Hidden Brain

When Everything Clicks: The Power Of Judgment-Free Learning


"Hang in there," Dr. Levy tells his students. "This is going to work."
Laura Ruocco, Montefiore Medical Center

"Hang in there," Dr. Levy tells his students. "This is going to work."

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.


The only feedback is the sound of the click.


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


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, it is emotional free."

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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.

This episode was produced by Jenny Schmidt and Thomas Lu and edited by Tara Boyle. Hidden Brain is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and includes Parth Shah, Rhaina Cohen, and Laura Kwerel. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories on your local public radio station.

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