Identifying Obstacles to Learning


Josey: engaged and eager to learn

This post will appear to be about dogs, although it is also about human learners. But if you are a dog lover you will likely get more out of it.  As I have said before, my dogs are a couple of my best teachers.

In our “training” sessions together I probably learn as much from them as they learn from me. Training is in quotes because from the dogs’ perspective it is all a game. I believe in Progressive Reinforcement  training because it is humane and ethical, improves our interspecies communication, is fun for all, and of course it works incredibly well. Ten minutes to learn and a lifetime to master, learning PR training techniques has been well worth the effort, if for no other reason, than the benefit of starting to see the world through the learner’s eyes.  Of course this perspective is very much transferable to working with human students too!

My husband and I have two dogs, both of whom we raised from wee adorable puppies. The male, named “Josey” has a very soft temperament and can read his humans’ body language right down to the direction our eyeballs are pointing.   The female, Tessa, is also extremely perceptive and yet more happy, go lucky, and confident.  Understanding their individual temperaments makes a real difference, just as knowing each of my students well, can help me connect with them better.


Tessa “retrieving to hand.”

This piece is going to be about “identifying obstacles to Learning” so here are some obstacles to learning my dogs have taught me that have direct parallels in the classroom.

1) Pace and timing is critical. Teaching has a sort of tempo to it, almost a rhythm and that cadence is different for each of my dogs. If things move too quickly for Josey he becomes confused then anxious. Learning stops. Tessa, on the other hand, works best at a fast clip as she gets bored easily and will lose interest. As a teacher, this lesson confirms observations of variations in human students too.  Processing speed differs among learners and it is important to get the pace right for each student.

2) Learners differ in their resiliency. By this I mean, how many “tries” the learner is capable of performing before getting a “right” answer. Josey is very challenging to work with because he usually has only one or maybe two “tries” in him before he starts to feel demoralized. Josey is the student who shuts down when he “gets it wrong.”  This means that the next point is essential.


Josey practicing the “weave” skill by following the target

3) The size of each step must be just right to provide the correct level of challenge and not lead to too many defeats.  Lately we have been working on the leg weave trick. This is where the dog weaves in and out of the trainer’s legs while she walks. This skill has to be broken down into small pieces which are learned individually then linked together in a long “behavior chain”.  It is the canine equivalent of solving a multi-step algebra problem, or writing a chemical equation. The student needs to know how to do each part before putting it all together, and each chunk must be “bite sized” so it can be mastered.

4) Assumptions about your learners can lead to problems. What I think I know about my dogs is that Tessa is a “fast learner.” Operating out of this assumption I asked her to advance too quickly. She became confused, and as a result lost some enthusiasm for the training game. (Learning is no fun when you are not succeeding.) So I have had to backtrack with her and re-build her motivation and confidence for a few days.  We educators have all seen this phenomenon with kids; push them too fast, set them up to have too many “wrong answers” in a row, and they lose heart.


Tessa strengthening the step of following the target. Much practice is needed before a successful weave can happen.

5) Bodies in motion create happier, more relaxed brains. The converse of this is that too much intense cerebral work in a static position is stressful. When ever I introduce something new and difficult to my dogs, I’ve learned that they do best if I intersperse this work with something they love that involves whole body movement, such as some rounds of retrieving, or games of “find the hidden toy.” Thus I firmly believe in football, soccer, dance, metal shop, and other activities for our human students. They need to use their bodies as well as their brains to be balanced, happy beings.  In addition, the physical activities make them better at the mental tasks too!


Josey bringing back a hidden toy. He loves this game .

6) Confidence is everything. Or the converse of this is learning does not happen very well without confidence. This is particularly true with the style of training I’m discussing here, where the dog needs to offer a response to a cue, and if he gets it “right” he gets the reward. It takes some courage to try something and courage starts with confidence, which stems from a history of “getting it right,” building faith that the effort will be worthwhile.  Teachers know students won’t try if they are too afraid of failure.

7) The dynamics between learners can have a significant effect.  With my two canine students, Tessa tends to hog the limelight and Josey stands back, not able to do much with her around.  Tessa is the girl in the front row with her hand up all the time. Josey is the invisible boy in the back.


Tessa has all the answers. Josey is hanging back. His expression is a true reflection.

This past week I have been asking a lot of my chemistry students. There were times when the size of the steps I asked them to make as they were learning how to write chemical equations were too large and the pace was too fast. There was some frustration expressed in class, for which I am thankful. I need my students to let me know how they are feeling! One difficulty in teaching a class-full of students all at once, is setting up the curriculum to suit a variety of individuals, whose optimal pace, size of  steps, and all the other nuances of the learning environment varies widely.

Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons my dogs have taught me is to listen to my students, not just their words, but also the body language they are displaying unconsciously. Does the kid in the corner look happy, relaxed, confident and engaged, or does he appear a bit overwhelmed, anxious and maybe “out of tries”?

Now as the teacher, how can I adjust the variables for that child, in that moment, to give that student an opportunity to experience a confidence building success? To be honest, I mess this up reasonably often, resulting in awkward moments, rather than a student traveling down a path that leads to triumph. Yet this continues to be one of the most interesting and rewarding parts of my job as an educator, trying to learn from my students, what works best for them as learners.


About Sue Houston

I've been teaching high school science for over 25 years. The more I learn, the more questions I have about how good education really works. This blog is an attempt to explore the fundamental question of "How do Kids Learn?" This blog will include posts related to technology in education, neuroscience, behavioral science and real life experiences in the classroom. Please, I invite you all to join the conversation in the comments sections. Perhaps together we can find more insights into how kids learn! If you are a student, educator, or past student (that covers everyone, right?) you have something to contribute! :)
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2 Responses to Identifying Obstacles to Learning

  1. maisymak says:

    This is incredibly valuable to read right at this moment where I’m teaching neuro again for he first time in ten years and have 15 students – finding that learning balance is tricky. And you’re right; it’s also one of the most rewarding parts of teaching.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sue Houston says:

      Thanks for the comments Amy! It is such a challenge to set things up well for an entire group of kids and keep adjusting things as the kids work through the material. Working with kids one-on-one in tutoring session becomes such a luxury, but of course there are not enough hours in the day!


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