When Everything Clicks | Hidden Brain There can be a lot of psychological noise involved in learning. And mental chit chat can make learning hard. One solution, silence it with a click.
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When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning

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When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning

When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning

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This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. Each day, teachers all over the world try to explain new ideas to their students. Sometimes it goes well. The teacher conveys information, the students absorb it. But many times, things get stuck. Students get frustrated and so do their teachers. The transmission of ideas gets bogged down in a morass of failed expectations.

I remember an exchange I had with my own father. I must have been around 10. He was trying to teach me a math concept - the order of operations - division before subtraction, multiplication before addition. I didn't get it. He thought it ought to be easy. He got frustrated. I felt stupid.

The worst part was that all the psychological turmoil got us nowhere. At the end of the day, he had failed to teach me something he knew, and I had failed to learn something I could have mastered. In fact, I might have internalized the wrong lessons - that I was bad at math or that my father thought poorly of me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why don't I understand?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: What does he think of me?

Why am I so bad at this?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why am I so bad at this?


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Why can't I get this?


Can I show him?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Can I make my dad proud?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Can I make my dad proud?

VEDANTAM: Today, we explore an innovative idea about how we learn. It'll take us from a dolphin exhibit in Hawaii to a top teaching hospital in New York. It's about one method to quiet the noise in our heads, the sort of clutter that can turn learning into a minefield of misery.

One evening in the early 1960s, after putting her kids to bed, a young mother sat in her living room and read a small technical manual on dolphin training. The ideas in it seemed new and strange. The woman felt an unexpected thrill. As she thumbed through the typewritten pages, she saw for herself a future she had never imagined.

KAREN PRYOR: It opened a door for me. I saw a whole new game there - how to - how to control behavior, how to build behavior, how to teach skills, all of that with a little set of clear-cut rules that would work with anything.

VEDANTAM: This is Karen Pryor.

PRYOR: I'm a biologist, and I'm also a writer.

VEDANTAM: Karen is now in her 80s and living in Boston. But back in the early '60s, she was in Hawaii raising three kids while her husband poured his energy into a grand venture; he was building Sea Life Park, the island's forest aquarium and marine entertainment venue. It was his startup, not Karen's.

PRYOR: I wasn't involved in the park at all, except to maybe give a dinner party for potential investors, you know - that kind of thing.

VEDANTAM: There was a lot at stake. Big dreams and big money had been poured into the project. And the timeline for the grand opening was tight. When the concrete had set at the huge artificial pools, collectors were sent out to capture wild dolphins. The next challenge was to train the animals. The park needed a dolphin trainer, a profession that didn't really exist.

PRYOR: The only trainers that were around in that time in the early '60s were sea lion trainers from the circus, and they were pretty abusive.

VEDANTAM: Now, the way we've come to think about marine parks has changed a lot in the last 50 years. It's frowned upon to get animals to perform tricks. It's illegal to capture whales and dolphins from the wild. But in the '60s, restrictions were looser, and social norms were different.

If the park and its methods were of a different time, the lessons Karen was to learn were timeless. The little manual the park had obtained, written by a graduate student in psychology, promised that anyone could be a dolphin trainer as long as the techniques it described were followed. Karen's husband hired a team of three people.

PRYOR: Two guys and a woman, but they couldn't make any sense out of the manual.

VEDANTAM: In desperation, Karen's husband turned to her. She was interested in the natural world. As a little girl, she learned the Latin name of every butterfly in her neighborhood. While studying at Cornell, she'd taken all the courses the school offered in natural history.

PRYOR: Entomology for insects, ornithology for birds, paleontology for fossils, geology for rocks.

VEDANTAM: But marine biology wasn't high on the list.

PRYOR: So I said, no, I really couldn't do that. I have three little children. I didn't want to go to work for my husband. He had enough to do. And I didn't think that would work out very well anyway. But he persuaded me to at least read the manual.

VEDANTAM: And that manual, the ideas it held, sparked something inside of Karen.

PRYOR: I just had to try it.

VEDANTAM: What Karen saw in the manual was a theory of behavior that had ignited a great debate in psychology in the preceding decades. Its implications were far-reaching, especially in the field of education. Let's take a moment to look at that history. In the early 20th century, one dominant view of why people behave the way they do came from Sigmund Freud.

BARRY SCHWARTZ: Freud was all about sort of the deep underlying motivations that got people to do stuff and how you had to plumb the depths of your often inaccessible human psychological processes to figure people out.

VEDANTAM: This is psychologist Barry Schwartz.

SCHWARTZ: Freud had this view that people were driven by really intense motives, many of them sexual, many of them having to do with relations with their parents that were so unacceptable that people kept them out of conscious awareness.

VEDANTAM: The unconscious - it was all hidden away in a little black box in the brain. Around the same time, the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov made a remarkable discovery. In an experiment that became famous, he showed that with the right triggers an animal could be trained to display involuntary behaviors. He called it classical conditioning.

SCHWARTZ: Pavlov was studying what he called reflexes. And, in fact, he called them psychic reflexes. So dogs salivate when you put food in their mouths, and they're built to do that. But if you sound a tone and then give them food, they start salivating to the tone.

VEDANTAM: The experiment has become so famous that documentaries have been made about it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Before passing meat through the hatch, he introduced a stimulus that was totally unrelated to feeding.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A ticking metronome.

VEDANTAM: Into this mix came an American. B.F. Skinner, like Ivan Pavlov, was interested in how animals learn. But he wanted to explore conscious behavior. He eventually came up with a theory that built on Pavlov and did away entirely with Freud. Skinner said you don't need to understand the unconscious mind to figure out what makes an animal take or to get it to learn something.

SCHWARTZ: You don't need all this depth. You don't need to quote, "understand what's going on inside." It's enough just to look at how behavior and environment interact. And Skinner had this view that it was really all about rewards and punishments, that if you got them right, you could pretty much get organisms to do whatever you wanted them to do.

VEDANTAM: For B.F. Skinner and other behaviorists, human behavior was only about what you could see and measure, and changing behavior was all about finding the right incentives.

SCHWARTZ: Good consequences follow, and you'll do it again. Bad consequences follow, and you'll stop doing it.

VEDANTAM: B.F. Skinner's theories became wildly popular. He presented his ideas to packed lecture halls and to film crews. He'd display a box he'd invented and describe how he used it with birds.


B.F. SKINNER: We're going to use hungry pigeons, and we're going to give them food.

VEDANTAM: He put a pigeon into his box.


SKINNER: And the food is presented with a little machine which lifts a tray of food within reach of the pigeon. The pigeon can get access to it through an opening in the space. And when the tray falls away, a pigeon can no longer eat.

VEDANTAM: The pigeon quickly learns to come when the machine engages. It's a simple example, but it can easily be made more complex. Maybe the pigeon must peck at a button to engage the machine or turn in a circle. With food as a reward, it can be taught a lot.


SKINNER: And we're going to try another pigeon now. And I will try to pick out some particular pattern of behavior and make it more - a more frequent part of the repertoire of the bird.

VEDANTAM: The behaviorist had another box to demonstrate negative reinforcement. He'd put a rat into the box with an electric current that caused it pain. But the box also had a lever that could switch off the current. The rat quickly learnt to go straight to the lever and turn off the electricity when it was placed inside the box.

B.F. Skinner's point was that you can get animals to do things they wouldn't normally do if you set up the incentives and disincentives correctly. These ideas just happened to be front and center and Karen Prior's little manual. It was a primer on what B.F. Skinner called operant conditioning.

PRYOR: What he meant by that was that the learner is the operator. The learner is going to deliberately, consciously do a behavior that will pay off for the learner.

VEDANTAM: The pigeon in Skinner's box tried different things. When it found the tray, it got the food. The pigeon, in effect, was teaching itself. It was exploring the box and figuring out what worked. Karen was enamored with this idea. But one thing she didn't care for was all the punishment built into her manual.

PRYOR: Like, if the dolphins didn't behave correctly, they would starve them for 24 hours. That's a very bad idea for these animals. Oh, they get all their water from their food here, and they can die of dehydration pretty quickly. So you know, there were a lot of things in there that I just junked right away.

VEDANTAM: Karen scrapped the punishments but emphasized another idea from the manual - the suggestion that you combine food rewards with an audible signal. She chose a whistle.


VEDANTAM: In some ways, this was building on Pavlov. Just as Pavlov had found that dogs would salivate at the sound of a metronome, the manual suggested that sounds could be used to precisely mark when an animal did something the trainer wanted.

PRYOR: The whistle is the signal that, at this very instant, you're doing absolutely the right thing, so you're going to get a prize. But the identification for the learner of exactly what you do - what you - when you have got it right, that acoustic sound, that acoustic message, whatever form it comes in, that is actually a thrill.

VEDANTAM: Barry Schwartz says the signal is like a placeholder.

SCHWARTZ: The animal feels good to hear the clicker because the clicker's associated with food. And now you can use the clicker, which is much less disruptive than the food, to produce this long chain of behavior that, you know, produces oohs and aahs from the people who are watching.

VEDANTAM: Karen got to work. She bought a hanging scale so she could keep track of how much food each animal needed to fill up. She made a training schedule, and she envisioned a show that dolphins could perform.

PRYOR: You know, to make a show of any kind, you need a beginning and a middle and high point and a happy ending.

VEDANTAM: And so Karen wrote a show about old Hawaii. It had girls in grass skirts and canoes and, of course, lots of dolphins.

PRYOR: And then we began training.


VEDANTAM: She started with basic stuff...

PRYOR: Simple behaviors, such as stick your nose out of the water.

VEDANTAM: ...And then built on those skills.

PRYOR: Stick your nose out higher, higher, higher until you're standing on your tail.

VEDANTAM: And then Karen got even fancier. She had a machine belt that made whistle sounds underwater so she could cue the dolphins to do tricks as a group. Karen admits she went through a lot of fish. Six months later, the park opened to the public.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: If there are flies everywhere, so there is cool, clear, blue water. Here, it's a 300,000-gallon tank - a Pacific marine land called Sea Life Park on the island of Oahu.

VEDANTAM: Karen's dolphins were ready. On command, they would spin, flip and slap their tails.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: They are marvelous to watch. Now here they are in slow motion. Suddenly, a lovely Hawaiian beauty appears, and the porpoises celebrate with a hula.

VEDANTAM: Karen's techniques quickly spread throughout the marine mammal training community and then to all kinds of other animal training from dogs...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: If you have a treat and you hold it over your dog's head, most likely, as you lift the treat up, the dog's butt will go down. And the moment you're going to click is when you see the muscles of the back legs moving into the sit.

VEDANTAM: ...To horses...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: So I'm going to reach up here, give her a little tap on top of her rump. And when she steps that leg in, I'm going to give her the marker signal, and then I'll give her a reward.

VEDANTAM: ...To heretofore untrainable animals, like cats, even chickens.


UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: In this video, I'll be showing you my chicken in a harness and doing a little clicker training.

VEDANTAM: Chickens, dogs, cats, horses, whales, ferrets, they've all been successfully trained using a clicker. Sometimes these animals, like Karen's dolphins and later the dogs she worked with, can master skills that are breathtaking in their precision and complexity. We've seen how the ideas of Ivan Pavlov, modified by B.F. Skinner and adapted by Karen Pryor could be successfully used to train animals. There's an obvious next question. If clickers work so well in training cats and dogs, can they play a role in helping humans learn?

In the 1960s, Karen Pryor discovered that positive reinforcement combined with a whistle was a powerful tool for training dolphins. Her work established the foundation of what we know today as clicker training. It's used with animals of all kinds but remains most popular with dogs.


MARTIN LEVY: Hi, I'm Marty, and this is my dog Meg. And we're going to show you some of the things we can do today.

VEDANTAM: Martin Levy is a big fan of clickers. He uses them to train his dogs to perform complex tricks. Martin has a website with videos showing off the skills he's taught his dogs - summersaults and serpentines and flying leaps. Martin got hooked on the sport some years ago. He quickly realized he didn't just have to train his dog, he had to train himself. When he was starting out, he struggled with one move. He just couldn't master it.

LEVY: I was trying to learn to throw a forehand wrist flick. When I would throw the disc, the disc would turn over, so I sought help. I had coaches waving at me, telling me to change the position of my hand, screaming at me while I was throwing, and the disc still failed and still rolled over. The thing that I knew was that the position of my hand was critical. My thumb had to be lower than my pinky in order for this to work.

VEDANTAM: But Martin just couldn't seem to get his hand into the right position.

LEVY: So I got to a dance mirror, and I put it in my basement. And I grabbed a fisherman's net, and I put it in front of the mirror so I could throw at it. And what became immediately evident was my thumb was higher than my pinky. OK. Now, what I could do was to walk over to the mirror, and I could put my thumb in a position where it was below my pinky. Well, in doing that, I could feel what my forearm felt like. I could feel the stress in my forearm. I could feel how my wrist felt. And now I could throw at the mirror and make sure that my thumb was under the pinky.

VEDANTAM: It was a huge learning moment for Martin. The mirror was doing something very important. It was providing him with instantaneous feedback.

LEVY: So here I am teaching this skill - I'm teaching it to myself. And by mirroring that, I could feel what it felt like and now execute.

VEDANTAM: In one important way, Martin was like B.F. Skinner's pigeon. He was standing in front of the mirror trying different hand positions. Through trial and error, he was teaching himself how to throw the frisbee just like the pigeon taught itself how the box worked.

Martin wanted to take what he'd learned into his work as a frisbee coach. He just needed something a little more portable than a dance mirror and a fisherman's net. Martin was familiar with Karen Pryor's work with dolphins and dogs, and he began to wonder whether a clicker might accomplish the same thing as a mirror - provide instantaneous feedback.

LEVY: What if I could coach like that? I could tell someone I want you to rotate your hand until - and I'm going to go yes, I can mark that. And now that feedback - you have that immediate feedback without all the noise, without all the talking - a simple good.

VEDANTAM: So one of the things I am really fascinated by is sort of what the mirror does. Because in some ways, yes, you can see what you're doing. But there's also something very - something else that's very important, which is the mirror is not telling you, you dumb idiot, how many times have I told you, put the thumb below the pinky?

LEVY: It's not subjective. It's a very objective finding, and that's what marking is. It is, oh, you finally did it. No, it's not that. It's just yes, that's it, you've got it.

VEDANTAM: He decided to try it out in the introduction to a freestyle frisbee class that he leads where he teaches people to throw frisbees correctly.

LEVY: And one of the biggest breakdowns of that class is that I have very energized dogs who are getting very frustrated because people keep throwing them into the ground.

VEDANTAM: So Martin pulled out his clicker. It sounds like this.


VEDANTAM: Now, some might think it's demeaning to treat people like dogs. But this was a receptive audience.

LEVY: They were all dog trainers, and they were all familiar with clickers. So to pull a clicker out and to say I'm going to mark this precisely with this thing that you've used all the time in another setting, I'm going to use it for you.

VEDANTAM: He was basically acting like the mirror that he'd used to train himself.

LEVY: I would watch very closely. And as soon as they hit the spot, boom, click.


LEVY: Their hand was in the correct position - click.


LEVY: So now I could use that to train them.

VEDANTAM: And it worked well.

LEVY: It turned out to be a wonderful way to do it.

VEDANTAM: There was an important way Martin's frisbee students were different than B.F. Skinner pigeons. The birds were exploring the box because they wanted to get the reward of food. With Martin's students, it was very different. None of them needed to be motivated to learn to throw the frisbee. They had that motivation already. The clicker wasn't being used to manipulate them into doing something they didn't want to do. It was helping them learn a skill they already wanted to learn.

Martin discovered that the feedback he provided with the clicker seemed more effective than any verbal praise or criticism he could give. He realized that when he stayed silent and only marked a student's correct hand position with a click, there seemed to be more room for learning.

The old way he'd done it, saying great job, or, no, that's wrong, that language not only didn't help, it may actually have gotten in the way. That's because praise and criticism tend to make students pay attention to praise and criticism. It makes them focus on their teacher, just like I had done with my dad.

Without these emotional crosscurrents, the students could concentrate on the task they were learning. When they succeeded, when the frisbee flew straight and true, their pleasure came not from their teacher's feedback but from the simple joy of mastering a skill. Martin realized that if it worked with frisbee enthusiasts, it might also work elsewhere. So he decided to test it out at his day job.

On a rainy Tuesday morning, I head to the Bronx Montefiore Medical Center, a large teaching hospital in New York. Up on the orthopedics floor, I find a waiting room dense with people. The scene feels familiar - a harried receptionist, some snoozing patients and a TV playing a home remodeling show. Martin Levy walks up to greet me and my producer.



LEVY: How are you?

VEDANTAM: This is Jenny Schmidt.

SCHMIDT: I'm a producer. Nice to meet you (unintelligible).

LEVY: Come on, let's get you comfortable.

SCHMIDT: That'd be great.


In his day job, Martin's an orthopedic surgeon here at Montefiore. He's been fixing broken athletes for more than 40 years.

LEVY: Anterior cruciate ligament reconstructions, meniscal surgery, whether it be repair or resection.

VEDANTAM: He leads me down the hallway to a little workshop, like something Santa might have.

LEVY: We're walking into the skills laboratory.

VEDANTAM: It's crammed with orange Home Depot buckets, saws, drills, wood, rope.

LEVY: Here, we have two types of drills, one a smaller one and...

VEDANTAM: Martin tells me orthopedic surgery is built on pretty basic carpentry. One of his jobs is to teach incoming residents these skills.

LEVY: So we need to teach them to tie a variety of knots. They need to be able to drill a hole. They need to be able to put a screw in. They need to be able to use devices known as reamers where they cut holes or they gouge large sockets.

VEDANTAM: For Martin, the bar is high. He needs to teach skills. He also needs his students to perform those skills in an environment where there's huge pressure and many distractions. When they go into an operating room, surgeons need to have their technique down to muscle memory. Martin uses the analogy of a baseball play.


UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: And a squeeze is on.

LEVY: The suicide squeeze in baseball is one of my favorite plays. There was - it starts with a man at third base trying to score. The batter...


LEVY: ...At this point, attempts to bunt the ball, put it in play while the runner, at third base, is running home.



LEVY: When you look at the field, there's all of these activities going on. The third baseman is crashing. The first baseman is crashing. The pitcher is trying to throw the ball at the batter so he can't bump the ball effectively. And on top of it, there's a runner that's running right at the bunter. So in order for us to execute a bunt effectively in a highly charged environment with all of this going on, we need to practice bunting.

VEDANTAM: Martin wants his students to know how to use their tools in the same way a great baseball player knows how to bunt. So he designed a lab where students could practice to perfection.


LEVY: The goal of the skill lab is take tools and to teach each individual tool until it can be used fluently - the baseball bat.


LEVY: Any pitch can be bunted into the field. The drill...


LEVY: ...In any position, with any drill bit on any material, with any shape, a drill hole can be made.

VEDANTAM: Martin had some challenges in designing his lab - cost was one. Practicing on medical-grade materials like cadavers and plastic bones just didn't make sense.

LEVY: They're expensive. And cadavers - they're on limited supply.

VEDANTAM: Instead, he came up with cheap substitutes like PVC pipe, twine and two-by-fours. Martin even came up with some interesting replacements for the human body.

LEVY: One of my favorite models is the cast on an eggplant.

VEDANTAM: They put an actual cast, like you'd have on a broken arm, on an eggplant. And then they asked residents to saw off the cast without cutting the eggplant.

LEVY: An eggplant is very similar to fragile skin. So the cast on there gives the resident the opportunity to really test their skill without hurting anybody. But if the eggplant is leaking, then you need to keep practicing.

VEDANTAM: So picture the lab. It's quiet, full of inexpensive materials and there's no pressure. Students can practice for as long as they need. And, of course, Martin has another cheap and simple teaching tool - the clicker.

LEVY: So good morning, Zach. So what we're going to do today is...

VEDANTAM: On this day, Martin's with one of his students, Zachary Sharfman.

ZACHARY SHARFMAN: I'm a PGY1 which means postgrad year one. That's your first year after you've graduated from medical school.

VEDANTAM: Zach is here to practice one particular knot, one that Martin says is crucial in orthopedic surgery.

LEVY: A slider knot is useful in shoulder surgery because it allows us to be able to fix soft tissue to bone. If you can imagine, there's an anchor at the end of this. And then what we'd be able to do is be able to push soft tissue down to the bone and tie it.

VEDANTAM: First, Martin shows Zach how to tie the knot.

LEVY: All right. First, this is what it looks like.

VEDANTAM: He demonstrates on a length of rope.

LEVY: OK. And that's a completed knot. So let's go build that.

VEDANTAM: Each time Zach performs a step correctly, Martin acknowledges it with a click.

LEVY: The first step of this is to place one-third of the rope directly over two-thirds of that rope. The tag point is over. We're going to do it five times. And each time that you hit the tag point, I'm going to mark it with the marker. And if you would say it as you're doing it - one-third over two-thirds.

SHARFMAN: One-third over two-thirds.


LEVY: And if you do it again, please.

VEDANTAM: After five successful clicks, they begin the next step and then the next until they reach the final step.

SHARFMAN: One-third over two-thirds, over and through, fakey pinch, the ExCITE grab, dress the knot, deliver (ph).


LEVY: Bingo. Thank you.

VEDANTAM: Throughout the lesson, there's a complete absence of emotional language. No great job or well done, or no wrong, what are you doing? There's none of that. The only feedback is the sound of the clicker. The only reward for the student is the mastery of the skill, not the approval of the teacher.

LEVY: This is why I use the clicker. It is baggage free. It is emotional free.

VEDANTAM: Zach Sharfman has worked with Martin on a variety of knots. He says when he's got one down perfectly, his fingers just know what to do.

SHARFMAN: I think a nice way to put it is if you put your fingers ready to snap - and I challenge you to do that - and get them ready, it's hard to not snap. And what I think we're really developing here is a way to say the rope's in your hand. It's loaded. You're ready to snap.


SHARFMAN: It just comes naturally.

VEDANTAM: Martin Levy's clicker-training techniques make him an outlier in medicine. But clicker training is becoming a fixture in a variety of fields.


VEDANTAM: It's being used to help people become better dancers, fishermen and golfers.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: So you get to the top of your backswing, hear the click. And then once you hear the click, you're then going to obviously go with your downswing sequence.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: You want to hear that click again at the impact sign when you hit the ball.

VEDANTAM: Martin uses a variety of teaching tools. The clicker is just one of them. But the lesson it imparts is crucial.


LEVY: We start with a clicker to teach people how to be language-free and to mark very precisely. We transition them over a very short period of time to other methodologies. For instance, you can't hear a clicker when a saw is on, so we use flashlights. We transition to using a very benign good. It is just a mark you have hit the target precisely. One of the interesting stories to tell you is that you have two learners. The first learner is exceptional.

And they get through exactly what you're teaching in a very short period of time. And you say, good, great job. The next learner has difficulty. And you work with them for three or four or 10 minutes. And you're sitting there. And they finally get it. And you go, way to go. That's terrific. And the first learner is sitting there going, what? I don't get this. He struggled. He gets all the accolades. And I? I got a good. Well, if everybody gets good, then we don't have the baggage that that brings.

VEDANTAM: What was - you must have heard reactions from some people, some residents, some parents of residents sort of saying, this is ridiculous. How can you teach our kids the way you're teaching dogs?

LEVY: I haven't had anybody taken back. Everybody has worked with us. I think the only comment I've ever heard is my girlfriend trains her dog this way. And I said, yes. And I bet you it was really effective. And he said, yeah, it was great. We tell them before we start this is operant learning. Here's the concepts behind it. And hang in there. It's going to work.

VEDANTAM: There's a radical idea at the heart of clicker training. It suggests that teaching can be effective without the use of criticism but also without the use of praise. Now, you might think that this makes teachers unimportant. You'd be completely wrong. The teacher is anything but a bystander. That's because it's the teacher who designs the world in which the student learns.

To put this another way, the challenge in teaching pigeons doesn't actually lie in teaching pigeons. The challenge lies in building a box in which the pigeons can learn. How to design learning so it becomes natural, commonplace, even predictable? Stay with us.


VEDANTAM: Everyone can think of learning moments when things broke down. One reason for this is that experts often make poor teachers. Once you've mastered a skill, it becomes difficult to remember what it felt like to not know the skill. Once you know how to ride a bike, you might say to a newbie, just push off. Start pedaling. It takes an enormous act of effort, of empathy to go back and remember how it felt when something seemed confusing or impossible. This is sometimes called the curse of expertise. Experts forget how difficult it can be to learn something because they've already mastered it.

SHARFMAN: I was coaching basketball for little kids.

VEDANTAM: Again, orthopedic resident Zach Sharfman. This time, he's playing the role of teacher rather than student.

SHARFMAN: And I stepped up to a free-throw line. I dribbled the ball. I spun it the way that I'm used to spinning it. I put my feet in the right position. I squared my hips and shoulders to the basket. I tucked my elbow in. I shot the ball. My hand arced and finished in the right position. I handed it to the kid, and I said, go ahead. Do the same thing.

VEDANTAM: Zach, as you can probably tell, is a very good basketball player - so good that he forgets how many little skills he's internalized in order to make the shot. The kid he was teaching didn't get it.


SHARFMAN: And his feet are lined up wrong. And his shoulders are lined up wrong. And his elbow's out to the side. And the ball's sitting not square on his shooting hand, but it's sitting in between his two hands. And I look at him, and I go, what are you doing? That's not at all what I did. And it was completely unreasonable, as a teacher, for me to expect him to be able to shoot the ball that way. And I think what mattered was then slowing down and going step by step and saying, OK, this is where your feet are. Now, every time you get to this line, your feet start here. Don't think about catching the ball. Don't grab the ball. Don't worry about shooting. Start with your feet here.

VEDANTAM: In other words, to be effective, Zach had to tease apart a complex procedure. He had to break his technique down into teachable parts. This is what Martin Levy calls task analysis. And it lies at the very heart of what you have to do to make clicker training work. It requires the teacher to possess not just expertise but the patience to deconstruct what they know into bitesize pieces, to break down skills into their components and subcomponents and to keep doing this until every single student can master them. Martin says one of the great masters of task analysis was the Royalton White Sox baseball coach Charley Lau.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: Even the great hitters in professional baseball need help. Welcome to "The Art of Hitting .300," with Charley Lau.

LEVY: And what he did is he took a number of the greatest baseball players, greatest hitters all time, and he looked at their swings. And what he was able to find with their common points - there were commonalities in these swings. And when you took all the commonalities out, you could build this cookie cutter where you could take someone who wasn't a natural, and you could say, follow these steps, and at least we'll get you close.

VEDANTAM: This is what Martin Levy wants to do - build a series of systematic steps to teach the skills he wants his students to learn. Martin needs to do it right. Medical residents, he says, seem to take criticism especially hard. These are professionals who are highly motivated, who've done well in school, who want to be successful.

LEVY: So when they're not performing up to expectation, it is unpleasant. They're not happy about it. And it's my job to get them past it.


VEDANTAM: One way Martin get students past it is to communicate that the responsibility for learning is really on him, the teacher. The student has to show up, be motivated. But if a student doesn't get something, that means Martin has done something wrong. The skill he's trying to teach has not been broken down sufficiently. The steps have not been rehearsed systematically. The fault lies not with the student but with the teacher.

LEVY: So let's say we're tying a knot, and there's six steps to tying the knot. And in the fourth step, the knot is breaking down. We're just - it's not happening. Well, it's on the teacher at that point to say, OK. It may mean that we take apart that we always have done as one step. And now it turns into two steps or three. But now the learner's successful.

VEDANTAM: This is not the way learning unfolds in many parts of the world. Students are often blamed for their failure to learn.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: The whole class can stay in for 45 minutes this afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: Sorry, sister.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Two detentions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #12: Now get yourself into the corner and put on the dunce's hat.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: Three detentions.

VEDANTAM: Martin Levy has come to understand that the teacher-student relationship is complicated. One person has power. One does not. One person has expertise. One does not. One person can offer praise. The other is hungry for validation. This relationship can be destroyed in a single, unthinking moment. Martin remembers a time this happened not with a resident but with his dog Penny (ph).

LEVY: We were working on a series of jumps. It's referred to as a serpentine. It's three jumps that are parallel to each other. And we kept knocking the metal bar down. And at that time, I just picked up the bar, tapped the ground and went, damn. And my dog ran off into a tunnel and hid.

VEDANTAM: It took Martin an hour and lots of treats to get her to come back out. Now medical residents who see a teacher get frustrated don't run into a tunnel and hide. They don't usually reveal feelings of humiliation or shame. But they are listening and internalizing those reactions. The voices of teachers - and this is something Freud might have said - become part of the way students talk to themselves.

LEVY: I think the take-home message from that for me was how fragile learning moments can be where everybody's trying hard. The dog was trying hard to be successful. I was trying hard to be successful. But just a simple action of damn, and the dog interpreted that as her failure and was not able to perform after that for a couple of days.

VEDANTAM: Martin says the clicker can help take frustration out of the equation.

LEVY: And this is a very good method of freeing people up, opening them up, allowing them to accept new information without all of the debris that comes along with it. I'm quiet. You're quiet. We're just learning a skill.

VEDANTAM: But I think what I'm hearing you say is that there's all of this psychological relationship between teacher and student which in some ways is crowding the actual engagement with the material itself. What does my teacher think of me? Does my teacher like me? Does my teacher hate me? Does my teacher approve of me? Does my teacher disapprove of me? Am I doing it right? Am I doing it better with my friend? Am I faster than my friend? Am I - can I show the teacher I'm actually a really good student? Can I show the teacher that I'm the best student that the teacher's ever had? I have all this stuff going on in my head. And what that's getting in the way of is pull the string so one-third of it is over the other two-thirds.

LEVY: You've said it precisely. I'd like to bring you into my lecture and just say that because that is the entire story. How can we eliminate all the noise?

VEDANTAM: In the skills lab, Martin breaks down many of the procedures himself - tying knots, sawing and drilling. But one of the most important things he does is not with students but with his senior colleagues. Sometimes even the best surgeons can't explain how they do what they do like building an acetabulum, the socket for a hip joint.


LEVY: How do you do it? I have no idea. I just do it. Greatest hitters in the world - how do you do it? See the ball. Hit the ball. That doesn't help me a lot. It doesn't really get me very far, especially if I'm not a natural. So what we do is we ask that skilled surgeon to sit down and build his acetabulum. Now I'm going to watch him. Do it again. Do it again. OK, here's what I saw. And I'm going to start write down. You positioned your feet here. You bent your knees. You held the drill like this. Your elbow was in this position. Your hands were in this position.

And let me demonstrate what I saw. So now I demonstrate what I saw. And he says, yes, that's it or, no, we need to correct this. My hand is actually like this. OK. And then we can build it. And now we can turn it into a structured algorithm where I can give it back to someone and I can say, here are your targets. Put your feet like this. Put your knees like this. And we're going to mark each one of those things. We're going to just do it until you're comfortable at each one of those steps. And now we've built someone who can reproduce what that person did.

VEDANTAM: There's a profoundly democratic idea at the heart of this approach. It's understandable for teachers to gravitate to students who are naturals for whom learning is almost effortless. Clicker training is really for the rest of us. As Martin says, you don't have to be a natural to get really, really good at something.

LEVY: For us, we want surgeons to be very talented. But everyone isn't going to be a wizard. We just want you to be really, really good. And we can get you there. If we take our time and we build these skills, we very much believe we can get you there.

VEDANTAM: One of the reasons Martin might be the perfect evangelist for clicker training is that he understands how easy it is to get lost while learning something.

LEVY: I don't think anything, whether it was an athletic endeavor or it was surgery, ever came very easy. I was not one of those kids that did it on the first try.

VEDANTAM: This sounds a lot like me. When it comes to manual skills, I'm all thumbs. So I challenged Martin to teach me the same knot he taught Zach, his orthopedic resident.

And I have to tell you, I'm not good with my hands. I have - I'm pretty sure I'm going to screw up. Someone tells me to do something, I have a voice in the back of my head that says, you're probably going to make a mistake. Can you take on the challenge of trying to teach me something?

LEVY: Yes, we can teach you.

VEDANTAM: And so we begin. The instructions are the same that Martin used with Zach up to a point.

LEVY: One-third over two-thirds. The tag point is over.

VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.


VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.


VEDANTAM: A couple of times, Martin stops to show me how to do something. My hands are too far apart. I've put the rope under, not over. There's neither approval nor disapproval on Martin's face and in his voice. I stop paying attention to him. It's just the rope, my hands and the clicker.


VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.


VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.

I feel a quietness in my head. It allows me to concentrate.


VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.

LEVY: Last one.

VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds.


VEDANTAM: Of course, from time to time, my anxiety about tying the knot properly resurfaces.

Now, this is going to be the hard step, and I'm going to screw up here.

LEVY: No, you're not.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

LEVY: One-third over two-thirds.


LEVY: Wrap over and through. Wrap to a fakey pinch. Flatten the knot. The tag point is flatten the knot.

VEDANTAM: One-third over two-thirds. Wrap over and through. Wrap to a fakey pinch. Flatten the knot.


VEDANTAM: Something happened just now. I noticed it as I was working on the knot. The instructions that Martin gave me differed from those he gave Zach. Here, take a listen to what he told Zach.

LEVY: One-third over two-thirds. Wrap over and through. Wrap to a fakey pinch behind, over and through to a backside grab. Let me demonstrate.

VEDANTAM: What Zach did not have to do and I did was this step.

LEVY: Flatten the knot. The tag point is flatten the knot.

VEDANTAM: I asked Martin why he'd added the step for me.

LEVY: There was a lot of information coming in that you were telling me before we even started. I'm - what you told me was, I'm really nervous about doing this; I don't want to look like an idiot; I'm not really sure I can do this. OK, that's data for me. And I've got to make it comfortable. We've got to slow it down. We've got to make sure that you're seeing each step. If a step isn't working, I'm not going to necessarily let you work through it as long as someone else. I'm going to take over and give you information right away so you don't get frustrated and start to fall into that rabbit hole that you had where, uh-oh, I'm failing again. No, you're not. You're right here. It's working. It's - everything's good.

VEDANTAM: And he was right. It was good. I finished the knot. It was empowering. Maybe that's the real key to this kind of training. It helps clear out some of the clutter in our minds, the negative chatter that psychologist Barry Schwartz says people experience all the time.

SCHWARTZ: We self-sabotage because of the way in which we talk to ourselves as we're going through our day, you know? I'm not any good at this. I'll never be successful. I should sit quietly. I shouldn't volunteer to take on new challenges because I'm not any good. And eventually, they're going to discover that I'm already getting more responsibility than I deserve. You keep talking to yourself in that way, it's very self-defeating.

VEDANTAM: To be sure, there are limits to this kind of teaching and learning. Barry Schwartz points out that there are times when great things come from the emotional interactions between teachers and students.

SCHWARTZ: What good teachers do, aside from communicating information, is they do establish relations with students that inspire the students to go beyond the specific lesson that's being taught that day or in that class. I became a psychologist because I was inspired by the teachers I had, especially the teacher who taught me my first psychology course when I was an 18-year-old who had no idea what psychology was. My entire life course was largely influenced by the inspiration provided by that teacher.


VEDANTAM: It's true that a clicker cannot inspire or play the role of a mentor. It's a good tool for a certain kind of learning. But that doesn't mean it's the right tool for all kinds of learning. And yet the clicker, when it is the right tool, can fix one of the most detrimental parts of the teacher-student relationship - when students start to care more about getting praise and avoiding criticism than learning.

SCHWARTZ: If the student wants the feedback more than the actual skill, well, then, you start to see these things go wrong, you know? You have students who do whatever they think it takes to get the approval of their teacher, whether or not it contributes to their mastery of the material. You know, they're not there to get good at math. They're there to get smiles from the teacher. And, you know, if the teacher's less than perfectly calibrated, it's going to turn out that the things that get smiles from the teacher and the things that actually produce understanding of math are not the same things.


VEDANTAM: One of the reasons clickers might work is that they tap into a very human desire - the desire to explore. What the clicker does is say, go ahead, try and do this task. And if you succeed, I'll let you know. If you don't succeed, well, no big deal. Try again. This approach to learning is a little like playing a video game.


VEDANTAM: You start off knowing almost nothing about what works. You're in an alien, unfamiliar world. At first, you don't know which door opens to the dragon, which to the gold. But if you get it wrong, you simply restart the game. In time, you get better. Clicker training, like a video game, is all about discovery. When you succeed, that click tells you, OK, move on to the next step, to the next level. Not all learning can be gamified. And not all learning can be broken down into a series of steps. But the clicker reminds us that sometimes the best way to help people learn is to get out of the way and let them discover the gold behind the door.


VEDANTAM: This week's show was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Thomas Lu. It was edited by Tara Boyle. Our team includes Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen and Laura Kwerel. Our unsung hero this week is Darlene Barkley at NPR. Darlene's title is client services coordinator, but she's so much more than that. Darlene works in NPR's reception area, so she's the first person many people meet when they arrive here. She gets all kinds of questions all day long from visitors and staff. And she's invariably kind and approachable. Darlene's the kind of person who'll take care of the small details to make your event perfect, the person who keeps picture books tucked away for your children when they stop by the office, the person who says she is glad to help out and you really believe her. Thank you, Darlene, for being a great NPR colleague and ambassador. We really appreciate all that you do.

You can find more HIDDEN BRAIN on Facebook and Twitter. If you liked today's show, please remember to share it with a favorite teacher. While you're at it, make sure to tell them thank you for everything they've taught you. I'm Shankar Vedantam. See you next week.


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