B. F. Skinner and Errorless Learning

Happy Birthday, B. F. Skinner!

Yesterday, March 20, was Dr. B. F. Skinner’s birthday.

In honor of Dr. Skinner’s birthday, I shared the following quote on my Stale Cheerios Instagram account and Facebook page.

Skinner writes: “The implication that learning occurs only when errors are made is false.” This quote comes from his 1968 book, The Technology of Teaching.

Our culture teaches us that learning should be hard. 

That we learn by making mistakes over and over again.

That lots of errors are a necessary part of learning. 

However, early behavior analysts proved otherwise. Errors are not needed for successful learning to take place, even for complex tasks.

One of my favorite parts about graduate school was learning about research that was done related to errorless learning and programmed instruction in the 1950s and 1960s. 

What IS needed is for successful learning is:
— A thorough understanding of the behavior that is to be taught
— An analysis of the learner’s entering repertoire
— A well-designed set of shaping steps 
— An understanding of how to use positive reinforcement effectively, and 
— A responsive teacher who can make adjustments, as needed. 

When these conditions are met, we can produce learning with minimal, if no, errors. 

Of course, in practice, this ideal is often much easier said than done!

Creating learning with minimal errors requires a great deal of knowledge, work, and effort on the teacher’s part. 

But, I think it is inspiring to embrace the idea that errors aren’t necessary for learning. 

We can strive for this ideal in our training, and we can work to create training programs that help our horses and other animals learn with happiness and confidence. 

Source: This quote comes from the first chapter of one of Skinner’s books, The Technology of Teaching, which was published in 1968. You can purchase an ebook of this book on the Skinner foundation website for a nominal price.

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