The problem with errorless learning

Content warning: This is a somewhat graphic post about ABA that links an even more graphic post.

There’s a particular variant on ABA called “errorless learning”, which works like this:

  • You break a task down into small steps
  • Then do discrete trials of the steps, over and over (If you want to know more about what discrete trials are, this post by a former ABA therapist explains it).
  • When someone does it right, you reinforce in some way (either by praise or something concrete)
  • When they do it wrong, you either ignore it, or prompt and reinforce a correct response

This is considered by many to be a kinder, gentler form of ABA than punishing incorrect responses. (And maybe in some sense it isn’t as bad as hitting someone, taking their food away, or shocking them. But that’s not the same as actually being respectful. Respecting someone takes much more than refraining from hitting them.)

Errorless learning is not actually a good or kind way to teach someone. It is profoundly disrespectful.

When you ignore responses that deviate from prompts, that means that you’re ignoring a human being whenever they did something unexpected or different from what you wanted them to do. It means you’re treating their unscripted responses as meaningless, and unworthy of any acknowledgment.

That’s not a good thing to do, even with actual errors. When people make mistakes, they’re still people, and they still need to be acknowledged as thinking people who are making choices and doing things.

Further - not every response that deviates from the response you’re trying to prompt is actually an incorrect response. There are a lot of reasons that someone might choose to do something else. Not all of them are a failure to understand; not all of them are incorrect in any meaningful sense.

For instance: they might be trying to communicate something meaningful:

  • They might be putting the story pictures in a different order than you’re prompting, because they have made up a different story than the one you’re thinking of
  • They might be giving you the boat instead of the apple when you say “give apple” because they are making a joke about the boat’s name being Apple

They might be intentionally defying you in a way that deserves respect:

  • They may be of the opinion that they have better things to do than put the blue block in the blue box for the zillionth time
  • They might know perfectly well what you mean by “give apple”, but think that eating it is a better idea
  • They might be refusing to make eye contact because it hurts

They might be thinking of the task in a different way than you are:

  • They might choosing to use a different hand position than the one you’re prompting, even if they understand what you want them to do
  • For instance, they might have discovered that something else works better for them as a way of tying their shoes
  • Or they might want to try different things
  • Or the position you’re using might hurt

People do things for reasons, and those reasons aren’t reducible to antecedents and consequences. People have an inner life, and their thoughts matter. Even children. Even nonverbal children who need a lot of help doing things. Even adults with severe cognitive impairments. Even people who have no apparent language. All people think about things and make decisions, and those decisions are meaningful. All people deserve to have their thoughts and decisions acknowledged - including their mistakes.

When you teach someone something, acknowledge all their responses as meaningful, whether or not they are what you expected.