Home > Autism and Applied Behavior Analysis > Errorless learning is the way- time to think outside trial and error

Errorless learning is the way- time to think outside trial and error

Trial and error learning is often counterproductive and too often we cannot afford the cost of errors especially when teaching children with learning disabilities. The proponents of trial and error learning will show you the example of throwing a baby into water without any training and behold! it swims!!!!. This is not an entirely  accurate proposition as babies may have certain reflex actions in their repertoire that may look like they are born with an ability to swim but it  is not true. such an attempt would be downright dangerous and irresponsible. Check out http://www.babycenter.com/404_is-it-true-that-babies-are-born-with-the-ability-to-swim_10313062.bc

We see examples of the danger and disasters that trial and error learning cause all around us. Recall the girl who, while learning to reverse crashed her car into a pillar in the basement and could never learn to drive after that. Do you not come across hundreds of children who ” hate math” ? Well they tried to learn by trial and error  and came across failures that stunt learning. If this is the case with typically developing chidren ( and adults) the problem with errors is much higher in children with learning disabilities trying to learn a new skill. If you have tried to teach them or have observed them being taught and you find that they engage in escape behaviors, fright reactions , aggression or behaviors suggestive of anxiety it is very probable that error rates are high. The necessary pre-requisites for successful performance may be missing or some irrelevant aspects of teaching procedures could be dictating the child’s response.These are also true about typical population where students fail in exams or people fail in their jobs without adequate training.

Dr. Murray Sidman, a pioneering behavioral scientist in  a 2010 publication argues that the typical learning curves which show an acceleration towards a peak performance (during which period learning is progressively happening by trial and error) followed by a plateau appears like pat explanation only because  such curves are developed by aggregating data of the learning process of hundreds of individuals. If an individual’s learning is tracked there will be seen a lot discontinuities and irregularities. He then presents an alternative learning path which is that when all pre-requisite skills are taught there is an instantaneous vertical climb (no acceleration or curve) to performance with all learning and no error. He quotes two simple and elegant examples from the non-human kingdom.

B. F. Skinner, taught rats to press a lever in a chamber in a errorless fashion by teaching 5 pre-requisites. He first let them explore a chamber and experience that the environment was safe. By mixing food pellets with the rats regular food, he taught them that pellets were food too. He then dropped the pellets in a food tray occasionally and the clanking noise from the dispenser was a indication of when pellets would be available. soon the rats started going to the dispenser whenever the dispenser made a sound and they picked up their food pellets.  Next a  lever was introduced in the chamber. When the rat pressed the lever the first time, the dispenser operated making a sound, the rat went to the food tray and ate the pellet. There after it continued pressing the lever at a high rate pausing only to eat the food pellets dispensed. The rat acquired the ‘lever pressing skill’ in a immediate fashion ( see figure 2 below). Imagine another rat which was not trained in the pre-requisites being let inside a similar chamber. How long could it be before it starts pressing the lever and accessing food is anybody’s guess. The latter rat may even give up after the fist lever press and stay hungry and anxious because it does not have the pre-requisite training to look into the food tray or even identify the food pellet as a reward.

Terrace in his Doctoral dissertation in 1963 built on the foundation and demonstrated error-less learning with pigeons. The first goal was to teach them to peck a key only when red light was on and not when green light was on in a chamber. He achieved this with a set of pigeons errorlessly by having the red light on in normal intensity and rewarding lever presses. He introduced the green light ( to which the pigeons should not respond) in a gradual fashion from low intensity to eventually an intensity equaling the red light. These pigeons made no error responses – never pecked the key when green light was on and always pecked when red light was on. Compare this with another group of pigeons which were introduced to both the lights at equal intensity from the start and they made a large number of error responses before acquiring the discrimination that it is worth pecking only when red light is on. There were many other brilliant facets to the great experiments done by Terrace. Suffice to note that the pigeons that learnt errorlessly also performed better later much after the training was withdrawn. Their learning endured. Another important note is that errors do not produce rewards and hence can produce fright reactions or aggressive behaviors.

Figure from sidman (2010)

The dad who successfully manages to teach his young son to cycle was not only patient but also manipulating the learning in such a way as to avoid nasty falls or unsuccessful turns. Every successful coach works hard on pre-requisites training and minimizing errors though he may seen to be commandeering. You would have doubtless come across the story of someone who succeeded in the eighteenth attempt. If you are able to examine closely you will find that the previous 17 attempts involved gaining some new ground everytime , identifying missing pre-requisites and working on them diligently and the 18th is a success. Otherwise if the previous attempts were a utter failure with no rewards contacted or no new pre-requisites identified it would have stopped at 2 or 3?

Behavior Analysts work towards promoting error less learning by a variety  of research based procedures such as shaping, prompts combined with effective and timely prompt fading procedures, evaluating the use of time delay before providing prompts, adding cues that can be faded to stimulus materials before fading and arranging rewards in proportion to task difficulty. There is now a large body of research that confirms the efficacy of these procedures not only in effectively facilitating skill acquisition but also in minimizing  escape responses and aggression during the teaching process. Pairing of the instructor with positive experiences and rewards also plays a key role. If  errors still occur then a Behavior Analyst would go deeper into component skills and focus training on those.

Play, A., Activities, G., & Team, T. (2017). Is it true that babies are born with the ability to swim? | BabyCenter.            BabyCenter. Retrieved 3 February 2017, from http://www.babycenter.com/404_is-it-true-that-babies-are-born-with-the-ability-to-swim_10313062.bc

Sidman, M. (2010). Errorless learning and programmed instruction: The myth of the learning curve. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 11(2), 167-180.

Terrace, H. S. (1963). Errorless transfer of a discrimination across two continua. Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 6(2), 223-232.



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