habit. I am now proud to be a near `perfect pocket placer' of my cell phone. Most interesting to me was the fact that it took at least twice the time to tag and pull the bead than it did to just place the phone in the outside pocket! The acknowledgement of a task performed, was more reinforcing than the reason the task was performed. The behavior of placing my cell phone in the small outside pocket increased only after I rewarded myself for performing the task by tagging and pulling the bead on my tagulator. I learned something important about what is truly reinforcing for me.

Update: Most of the time I still place the phone in the outside pocket as that is very reinforcing. Once in a while, I throw it into the infinity pocket just to prove I am still edgy and a rebel.

*Tagulator - a specially designed string of beads made so that you can slide one bead down at a time. The beads can be used to keep track of tags or to mark the accomplishment of a focus point 

The Different Sounds of Tagging

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 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:
  1. Can the learners perceive the tag?
  2. Does the learner like to get a tag?
  3. 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.

Read our blog posts about TAGteach and autism

Visit our autism web page for scientific research reports

Is the Tag Distracting Other Learners?

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.

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 is 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.

If you are tagging to tell the person that they clicked properly, you can  have the person pretend to click (just do the click movement without having  a clicker). If you see them do the virtual click at the right time, then you actually click too. This click will be the tag for the person and the click  for the dog. This way the dog only  gets clicked at the right time while the  person is learning and only one actual click/tag happens. Once the person has the timing right they can take over the real clicker.

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)
  • Whistle
  • Squeaker from squeaky toy
  • Clap hands
  • 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
  • Bicycle bell
  • Party noisemaker
  • Ding from triangle instrument
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
You may have noticed that we have not included voice or words as possible substitutes for the tag sound. We don't recommend using a verbal marker and we have discussed this previously.

Here is a video that shows a shoulder tap being used as a tag:

If you want to buy tagulators or taggers (i-clicks or box clickers) you can get them at the TAGteach store.

Monday, February 15, 2010

TAGteach Seminar Testimonials

A group of young dance teachers talk about their thoughts after attending a TAGteach seminar.

Fun at Clicker Expo

Participants in the Freestyle lab at Clicker Expo in Portland had a blast with instructors Theresa McKeon and Michele Pouliot. Theresa and Michele teamed up to offer a fun-filled 2-hour session that literally had people dancing in the aisles! Theresa built the dance step piece by piece using TAGteach and everyone was successful without any frustration or embarrassment about working in front of an audience.