kitchen table math, the sequel: in which I stumble upon a learning style that may actually exist

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

in which I stumble upon a learning style that may actually exist

Barry pointed me to a terrific post by Haim, one of the regulars on Math Teach, who writes:
As it happens, a good friend of mine did his dissertation on learning styles some fifteen years ago. He did his study in the context of math education at the college level. I still clearly remember the frisson when he told me that 30 yrs of scientific literature on the subject was thoroughly consistent: not a shred of (real) evidence to support the hypothesis of learning styles.

His study did not perturb the consistency. At the time, I remember thinking "Gosh, after 30 yrs of nothing maybe it's time to look for another fishing hole."

Since then, of course, I have been deeply impressed by the evident fact that 30 yrs of nothing makes not the slightest impression on the Education Mafia. They carry on, exuberantly, as if learning styles are real.
Just a few days after reading Haim, and quite by accident, I came across the possibility that learning styles may actually exist (!)

Just not the learning styles we've heard so much about for lo these 30 years.

Here is Michael J. Frank on  “Go” and “NoGo” Learning and the Basal Ganglia:
We tested healthy college students who were given low doses of three different drugs: a drug that enhances the release of dopamine, a drug that reduces the release of dopamine, and a placebo; each student was tested in each of the three conditions.


We hypothesized that all participants would learn to choose A over B, but that they would do so on different bases, depending on which drug they had been given. When dopamine levels are elevated, we hypothesized, participants should learn to choose symbol A, which had received the most positive feedback (that is, they should learn “Go” to A). But they should be relatively impaired in learning to avoid (NoGo) symbol B....


We found a striking effect of the different dopamine medications on this positive versus negative learning bias....While on placebo, participants performed equally well at choose-A and avoid-B test choices. But when their dopamine levels were increased, they were more successful at choosing the most positive symbol A and less successful at avoiding B. Conversely, lowered dopamine levels were associated with the opposite pattern: worse choose-A performance but more-reliable avoid-B choices. Thus the dopamine medications caused participants to learn more or less from positive versus negative outcomes of their decisions.

These research discoveries raise the intriguing question of whether individual differences in learning from positive versus negative outcomes of decisions can be found even in nonmedicated healthy people. Indeed, although on average our study participants taking the placebo showed roughly equal choose-A and avoid-B performance, individual participants still performed better at one or the other; we refer to these subgroups as positive or negative learners....[A] mutation in another gene previously shown to control the density of (NoGo) D2 receptors in the basal ganglia predicted the extent to which participants learned from negative decision outcomes. Together, these results provide more-specific confirmation of our model’s suggestion that Go and NoGo learning depends on the D1 and D2 receptors.
I am gobsmacked.

Until the moment I read Michael Frank's research, I believed that positive reinforcement was better than negative. Always. Turns out the truth of the matter may be it depends.

Choose A or Avoid B.

The lady or the tiger.


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Anonymous said...

carrots for the worthy
& sticks for the rest &
pay no attention to the
man behind the curtain.

"not a shred of evidence"
is the gold *standard*
of social-science research...
the only clear finding in
most research programs
being "more research
is needed".

PS the previous comment
appears to be spam.