A dog learning to open a door
On the 8th of June I watched Tyson Seburn’s video of his dog learning to open a door to get a toy.
A number of things struck me.
1) at first the dog, Lou, tries to squeeze through the gap but it’s not wide enough
2) however the door does open just a tiny bit more
3) at 0:31 the dog puts its forepaw on the outside of the door but doesn’t really pull the door towards itself. However, the door moves a little
4) then the man watching and encouraging the dog (?Tyson) moves the toy closer to the gap – 1:12
5) this stimulates the dog to greater activity and it puts its head through the gap, grabs the ball and retreats into the other room – 1:22
6) the man continues to call the dog which finally pushes its whole body through the gap – 1:42
How I interpret the dog story
Lou seems to be a young dog – possibly trying to get through a door left ajar for the first time. If it has had experience of other “gaps” they will not have moved in response to its trying to push through. Doors on well-oiled hinges are different – which we know from experience but a young dog doesn’t.
Lou works on the principle of “trial and error”: alternately patting the the wall and the door with its forepaws, jumping up at the wall near the door (in the inside room), pushing its nose under the door and maybe other things we can’t see from our side of the door.
By moving the toy closer the man both makes the dog more eager to get the toy and makes the task a little easier. Lou puts more energy into trying to get the toy than before and moves the door enough to get its head and shoulders through the gap.
Having got the toy, the dog loses interest in it – it drops it inside the room and returns to the door to try to get its whole self through. It does this quickly and easily – I would say, demonstrating a transfer from the first learning experience.
A cat learning to open a door
I was reminded of a similar experience observing my cat, Timide, about 4 years ago. She had learnt to open doors that were already ajar by pushing them when she was very young, but only learnt to open them by pulling when she was about 8. At the time of this incident she was about 10.
The cat had followed me into a room, and then immediately wanted to leave it again. The door was ajar but not sufficiently for her to squeeze through. Like the door in the video, it needed to be pulled towards the animal to open. She’d never pulled open this particular door before. This is what the cat did:
1) she stood on her hind legs and pushed with her paws against the handle side of the door – closing it even more
2) she did the same on the hinge side of the door which of course didn’t move at all
3) she returned to the handle side and tried several times to push the door open
4) she explored with her paws the gap under the door. The dog did too and they both seemed to realise quickly that it was far too narrow for them to squeeze under and abandoned the attempt
5) she tried again several times with me telling her all the time “This is a pull door not a push door” – perfectly useless as she couldn’t understand, of course
6) then she stopped trying to open the door, lay on her back on the floor, wriggling about and trying to catch her tail. I said “Silly cat! That’s not going to help you get out of the room.” But I was wrong.
7) After playing for about a minute, she jumped up and with no hesitation went to the door and pulled it open.
How I interpret the cat story
While she was fixated on the easier and more familiar way of opening doors, her mind was not free to evoke the other solutions she’d lived in the past.
When she took time off to play, she “unstuck” her mind from “pushing door” images and allowed “pulling door” images to become present.
This is something that happens to humans too – and having become aware of it, we can use it as a technique.
I also decided to film my cat opening the door. It’s one she has had little, if any practice in opening since she learnt to do so 4 years ago. On Friday it was clear the skill was not fully automatic – she didn’t show unhesitating mastery,
So today, Tuesday, I let her have another go:
To what would you attribute her progress?
A human example
Last week some friends visited my garden and asked the name of a flower that had seeded itself there. The local people call it “drop of blood” (goute de sang). I tried hard, but I couldn’t remember the official name. Yesterday, as I was watering the garden I looked at the flowers and the word “lychnis” just floated into my mind. I looked it up on DuckDuckGo and discovered its exact name is “lychnis coronaria”:
Relevance to language learning
What’s all this got to do with learning centredness in an EFL classroom? For me, a lot. When I see that a student doesn’t understand something because they are “pushing” when they need to be “pulling” (or vice versa), and even though they may feel quite desperate to find a solution, I make them put their attention on something quite different for a while. If possible, we come back to the problem the next day and lo and behold, by magic 😉 they find the solution. Some students can be quite frustrated at first until they see that temporarily “letting go” of a problem is a way of solving it. Others come to class already knowing. In French there’s a saying “La nuit porte conseil” – it’s more explicit than the English “Sleep on it!”