The first time I got a tiger to sit up on cue took five or six weeks. Admittedly, I didn't work on it every day. If I had, perhaps it would have only taken me a couple of weeks. Later on, I learned how to get a pretty reliable sit-up on cue in a a few ...

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Mastering the Basics


The first time I got a tiger to sit up on cue took five or six weeks.  Admittedly, I didn't work on it every day.  If I had, perhaps it would have only taken me a couple of weeks.  Later on, I learned how to get a pretty reliable sit-up on cue in a a few days.

The sit-up is pretty standard fare for training circus cats—especially tigers.  There are two reasons for this.

One reason that sit-ups are "standard" tricks is that it is something lions and tigers do anyway.  The trick is getting them to do it on cue and with good posture.

Another reason a sit-up is common is that many other performance behaviors are based on the sit-up.  A sit-up aligned with other big cats doing a sit-up is an impressive—and therefore commonly performed—part of a circus cat act.  A sit-up on a pyramid structure alongside other cats is another standard performance device. Perhaps most impressive in terms of aesthetics is the sit-up atop a large, revolving mirrored ball.

Here's a wonderful example of the mirrored-ball sit-up originally trained and performed by the amazing Charly Baumann and later refined by Gunther Gebel-Williams and Wade Burck.  This trick (which you must see live to fully appreciate) cannot be performed unless you have a tiger who can sit-up and hold their position confidently while their seat rotates for a minute or so. This is an advanced skill that is built upon a basic skill.

I've seen some large acts that include several lions or tigers that only have two tricks in their repertoire: sitting on their assigned seat and doing a sit-up one or more times during the performance.  But sometimes that sit-up is an advanced sit-up.

The thing about the sit-up behavior is that it's part of the "core curriculum" in training circus cats. But like any commonly expected outcomes, sometimes it's an easy goal to achieve and sometimes it's not.  It depends.

One factor involves the native abilities the tiger or lion brings to the lesson. Tigers do sit-ups frequently as part of their natural behavior, so most of them are ready to learn how to do it on cue.

Lions are slightly less prone to do a sit-up naturally and also come with a physical limitation that requires some accommodation—a really thick tail base that can get in the way when trying to sit upright. You sometimes have to take more time with lions—perhaps altering the surface a bit and providing soothing reassurance—to get them comfortable with a sit-up on cue.

A standard sit-up may take more time and effort with an easily-annoyed lion than with an eager tiger.  But the outcome is the same.

Another factor is the level of experience and expertise the trainer brings to the lesson. As I stated earlier, after a while, you can get success in training a sit-up more efficiently than when you first started.  You've experimented with what works best for different individual cats—and you've seen all kinds of cats by then.

The very best of those highly skilled trainers who can "teach any cat a sit-up" are those who have not let failures stop them.  Instead, they persist in trying out new (or old) techniques that may work better with certain animals. They have accumulated more tools in their toolbox.

What can we use from this in our teaching?


  • There are some basic learning outcomes that are considered to essential.  We'll call them "core outcomes."
  • The core outcomes must be mastered before any advanced outcomes are possible.
  • Sometimes core outcomes can be easily achieved, sometimes not.
  • Some learners are ready—they have existing abilities—to learn a core outcome quickly.
  • Some learners come with challenges that must be addressed as they master a core outcome.
  • Learners who take more time and effort—and perhaps some accommodations in how lessons are taught—can often still achieve the same outcomes as other learners.
  • Teachers can become more effective as they are exposed to more teaching experiences with more students.  
  • Teachers who persist when confronted with failure often evolve into expert educators.
  • Experienced teachers often have more tools in their toolbox from which to choose when dealing with particular students or teaching challenges.




Photo credit: Circus No Spin Zone
      


Seat!

Lions on their seats
Today was the first day of classes for my youngest son, who is very excited to start fourth grade.  He's already met his teacher and a couple of days ago, we all went to his classroom where he found his assigned seat and got himself all set up with his school supplies.  His teacher went over a couple of things regarding what to expect when you start fourth grade in her classroom.

This is important.  Whether you're starting a new fourth grade class or a new semester in college, making your students comfortable on the first day is important.  They need to know how to find their seat and know that they'll be okay there.  And they need to know what fun they'll have in the classroom.

Most lions and tigers in a circus act go through the same process.

First, a lion is coaxed into the arena. They feel safe in their dens and don't really want to go out and explore. I know we think they just can't wait to escape, but they're usually terrified of getting out of their safe haven.

If the lion doesn't have a good time during their first time in the arena, it will be hard to get them to go back. Luckily, they've already met the teacher.  He or she is the one who has been feeding them, caring for them, spending time with them, and talking to them.  The next thing is show the lion his seat.  That's the pedestal assigned to him (and only him).  Just like in fourth grade.  It's a "home away from home" in this new place.

For lions, we coax them up onto the seat.  A gentle nudge, some soothing verbal coaxing, a tidbit of meat . . . and the lion is on his seat.  We say "Seat!" or "Platz! [place!]" or something like that.  So that the lion gets conditioned to the signal to go to his assigned seat.

Then we coax the lion down from his seat.  Partly so we can then say, "Seat!" and get him back onto his pedestal. Such repetition is needed for learning, right?  But it's partly to get him out exploring his new "classroom."  Just like on fourth-grade back-to-school night when my son and all his classmates were excitedly exploring their new classroom.

Thus, a lion gets comfortable with the arena--both the parts that belong to him and the parts that are shared.

It's also a good opportunity to see what the lion likes to do when he plays.  Is he scared of that big barrel or does he try to get it to roll?  Does he like climbing on props or does he prefer slinking under them?  Does he instead seem to like jumping over them?  This knowledge will be used by the lion tamer to figure out what kind of things each lion will excel at, or at least how to get him interested in learning new behaviors.

Also, we learn what things the lion is kinda scared of.  So we can be more careful with those things that might cause some initial fear.

Likewise, a teacher can get to know a lot about the strengths and weaknesses of new students by chatting with them as they explore their new classroom.

When called back to "Seat!" the lion also learns which behaviors are acceptable while seated and which are not.  Turning around is not good.  The lion tamer needs the attention of each animal pretty much all the time.  Also, turning around to face the audience could be frightening to the circus patrons!  Laying down and snoozing (a favorite pastime of lions): also not good.  Jumping down from the pedestal without being called down by the tamer: really bad.  Distracting the other cats: not acceptable.

Another crucial element during a lion's first experience in the arena is how to get out quickly, safely, and comfortably.  Usually, the command is something like, "Go home!" or "House!" or something along those lines.  Usually, it's accompanied by the additional cue of the exit door rattling.  This is important.  Not only to get everyone out in an orderly way.  But if something bad happens, like a fight or attack or a fire, then all the remaining cats can be evacuated before they get hurt.

So what are some practical applications of these ideas?  Consider these practices to help your students get comfortable right away?
  • Be conscious of the fact that nearly all of your students will first enter your course with some hesitation.  
    • So making an effort to be particularly soothing and welcoming can be very effective.
  • At the first opportunity, encourage students to roam around and explore.
    • For example, in my biology courses I want students to play with the models and specimens.
    • Chat informally with students before the first class and get to what they're excited about and what they're afraid of.  
    • The first thing I do, is break my students into small groups and ask them to generate a list of questions they have about my course.
      • Then I give them the syllabus and let them explore that and try to find their answers.
      • While this is going on, I'm strolling around and informally chatting with them.
  • Consider meeting your students ahead of time.  
    • That way, they're already comfortable before the first day.
    • Try getting word out that you want students to drop and introduce themselves before the first class.
    • Try hosting an "open house" in your classroom before classes start.
    • Post some information about yourself online (your faculty webpage, for example).
  • Teach them to "Seat!" properly
    • You might consider assigned seats, at least to start out.
    • If seating is open, then be sure to let them know which behaviors are acceptable and which behaviors are not
      • What's your policy on asking/discussing during class?
      • Are mobile devices allowed?
      • What about bathroom breaks?
      • Snacking OK?
      • Interrupting or distracting other learners?
  • Teach them about exiting safely.
    • Be courteous and don't loiter in the doorway as classes change.
    • Where to go in a fire, tornado, or other emergency?
Getting off to a good start is critical to success throughout the course!


      


Do overs

Alexander Lacey and lions
Last week, I saw Alexander Lacey's mixed lion and tiger act for the first time. Wow. I've seen a lot of really good lion acts and I can say this is one of my favorites.

One of the things that struck me about Lacey's act was that one of the most impressive behaviors--a series of cat-over-cat leaps around the arena--took two tries.

When they tried it the first time, it fell apart almost from the start. I thought, wow, that one didn't work and sort of expected him to just move on to the next thing. Circus acts are often timed so tightly in the program that taking a lot of extra time can really throw things off for the rest of the show.

But Lacey did NOT just go to the next thing. He put the cats back on their seats, called them down again, and then started them on the same trick. And wow, did it pop the second time. Over and over and over again the cats leapfrogged each other. I could hear folks saying, "look at that that!" to their parents . . . or their kids.

I thought to myself at the time, "good choice!" in starting over. For selfish reasons, I'm glad I got to see it done right. But I also realized that if he didn't make them do it again, the cats may get the idea that they only have to do it when they felt like it. And eventually, they may never really want to bother with such an energetic trick. You know how cats are . . . especially when they realize that you're going to love them and feed them and rub their ears no matter what.

One CAN let it go, then later have a practice session in which it gets repeated over and over and over until nobody thinks it's okay to just skip it. But it works much better if you have a do-over each and every time it doesn't work.

Likewise, in classroom teaching, a series of do-overs is just about the only way to eventually achieve mastery. Remember my previous post Practice, practice, practice?

Sometimes it is inconvenient, even frustrating, to stop the flow of things and work on something that you thought your students had already mastered. One COULD just let it go. Perhaps make a note to practice that part again some other time. But it's much more effective if you just stop at that moment and correct it. And maybe, just maybe, all it takes is that second try. Not a whole afternoon on some other day. And maybe, just maybe, this'll be the time they finally "get it" and it's a finished and polished "part of the act."

Want to see Lacey's act? Check out this video.

 


You won't find the wonderful leapfrog trick in the video.  The video was published just a few months ago, so I'm thinking that the leaping trick is new to the act.  So I guess it'll be a while before mastery is acheived, eh?
      


The learning environment

Photo of Jules Jacot with St. Louis Zoo lion show.
Pedestals placed "just so" or this pyramid will fall apart.
Next time you are at a circus, watch what's going on during intermission.  Or on the ground during an aerial act high above your head.  What you'll see is a flurry of activity as the artists coming up next are checking and testing their equipment. 

Before the lion or tiger act, you'll not only see the big net or cage go up . . . you'll see the lion tamer walking through the whole set up.  He or she will be adjusting the position of a stool here and there.  Looking around for stray items.  Making sure the door locks securely.

If you know cats, you know that anything out of place can be a major distraction.  Which can spell major disaster for both the animals and the trainers.  Besides that, who wants to watch an act that isn't working?  No fun for anybody, then.

Likewise, teachers need to check out the learning environment every day.

Like lions and tigers, students entering their classroom have an expectation that everything will be in its place and working properly.  When it's not, that can be distracting.  That probably won't trigger a deadly fight, as it might in a lion act, but it will definitely disrupt the learning process.  Possibly in a dramatic way.

Here's an example.  I was teaching a class in a large medical school lecture hall.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday morning I went to the room a half hour early to check out "the arena."  Mine was the first class of the day, so it was easy.  But I also try to do that even when my class comes later in the day.  I'd check the sound system, walk around making sure everything was reasonably clean and in good order.  One day, I walked in to the room to find that the entire ceiling had fallen down!  It was a "drop ceiling" and remodeling of the room above had loosened the ceiling anchors.

I was able to quickly find another lecture to which I could move my class.  I put up signs telling students where to go.  I got my department administrator to make arrangement for a long-term room reassignment.  We didn't miss a beat.  The learning process was not interrupted in the dramatic way it would had I not happened to check out the room that morning.

How many times have we had classroom technology not work correctly just at that "light bulb moment" when we needed it work and bring home a complex concept for our students?  How many times have we found that our students were distracted all day by a flickering light tube? 

Had we checked out these things ahead of time, we wouldn't have those problems.  Or at least we'd avoid spending "learning time" trying to secure help to get things fixed.  Things would have gone a lot more smoothly in terms of teaching and learning.

So just as I did when I was a lion tamer, I take an extra few moments every day to check out my spaces to do what I can to make sure that avoidable problems are taken care of before they harm my students' ability to benefit from the learning environment.
      


Lion taming team

Assistant letting a lion into the arena
If you've ever seen a lion act, you may not have noticed the men and women in nondescript coveralls along the edges of the ring (sometimes even inside the cage).  You're not supposed to notice them, so don't feel bad if you didn't.  The spotlight is supposed to be on the lion tamer and the lions . . . not the rest of the lion taming team.

Anybody in the entertainment industry knows that the term "solo performer" does not mean that only one person is involved in presenting what you are seeing and hearing.  This is absolutely true in lion taming as well.  One person may take the spotlight, but a coordinated team effort is required to successfully train and present a lion or tiger act.

 During training, assistants inside and outside the practice arena are needed to supply treats (usually bits of fresh meat), position props, and move animals into and out of the arena.  These assistants usually help guide each animal during training and practice, meaning that more than one person is actually training the animals.  Sometimes an assistant guides one animal and the lion tamer another animal as they learn a behavior that requires two animals acting at the same time.

During a performance, sometimes it's the assistant helping to cue a particular animal to leave its seat and move to the middle of the arena, to enter or exit the arena, or stay put on their seat during another animal's time in the center.  The assistants keep watch on the seated animals so that the lion tamer can focus on the animal(s) performing at the moment.  Often, it's the assistants to rush to help diffuse a dangerous situation if it arises.

The best lion tamers are those who know that they alone cannot pull it off.  They are the lion tamers who spend extra time and energy building a team that can effectively work together.

Likewise, the best teachers are those who know how to use the team approach successfully.  

I've known teachers who do not respect other professionals involved in the learning process and fail to involve them in the learning process effectively.  Which often adversely affects the quality of learning in their courses.

For example, do we go out of our way to include library professionals, safety officers, maintenance and housekeeping staff, learning specialists, accessibility teams, and others in our planning and execution of our teaching? 

If we don't develop the habit of including ideas from--and enlisting active cooperation from--our teaching team, then we run the risk of being "eaten alive" when things don't go as planned.

Here are a few ideas to get started in team thinking.
  • Library professionals are often eager to assist in researching content updates and new teaching approaches. They're often willing to walk our students through the "how-to" methods of doing research for their class projects. I've had librarians help me keep an eye out for new books and new articles that I'm likely to find interesting or useful.
  • Safety officers can help us plan some strategies in  dealing with aggressive students or other potential hazards.  Developing a good relationship with your safety team makes all of you more comfortable and confident as you "perform" your daily work.
  • Maintenance and housekeeping staff, when made part of your team, are often willing to assist you in keeping your classroom spaces "just the way you like them" to facilitate teaching and learning.  They often have some great ideas for making your space even better!  By having a working relationship with them, you are more likely to get the help you need--and get it right away--when things go wrong.
  • Learning specialists and accessibility staff often have some useful tips and shortcuts, especially when dealing with challenging students and challenging groups.
Like circus-goers, we often let those team members in "nondescript coveralls" become invisible to us.  But it's better to be more like the lion tamer to relies heavily on their help to succeed. 




      


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