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An article in Science Daily online relates that Dr Eveline Crone and colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab have seen a switch in learning strategy after children turn 12 or 13.
Eight-year-old children learn primarily from positive feedback (“Well done!”).
“Got it wrong this time…” scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring.
But Crone and her associates discovered a switch in learning strategy as they researched the behavior of 8- and 9-year-olds, 12- and 13-year-olds, and a group of 18-25-year-olds. Their fMRI research observed particular differences in the areas of the brain responsible for cognitive control in the cerebral cortex.
In children of eight and nine, these areas of the brain react strongly to positive feedback and scarcely respond at all to negative feedback. But in children of 12 and 13, and also in adults, the opposite is the case: their “control centers” in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.
The researchers compared the brains of three different age groups: eight to nine years, eleven to twelve years, and adults between 18 and 25. This three-way division had never been made before (the comparison is usually just between “children” and “adults”).
The results were surprising, says Crone. “We had expected that the brains of eight-year-olds would function in exactly the same way as the brains of twelve-year olds, but maybe not quite so well. Children learn the whole time, so this new knowledge can have major consequences for people wanting to teach children: how can you best relay instructions to eight- and twelve-year olds?”
The researchers gave children of both age groups — and adults as well — a computer task to do as they lay in the fMRI scanner. The task required them to discover rules. If they did this correctly, a tick appeared on the screen; otherwise, a cross appeared. As they worked, the scanner showed which parts of their brains were activated.
The surprising results set Crone thinking: “You start to think less in terms of ‘good’ and ‘not so good’ — children of eight may well be able to learn extremely efficiently, only they do it in a different way.
Learning from mistakes is complicated. Crone is able to place her fMRI results within the existing knowledge about child development.
“From the literature, it appears that young children respond better to reward than to punishment.” She imagines that this comes about in this way: “The information that you have not done something well is more complicated than the information that you have done something well. Learning from mistakes is more complex than carrying on in the same way as before. You have to ask yourself what precisely went wrong and how it was possible.”
The question remains, is it experience? Is the difference between eight- and twelve-year-olds the result of experience, or does it have to do with the way the brain develops? Nobody has the answer yet.
“This kind of brain research has only been possible for the last ten years or so,” says Crone, “and there are a lot more questions which have to be answered. But it is probably a combination of the brain maturing and experience.”
There is also an area of the brain that responds strongly to positive feedback: the basal ganglia, just outside the cerebral cortex. The activity of this area of the brain does not change. It remains active in all three of these age groups.
sole source: Science Daily online on 9/25/08; no author given but it states that the information is “adapted from materials provided by Leiden University.” www.sciencedaily.com Journal reference: Anna CK van Duijvenvoorde, Kiki Zanolie, Serge ARB Rombouts, Maartje EJ Raijmakers, and Eveline Crone: “Evaluating the Negative or Valuing the Positive? Neural Mechanisms Supporting Feedback-Based Learning Across Development.” The Journal of Neuroscience, 17 September 2008.
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