Learning Strategies Are Associated With Distinct Neural Signatures is the not-very-“sexy” title of a report in today’s Science Daily about a very important study on learning and the brain.

It appears — at least, to me — to provide more scientific evidence to the perspectives on motivation that Daniel Pink and others have written about (you can read more about it at My Best Posts On “Motivating” Students).

Before I discuss the study, I want to first review how I have described Pink’s perspective on motivation and how I’ve experienced it in the classroom:

He cites a lot of research debunking the effectiveness of extrinsic rewards on motivation. This isn’t news to the many of us whom have read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book Punished By Rewards. However, he seems to provide a slightly more nuanced critique.

Pink basically says that extrinsic rewards do work — for mechanical work that doesn’t require much higher-order thinking. But he says research says that it will not work for anything that requires higher-order thinking skills and creativity.

This analysis mirrors my own experience in the classroom. In Have You Ever Taught A Class That Got “Out Of Control”? I shared the challenges I faced last year in using extrinsic motivation to get students into a new pattern of behavior, and then moving them back toward intrinsic motivation. Using “points” was definitely effective in getting the class under control. They received them for being focused and doing their work.

However, I didn’t think students started doing their highest quality work until they were “weaned” off the point system and began to gain what Pink calls “autonomy, mastery, and purpose.” Pink says that those are the three essential elements in generating higher-order thinking

From what I have read from Pink and others, most — if not all — of this perspective is based only on the behavior of people in experiments (let me know if I’m wrong on this), which is certainly valid.

This new study, though, seems to validate these conclusions based on actually analyzing people’s brains during their behavior.

It contrasts “model-free learning,” which is based on rewards, with “model-based learning.”

Here is how one of the authors of the study describes the difference between the two:

“Think about a situation in which you always take the same route when driving home after work, but on a particular day the usual way is blocked due to construction work,” Gläscher says. “A model-free learning system would be helplessly lost; it is only concerned with taking actions that in the past were rewarding, so if those actions are no longer available it wouldn’t be able to decide where to go next. But a model-based system would be able to query its cognitive map and figure out an efficient detour using an alternative route.”

You can read more about their experiment in the report. It seems to me to pretty accurately reflect the differences between learning based on rewards and learning based on intrinsic motivation.

What do you think? Is my interpretation of this study correct?