Sunday Science: What skills are missing?

Science Sunday posts are short posts about the science of animal behavior and training. They often feature a quote or a passage of text. Spend a moment today thinking about the ideas in the post. As always, you can share your thoughts or questions in the comments section.

Behavior Analysis Book Shelf

I was looking back through Murray Sidman’s 1985 article about errorless learning (which I blogged a bit about last month) and found the following quote. I’ve always loved this passage of text, but I thought that now was quite the appropriate time to share it, as some of the ideas discussed in the quote relate to some of the concepts we discussed at the recent clicker training clinic with Alexandra Kurland.

In developing a programmed text on Neuroanatomy for medical students (Sidman & Sidman, 1965), we tested the material many times in order to discover which text items were causing the students to make mistakes. When we found many errors on a particular item, we were usually able to eliminate the error not by revising that item, but by revising material that had come before, sometimes long before. We almost always found that we had taught prerequisite information badly, often by just presenting textual material rather than requiring the student to base some behavior on that material—completing a diagram, reading a cranial cross section, etc. By teaching that particular prerequisite more effectively, we were always able to eliminate or greatly reduce the later errors.

Murray Sidman
Errorless learning and its significance for teaching the mentally handicapped, 1985

The sentence that I love in this passage is the second one:

When we found many errors on a particular item, we were usually able to eliminate the error not by revising that item, but by revising material that had come before, sometimes long before.

Siman - revising errors

Often, when an animal (or human) is making mistakes, we try to fix the problem by working on the behavior or skill that is troublesome. If the horse is having trouble picking up the left canter lead, we work on canter departs. If the dog barks when the doorbell rings and then jumps on people, we work on greeting manners by having friends come to the door.

However, rather than working on the problem where the problem is occurring, often the simpler solution is to figure out what pre-requisite skills or component behaviors are missing and to work on these instead. This can save you a lot of time in the long run and lead to a much higher quality behavior or performance. However, sometimes this requires going way, way back and teaching or reteaching a foundation lesson or behavior that got skipped over or that didn’t get taught as well as it should have the first time.

By filling in holes in the foundation, the problems or mistakes that were happening at the more advanced level are often fixed on their own.

Have you experienced this in your teaching or training?

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  • Jenny H

    OH, Mary!
    Wonderful quote/insight!
    I never realised, but it explains SO much, not only about teaching kids, but also about the troubles which I had myself with certain subjects!
    It also explains so well the very real necessity in the “foundations” for all learners.
    Unfortunately Sidman was writing after I did my DipEd, and while I was busy teaching!

  • Heather Lawson

    Fabulous note & a great reminder. ALWAYS part of our class discussions – Sand Foundation vs Brick Foundation – which is going to stand up longer.