Errorless Learning II

Seems like I’ve been eating a lot of humble pie lately. Pull up a chair and have a slice with me, won’t you?

This is an addendum to and correction of my post on Errorless Learning.

A knowledgeable Internet friend  gently let me know a few things about the origin of Errorless Learning that I had incorrect in my earlier post. She was generous with her time and patient with my learning curve. These misconceptions affected some of my conclusions as well. I’m letting my earlier article stand, since there is still much in there that I think is worthwhile and accurate. But I’m linking them and I hope anyone who read it will read this as well.

Mine were common misconceptions. Up until today, the Wikipedia article on errorless learning, along with quite a few other posts and articles, attributed the term to Herbert Terrace and cited his experiments with pigeons as the beginning of its usage, as did I. But in 1963, behaviorists, psychologists, and educators had been discussing errorless learning for 30 years.

Errorless learning was an instructional design introduced by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s. There was controversy at the time, and following, about whether errors were necessary in learning a behavior. Jesus Rosales-Ruiz summarized the approach from Skinner’s 1968 book The Technology of Teaching as follows:

“In [Skinner’s] system, errors are not necessary for learning to occur. Errors are not a function of learning or vice-versa nor are they blamed on the learner. Errors are a function of poor analysis of behavior, a poorly designed shaping program, moving too fast from step to step in the program, and the lack of the prerequisite behavior necessary for success in the program” (Rosales-Ruiz, 2007).

It helps to know that Skinner was responding to the then-famous 1898 Thorndike paper called “Trial and Error Learning” which posited that learning was a slow and laborious process. Skinner’s response was that it didn’t  have to be–with proper planning, the teacher could grease the skids for the learner and learning could be achieved through “trial” only. Hence “errorless learning.”

Skinner’s system has been summarized really well elsewhere so I’m not going to go into it at length in this post. I may later, since it seems overshadowed by Terrace’s work and is fascinating. My friend summed it up as an anti-lumping program: through good planning make the correct behavior so easy as to be almost inevitable, slice the desired behavior/s thinly and maintain a very high rate of reinforcement. This method is highly humane, in contrast to what I was objecting to in my other post. But it’s more than “setting the animal up for success” as we think of it in a general way. As I understand it, it entails much more planning and prompting than we usually see, even in clicker training these days.

Terrace’s work, on which I based my objections in the other post, was an example of how low the error rate could be pushed down with extreme planning and control of the environment and training. I still maintain that the level of control he maintained with pigeons in the lab would be not only unfeasible but some aspects actually undesirable in our home environments. And I maintain, if not skepticism, an appreciation of the challenges inherent in teaching a later conflicting behavior if one behavior were taught with controls similar to Terrace’s, and especially with the number of repetitions. However, these concerns cancel out. If we can’t attain the control and terrifically low rate of error Terrace got in the first place, we aren’t going to have the problems that Marsh and Johnson‘s pigeons had in learning a conflicting behavior.

Geikie, a greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, in a color discrimination session with a high rate of reinforcement
Geikie, a greater sulfur-crested cockatoo, in a color discrimination session with a high rate of reinforcement

Another astute reader questioned the logic of saying that the design of the experiment defined the concept or the term (thanks Margery!). Turned out she was right on target, since the concept and the name predated the experiments. Not only that, but the educational work she described doing herself in her comment on  the original post is directly related to the early learning methods for humans that Skinner worked on. Which were also very humane, pleasant, and natural for the learner.

The Method vs the Term

Which brings me back to one of my original gripes. The term itself. But first I can now say what is good about the term. It refers to the fact that a subject does not need to make errors to learn a behavior.

What I don’t like about the term remains: it is inaccurate and unattainable for lots of behaviors for most of us in real world training. Jesus Rosales Ruiz writes in a piece that discusses errorless learning in a positive way,

“At each step of the program, the learner has a reasonable chance of success….Good shaping is characterized by high rates of reinforcement and low use of extinction.”  (emphasis mine)

Dr. Rosales Ruiz trains in an academic setting, but also in the real world. “Reasonable chance” of success is not 100%. And “low use of extinction” is not 0%. These are much friendlier terms for the average trainer. But as my friend reminds me, if we treat the term “errorless” as an ideal and put our mind and heart into setting the animal up to succeed as much as possible, we will get really good training.

The Rosales Ruiz article is available as a download in this post in Mary Hunter’s great blog. It is a must-read.

I have a final objection to the term, not the method. It is probably the most important of all that I have said.

I don’t like it because it can make people feel bad, and thereby discourage them. Approaching zero errors requires not only great control over the learning environment, but great skill, which many of us don’t have. For literal people, the term itself, coupled with the amazingly low error rate in Terrace’s article that is always cited, can make the whole concept daunting and unapproachable.

In my other post I suggested a couple of candidate behaviors for errorless learning; behaviors for which there is no potential conflicting opposite behavior, such as scent work like a diabetic alert. There is another obvious candidate in the dog world: house training. We really would prefer no mistakes, and hardly anybody anymore would say that is is important that the dog have an accident in the house and be punished for it for their understanding to become complete. It’s a great example. However, I know several people who thought they were utter failures because they failed to live up to the “no accidents” and errorless approach that is written about in at least one puppy book, including dire predictions of terrible things that will happen if there are errors.

Is this use of a pee pad in error?
Is Summer’s use of a pee pad in error?

Which brings me to my final point. If the role/goal of the teacher is to set the student up for success and make the desired behavior the easiest and most likely, shouldn’t the term itself focus on success and not errors? Also, Skinner himself said that it was about the teaching, not the learning.  I would never have written any of these rants if the term had been something Enhanced Chances of Success Teaching instead of Errorless Learning. But I doubt if the whole educational world is going to change its nomenclature just for me.

Grins. Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:

Eileenanddogs on Youtube

P.S. A Project

The Wikipedia article has been amended to begin with Skinner’s role in errorless learning and now has several references for that. However, the bulk of the article is still about Terrace’s work, which is actually just one of the many offshoots.  Skinner’s method and the discussions from the 1930s on need to be the focus. It would be great if somebody who knows about that history, or wants to read up on it, would further edit the article.

20 thoughts on “Errorless Learning II

  1. >>However, I know several people who thought they were utter failures because they failed to live up to the “no accidents” and errorless approach that is written about in at least one puppy book, including dire predictions of terrible things that will happen if there are errors.<<

    Ahhh. I feel so heard and validated. 🙂

    I was also thinking, when I read your previous post, that one behavior that would seem to be good for "errorless training" (in other words, something that I can't think of needing to train the opposite of) is the recall.

    1. You bet about the recall!

      I’m glad you feel heard and validated. I felt a lot better when I got down to why, exactly, that whole thing was bugging me so much. Here’s something I almost put in the post but didn’t since it was a little beside the point. When I got puppy Clara, I did everything “the puppy book” said and more, regarding house training. I took her way more often than once an hour. But we had many accidents. I figured out that they happened when she was playing with Zani. I started setting a timer for every 5 minutes, yes, you read that right, whenever they were playing. I took her out every 5 minutes. And even that was not enough. No, she didn’t have a bladder infection. She always had a rather large capacity and duration for a puppy otherwise. It was just that exciting to her. So Clara probably had dozens of little accidents. But she is still beautifully house trained (I don’t take all the credit; she might be a natural) and tied with Zani in the thoroughness of her understanding. I don’t think there is anybody who could have avoided those accidents unless they banned play with the other dogs. I didn’t punish the accidents in any way except for the occasional involuntary sigh or muttered curse. And everything still came out all right.

    2. Nitpicking here, but wouldn’t the opposite of the recall be the send away?

      Granted, most don’t train it.

      1. Shoshannah I think that’s a great nitpick. I did think about it as I wrote, then decided to let it slide. But your catching it is making me think about it some more. I don’t think it’s that recall is a bad example of what I’m talking about. I think that “opposite” is the wrong word. I’m scrambling to describe it better. It involves actually a decision between two “like” things that could be easily confused. (Discrimination.) Left and right are “opposite,” but red and blue or yellow and blue are not (red and green are). Clockwise and counterclockwise are “opposite,” but sit, down, and stand are not. They’re just easily confused. And although recall and go out (or back up, if you want to get really cute about it) are opposites, they are not easily confused. I don’t think teaching an errorless recall would interfere in any way with teaching a dog to go out to a target, do you? I’d love other thoughts on how to describe what I’m talking about. Discrimination is the best term I’ve heard, but with a wider definition from what we are used to… Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  2. I commend your efforts in making additions to original piece, and in such detail! Complete kudos to your willingness to listen to your audience. This post was very interesting and now I’ve got to go back and read what you originally wrote.

    1. Tegan, thank you. That feels really good. At first I took on the project with some dread, but then my ego receded and it just became another opportunity to learn something new.

  3. “What I don’t like about the term remains: it is inaccurate and unattainable for lots of behaviors for most of us in real world training.”

    I agree. I love the Art and Science of dog training but I often have to remind myself the majority who need the training help the most (pet owners, not dog enthusiasts/trainers) have no clue what those terms mean and they don’t have the time and patience to follow through.

    P.S. Another chuckle at “muttered curse”!
    I’m a management freak but some my fosters still had accidents. So I know exactly what those “muttered curses” mean. Dogs are living animals and so are we. We make errors. (depending on what we call an error) We must have a good sense of humors like that.

    1. I’m pleased to make you chuckle twice in a row, now! You know I’m not a professional trainer but I hang out with them and I can just hear what they would say if someone suggested that they talk to their pet owner clients about errorless learning! It’s a hard enough road to get them to stop punishing “errors,” most of the time. It would be mind blowing to tell them that they as the trainer are responsible for all mistakes and that their job is to get them down to zero. I’m exaggerating a little, but that is what errorless means!

  4. Very interesting! I always took “errorless learning” to mean that the handler does not use NRM’s or any kind of aversive to mark errors in training, not that it meant that the dog was never going to make mistakes. Meaning, in other words, the dog is never considered to be “wrong” in the training process, even if errors do happen. I don’t really use the term, but if I have in the past, that is what I would have meant. Your two posts certainly provide a great opportunity to consider the term further.

    1. Thanks, ksammie3. I think one of the problems with the term is that it can mean so many things. I’m sticking with “reduced error learning” now myself. Not only is it more realistic and less daunting, it can’t be mixed up with marking errors. Thanks for reading both the posts. Wow!

  5. This line says it all for me: “If the role/goal of the teacher is to set the student up for success and make the desired behavior the easiest and most likely, shouldn’t the term itself focus on success and not errors?”. I actually enjoyed both of these pieces, Eileen, because without the first, one may not have questioned either the term or the (implied) methodology in detail. Thanks for posting both! Linda

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