Washington, Sept 26 : While a pat on the shoulder, or a simple 'well done!' helps 8-year old kids learn better, a negative feedback like 'got it wrong this time' makes 12-year-old children learn from their mistakes, says a new study.
The study claims that the learning strategy for both age-groups is quite different. While 8-year old kids learn from positive feedback, it's the negative feedback that helps 12-year-old children in learning, and the same goes for adults, but a little more efficiently.
Twelve-year-olds are better able to process negative feedback, and use it to learn from their mistakes. Adults do the same, but more efficiently.
Behavioral research has demonstrated the switch in learning strategy, which shows that eight-year-olds respond disproportionately inaccurately to negative feedback.
Developmental psychologist Dr Eveline Crone and her colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab used fMRI research to discover a similar switch in the brain. The difference can be observed particularly in the areas of the brain responsible for cognitive control. These areas are located 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 case is quite opposite. Their 'control centres' in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback. The researchers used fMRI research to compare the brains of three different age groups: children of eight to nine years, children of eleven to twelve years, and adults aged between 18 and 25 years. And the results took Crone herself by surprise.
"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?" she said.
The researchers gave children of both age groups and adults aged 18 to 25 a computer task while they lay in the MRI scanner. The task required them to discover rules. If they did this correctly, a tick appeared on the screen, otherwise a cross appeared. MRI scans showed which parts of the brain were activated. "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," she said.
She 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 said.
She added: "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."
"This kind of brain research has only been possible for the last ten years or so, and there are a lot more questions which have to be answered. But it is probably a combination of the brain maturing and experience," said Crone. However, 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 age groups: in adults, but also in children, both eight-year-olds and twelve-year-olds.
These results are published in The Journal of Neuroscience.