Your Family's Incredible Lifestyle Begins HERE – With Homeschooling
Sunday April 14th 2024

Sign up for The Good Ship Mom & Pop, Parent at the Helm's irregular and possibly irreverent FREE newsletter!

Books By Linda Dobson ArtofEdCover Books By Linda Dobson learning-coach-approach

Two Studies Help Us Understand How Children Learn

If you're new here, you can subscribe to our RSS feed, receive e-mails and/or sign up to receive our FREE monthly newsletter, The Good Ship Mom&Pop . Welcome aboard - thanks for visiting!

Two Studies Help Us Understand How Children Learn

By Linda Dobson

With all the talk about school-related money and budget shortfalls and teachers unions and education reform and school closings and teachers’ arrests, what’s more important – and what’s never addressed – is helping people understand how children learn. Given that all this talk and political maneuvering and dire threats of unemployment really miss the mark of true education, these two studies can help parents think about how children learn, and how well the government schools they attend support true education.

How Children Learn from Mistakes – Or Not

“Eight-year-old children have a radically different learning strategy from twelve-year-olds and adults. Eight-year-olds learn primarily from positive feedback (‘Well done!’), whereas negative feedback (‘Got it wrong this time’) scarcely causes any alarm bells to ring.  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.” So says the post titled “Learning From Mistakes Only Works After Age 12, Study Suggests” at Science Daily.

Brain how children learnHow Children Learn – It all has to do with how the brain functions differently at the age of eight than 12, according to Dr Eveline Crone and her colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab who used fMRI research for their discovery. Within the cerebral cortex are areas of the brain responsible for cognitive control. Researchers observed these areas were strong activated in eight and nine year-old brains with positive feedback. Conversely, the eight and nine year-olds responded “disproportionately inaccurately to negative feedback.”

When and How Children Learn from Negative Feedback

“But in children of 12 and 13, and also in adults, the opposite is the case.  Their ‘control centres’ in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.”

Crone herself was surprised at the outcome: ‘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?’ ’

Ticks and crosses

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.

Learning in a different way

These 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.'”

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 can also imagine how this comes about: ‘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.’

Interesting, isn’t it? When government schooling began, it was envisioned by Thomas Jefferson to last three years, and not begin until a child was much older than today’s tender ages. As parents, we need to put this information into the context of practice in schools. Tests and scores and being told “you got 10 wrong” or “you failed” are not helpful until children get older.

If you have a younger child in school, you can take advantage of this research in your home and provide more positive feedback when it’s of greater help in the learning process.

Is that difference between eight- and twelve-year-olds the result of experience, or does it have to do with the way the brain develops?  As yet, nobody has the answer.  ‘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.’

How Children Learn – By Sleeping

At, we find an article titled, “As We Sleep, Speedy Brain Waves Boost Our Ability to Learn.”

“Scientists have long puzzled over the many hours we spend in light, dreamless slumber. But a new study from the University of California, Berkeley, suggests we’re busy recharging our brain’s learning capacity during this traditionally undervalued phase of sleep, which can take up half the night.”

UC Berkeley researchers have found compelling evidence that bursts of brain waves known as “sleep spindles” may be networking between key regions of the brain to clear a path to learning. These electrical impulses help to shift fact-based memories from the brain’s hippocampus – which has limited storage space – to the prefrontal cortex’s “hard drive,” thus freeing up the hippocampus to take in fresh data. Spindles are fast pulses of electricity generated during non-REM sleep, and they can occur up to 1,000 times a night.

“All these pieces of the puzzle tell a consistent and compelling story – that sleep spindles predict learning refreshment,” said Matthew Walker, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience at UC Berkeley and senior author of the study to be published March 8 in the journal Current Biology.

Lights Out Is How Children Learn

If human beings sleep less than six hours, they are getting short-changed in the ability-to-learn department. Some may think it strange, but many homeschooling parents allow their children the benefit of sleeping without an alarm clock. In other words, the kids sleep until they’re not tired anymore which, quite often, is a lot later than a child who needs to wake, dress, and eat breakfast before running off to catch an early morning bus for school. I’ve long theorized that this “sleeping freedom” is a large part of how children learn best when following natural rhythms.

As for broader societal ramifications, researchers said evidence that brain waves during the latter part of the sleep period promote our capacity to store fact-based memories raises the question of whether the early school day is optimal for learning.

“These findings further highlight the importance of sleep in our educational populations, where the need for learning is great, yet late bedtimes and early school start times prevent adequate sleep amounts,” Mander said.

While you may not be able to change your child’s bus and school schedule, it is possible to encourage the practice of an ol’ fashioned “good night’s sleep” that lasts as much longer than six hours as possible. This research confirms the idea that even if a teenager has a test the next morning, it helps more to get a good night’s sleep than it does to stay up late and cram. (This is not to confuse doing well on a test with true learning – they are not synonymous.)

“Our findings demonstrate that sleep may selectively seek out and operate on our memory systems to restore their critical functions,” Walker said.

“This discovery indicates that we not only need sleep after learning to consolidate what we’ve memorized, but that we also need it before learning, so that we can recharge and soak up new information the next day.”

See also: “Special Report: The Proof Is In the Depression/Anxiety Rate

This is probably a whole lot of money spent to confirm what most parents instinctively know about how children learn; lots of positive reinforcement when young and a good night’s sleep that’s an overall healthy practice at any age.

Copy the code below to your web site.

Reader Feedback

5 Responses to “Two Studies Help Us Understand How Children Learn”

  1. Discovering Montesso says:

    Nice post! Very interesting. Thank you for sharing.

  2. grandma linda says:

    Thanks very much for taking the time to write – much appreciated!

  3. […] Parent at the Helm shares Two Studies Help Us Understand How Children Learn. […]

  4. Joy says:

    Thank You for this info I home school but I don't use tests because I feel that tests give back negative feedback that young children are not able to process. I guess my mommy instincts where correct.

  5. grandma_linda says:

    Mommy instincts is what it's all about – I'm so glad you chose to listen to yours! Enjoy the journey, have fun!

Leave a Reply