Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Children DON'T learn from mistakes... and here's why

I came across a very interesting article on a fellow mum's blog and I thought every parent should read it. (Thanks Ad, for allowing me to share!) I won't reproduce the whole article here, just parts of it and give my views. You can read the article in its entirety here.

Basically, a study by Leiden University as reported in ScienceDaily (27 September 2008) revealed that kids below the age of 12 do not learn from their mistakes. How many times have you scolded your 9-year-old for making a particular mistake in his work, only to find, to your vexation, that he repeats his mistake once again? Apparently, this is not a case of bad memory or a callous attitude towards work.

Using fMRI research, Dr Eveline Crone and her colleagues from the Leiden Brain and Cognition Lab compared the brains of three different age groups: children aged 8 and 9, children aged 11 and 12, and adults aged 18 to 25. They found, to their surprise, distinct differences in the brain activity of the parts of the cerebral cortex that are responsible for cognitive control for the 8-year-old group vs the 12-year-old group.

In children of eight and nine, these areas of the brain react strongly to positive feedback and scarcely respond at all to negative feedback... 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... Their 'control centres' in the brain are more strongly activated by negative feedback and much less by positive feedback.
This article was very enlightening for me. If you are like me and most other parents, we tend to scold our children for getting answers to questions wrong. And I believe primary school children are scolded the most for academic matters because they seem to keep making the same mistakes and need constant repeating to get information "drummed into their heads". Well, if this research is to be believed, we parents are actually impeding, not helping our children to learn!

Children below the age of 12 encompass the bulk of primary school kids in Singapore. The research shows that the brains of this group of children function very differently. Mistakes don't actually register, perhaps due to immaturity or lack of experience. More importantly, what registers most is positive feedback. I know this from my own experience. Eg. if I praise Andre for doing a particular sum right, he almost never gets the same type of sum wrong again. When he saw that his smiley face answer for a maths question had garnered so much positive reaction from the mothers here, he kept trying to replicate it in all subsequent papers!

This means that we have to re-think the way we teach our children, as Crone mentions:

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.'
This is my interpretation of what we should do as parents: instead of scolding our children for mistakes, we should approach the situation in a different manner. Correct the mistake but instead of focusing on what they did wrong, show them how to do it right and praise them when they get it right. They will remember it better.

It could be loosely related to something I read yonks ago, that if you focus your brain on an activity, you get subconsciously drawn towards it, whether it's positive or negative. Let me elaborate: if you keep telling yourself, "I must not eat that ice-cream", chances are you will cave and eat that ice-cream because all your brain can think about is that ice-cream! (It has conveniently tuned out the "I must not eat" part). Why do you think so many diets fail?

So if you instruct your child to keep telling herself, "I will not make careless mistakes", it might actually backfire because the brain has "careless mistakes" right on Priority No.1! Instead, I usually tell Lesley-Anne when going into an exam to tell herself, "I can do this well" or something like that. In other words, focus on the positive - what you want to achieve, not the negative - want you want to avoid. (Note: I have no evidence on whether this actually works, but I'm not going to risk the other!)

Going back to the article, I don't know if this new-found knowledge will enable me to help Andre learn better, but at least I know now what NOT to do (yah, I know it's hard, scolding is like second nature to us!) Or at least just until he turns 12, haha. (I mentioned to Ad, wah must be exactly 12? Macam like Cinderella like that!)


Anonymous said...

This is a very very useful article!


Anonymous said...

It would be interesting if they'd included the ages 14-17, often the most troublesome ages.

Studies also show that the parts of the brain responsible for rational reasoning, impulse control, etc (those parts that say: finish your homework & prepare for your test first, before surfing or IM-ing your friends) are not fully developed until the age of 25.

Hence governments have got it wrong when they allow age of driving to be 17. Car insurance companies are closer to the truth--the premiums for under 25 yr-olds are much higher than for those older.


Alcovelet said...

Haha Monica,

You do the article justice. How come you write like that, with each idea a separate and clear strand? Mine's all clumped together like that!

This is an important message for me, and reminders like this are priceless. But as someone mentioned in the comments in my blog - maybe learning from mistakes won't start at 12. That's why history keeps repeating itself!!

monlim said...

YY: wah, 25??? 12 is a long enough wait! So basically they can drink, drive, fight for country long before they can think rationally? *shudders*

Ad: aiyah, i write for a living mah, so got lots of practice :P History also repeats itself cos grownups don't learn from OTHER people's mistakes - they always think they're not like the other person and they know better. sigh...

Anonymous said...

Hi Monica,

I was introduced to your blog by Lilian. *Hi Lilian, this is Chris, thank you!*

You write really well *so envy*, I have been reading your older posts since I started last week, couldn't stop myself, sometimes till early in the morning (3am)...hahaha.

Thank you for sharing, I have learnt a great deal from most of your posts, especially this one. I need to work on myself, for not giving negative comments to my daughters.


monlim said...

Chris: Welcome!! I'm so glad you find my blog useful. I've learnt a lot as well, from the other parents that comment here, it's great to have a community of parents to share experiences with. We have so much to learn from each other!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the welcome!

Oh yes! A great community of parents here. Those comments were a great read for me too! I enjoyed reading and learning from their experiences!

Just a brief introduction, I have 2 gals, a 9yo (P3 this yr) and another 5yo (no school yet, probably next yr).

I have transferred my P3 to a full sch in the beginning of this year. The affiliation to their Secondary sch attracted me. Forturnately, she is enjoying her new sch thus far.

As for my 5yo, I'm still looking for a pre sch for her....*am taking my own sweet time*, I rather keep her with me all day... *so selfish of me :-P*


monlim said...

Chris: Change of schools can be traumatic, glad your 9-yr-old is adjusting well :) My kids didn't learn very much (academically, I mean) from pre-school, so I don't think your 5-yr-old is missing much! Granted I didn't send them to the "branded" ones, I just thought it was ridiculous that pre-school could cost as much as a university education. If you regularly teach her yourself, she shd be fine.

But having said that, I do think pre-school is good for socialisation. Andre was becoming a little prince at home, so I sent him to school to learn how to be around other kids.

btw, think I forgot to tell you how flattered i am that you actually stay up to read my blog :D

Lilian said...

Hi Chris! Good to see you here, am sure you'll find Monica and her daughter's experiences very relevant for you and your girl.

eunice said...

Will remember this blog the next time I have when Sean is driving me up the wall!

Monica, your blog is really good forum for us parents to air our fears/hope etc regarding our kids.

For me, it's an eye-opener with regards to Sin school system and what I can look forward to when (hopefully never) we go back (shudder!).

So...keep it coming! Btw, I am a big kaypo and read your blog everyday!

monlim said...

Thanks Eunice! What great support :)

Anonymous said...

Mon: That's how good you are! I couldn't stop reading until the toothpicks supporting my eyelids gave way ^_^. I was laughing to myself in the 'early morning' reading your encounter with Ken from 'I Can Read' center.

My elder gal did not attend any pre-sch too. I 'dumped' her straight to P1...;-P. But I think my younger one will need to attend at least half a yr before she goes to P1, like you mentioned of Andre, she is becoming a princess at home. Its a NO for me for 'branded' pre-sch too.

Oh...and she plays cars like Andre & Brian, she will line the hot wheels cars/trucks all in a row, be it in circle or straight line. She does this almost everyday since a mth ago when her dad gave her a whole box of his old collection.

Lilian : You & Monica are so generous in sharing your experiences! Thanks!!

monlim said...

Wah, it sounds like every kid lines up toy cars!! I wish I'd known this before. Maybe we should tell child psychologists that this is a sign of a NORMAL child, haha!

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