Friday, 13 May 2016

What makes a great trainer? Balancing implicit and explicit knowledge

When I first started studying academic ethics, people would often half-jokingly ask whether I was trying to become a better person. What's the point of studying something like, being good, when clearly there are so many good people out there who have never sat a minute in a philosophy seminar? Doesn't that make academic ethics pointless? 

My reason for studying ethics had nothing to do with becoming more good and everything to do with being more reasonable. What fascinated me was why people who wanted to be good, ended up believing things that, to my mind, were bigoted and harmful. How could one person seemingly be completely committed to beliefs that, when you looked at them from further back, actively contradicted each other?

I wanted to understand my own beliefs about right and wrong, good and bad. To me, that meant I wanted to organize the gut feelings, lessons from comic books, and pangs of empathy that more or less made up my sense of morality into something I could look at with critical distance.

So I started learning about different ethical theories and concepts; creating a library of ideas, arguments and principles that I could think about explicitly. Every so often, I learned something that I really felt made me a better person for understanding it; Oliver Sense's interpretation of Kant's principles, for example. But I don't think that, overall, I'm any more ethical or virtuous than any other person. I just know how to spot contradictory beliefs, how to make a strong ethical argument, and how to see patterns in what a person is saying that suggests what kind of underlying understand of human nature they have. Having access to these explicit concepts makes me better able to see where I'm logically contradicting myself and (sometimes!) to convince other people that they're being irrational or bigoted. 

Recently, I read a blog that argued that dog trainers are beginning to place too much emphasis on learning the scientific principles that underpin the skills of training and behavior modification. The author suggested that trainers should focus on just training the dog, because training is a mechanical skill. 

I agree, training is a mechanical skill and it's entirely possible to be an excellent trainer without ever learning any of the relevant scientific principles. Just like it's possible to be a truly ethical person without knowing the difference between deontology and consequentialism. 

Knowledge that comes from disparate sources years of personal experience, the wise words of good teachers, gets assimilated in a person as implicit knowledge, which, when combined with physical dexterity and quick wits, can make for an expert in animal training.

But it's difficult to take that implicit knowledge and look at it objectively, which means it's difficult to see gaps, or where different parts are in conflict. This means it can be tricky to criticize your own beliefs, and to be flexible in cases where your usual approach isn't working. Making this knowledge explicit means labeling the concepts we're already working with as everyday trainers, as well as learning new concepts. This is good because it means we can communicate these concepts to other people, see patterns and contradictions, and critique our own methods. It gives us a new perspective on the way we train. Theory alone won't make us expert trainers, but it gives us something that experience cannot because of the way our brains work. 

Perhaps some dog trainers are reifying the study of scientific principles, some of which end up having no bearing on the way they train; in many ways this is understandable given the unregulated nature of the industry and the anti-intellectual bias still present in some dog training circles. This shouldn't lead to a backlash against learning the science at all, however. What we need to understand is that the mechanical skill and intuitive grasp of training can be enhanced by learning the science. It's important to focus on both sharpening skills and building that library of concepts'on both implicit and explicit knowledge. That's the way to balance.