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When Things Click: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning

The clicker became a popular tool for dog training in the 1980s. Today, it has also caught on with humans — helping people to become better dancers, fishermen, golfers, and now, surgeons.
Angela Hsieh
The clicker became a popular tool for dog training in the 1980s. Today, it has also caught on with humans — helping people to become better dancers, fishermen, golfers, and now, surgeons.

Frisbee coach Martin Levy is a big fan of the clicker. He uses it to train his border collies to perform complex jumps and twirls on the Frisbee field. In 2012, after successfully using a clicker to teach his other Frisbee students — the human ones — he decided to up the stakes, and test it out at his day job: as an orthopedic surgeon.

At the Bronx Montefiore Medical Center in New York, Dr. Martin Levy uses clicker training — a technique drawn from the world of animal training, modified for humans — to help new surgeons quickly learn their craft. It's one of the many tricks he uses to teach his inexperienced medical residents how to tie knots, drill holes and twist screws into broken bones and ligaments, among other techniques. Dr. Levy breaks the skills down into tiny, incremental steps. Each step, performed correctly, is marked with his clicker.

Click.

The only feedback is the sound of the click.

Click.

The only reward for the student is the mastery of the skill.

Click.

All the usual interference from the teacher — 'great job,' 'well done,' 'no, wrong' — is removed. "This is why I use the clicker," says Dr. Levy. "It is baggage-free."

This week on Hidden Brain, we explore an innovative idea about how we learn. It will take us from the Russian laboratory of Ivan Pavlov, to a dolphin exhibit in Hawaii, to a top teaching hospital in New York. It's about a method to quiet the noise. The sort of clutter that can turn learning into a minefield of misery.

More Resources:

Our show includes the story of Karen Pryor, one of the founders of clicker training. Dr. Levy's teaching techniques build on Pryor's influential work with dolphins, whales and dogs.

Read the 2016 study Dr. Levy co-authored with Pryor, which finds that surgical students taught with a clicker are more precise than students taught by demonstration.

Learn more about B.F. Skinner, a pioneer in the field of behaviorism.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Thomas Lu is an assistant producer for Hidden Brain.He came to NPR in 2017 as an intern for the TED Radio Hour. He has worked with How I Built This, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition and Pop Culture Happy Hour. Before coming to NPR, he was a production intern for StoryCorps.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.