Errorless Learning or Learning from our Mistakes?

October 23, 2014 BY Kira Wright, CCC-SLP

Have you heard of “errorless learning”? It is a theory of learning developed by psychologist B. F. Skinner to describe a learning environment that is exactly tailored to the learners needs and level of performance. The term is thrown around in discussions about speech/language therapy to describe the way we scaffold support to allow students to work at a level where they can be successful. This might include having our student with articulation goals work on the isolated sound in front of the mirror before trying to put it in a word or syllable. Or it might mean starting work on asking questions with a direct model that the student repeats, and fading cues their skills improve.

But what about all the inspiring information out there about the best learning coming from our mistakes, like this and this?

How can we scaffold support for students so that there are lots of correct productions and successful experiences to strengthen the neural pathways of newly developing skills AND encourage student to take risks and make mistakes and learn from them. Maybe it’s not as contradictory as it seems…

Building new habits requires lots of repetition. We want our student to repeat correct responses, not reinforce their mistakes. We are, after all, providing specially designed instruction to students, who, for whatever reason, did not learn these speech/language habits the same way their peers did – by listening and watching correct models around them. Their IEP team has decided that they need explicit instruction in these areas.

But instead of ‘mistakes’ could we think about learning by taking risks? Here are a couple of ideas on how we can support our students to take risks:

  • We can help kids identify what they’re working on – remind students why they’re doing what they’re doing, have the student explain what he’s doing to a parent or teacher!
  • We can experiment by taking risks ourselves – by trying new things in therapy and modeling our thinking:
    • “I’m going to try a new way of explaining this…”
    • “Wow! That seemed to work really well. I’m going to make a note of that so I can use it with other groups!”
    • “Hmmm, that didn’t seem to go so well. I’m going to need to think about a different way of doing that.”
  • We can support risk-taking in our colleagues and professional teams
    • “What did you try today?” “Here’s what I’m doing. Do you have any ideas?”

Pay attention to the work you do this week. How do you find balance between practicing success and taking risks?

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