Recently, many progressive schools have been incorporating opportunities for peer learning into their curriculum. This practice includes learning academic material through cooperation, social interactions, and solving problems by working together. Some educators argue that peer learning is distracting and harmful to the development of students’ intrinsic motivations. Recent neurological studies, however, demonstrate the opposite.
Krill and Platek (2012) investigated the neural correlates of cooperation and the effect that peer learning had on different parts of the brain. Human participants completed a maze task, either with others or on their own, a and fMRI hyperscanning was used to measure brain activity. Findings indicated participants who completed the maze task with others (peer-interaction) had higher activation in left caudate and putamen, regions associated with the reward system. This suggests that cooperating with others to complete a task, such as a maze, is innately more rewarding than working on the task alone. Krill and Platek (2012) speculate that this could be due to the anticipation of completing the task through the way the partners communicated with each other.
When cooperative social strategies are used to solve a task, there is greater activation in brain structures involved in the dopaminergic reward system. Evolutionarily, these findings are interesting because they suggest that humans are wired to experience reward, initiating intrinsic motivation, when interacting with others. Psychologists argue that we need to have social relationships with other humans in order to live a healthy life. The fact that our brain’s reward system seems to be particularly sensitive to social interaction supports this argument.
Thinking back to the applications this may have in the classroom, are there specific settings in which peer interaction is more/less beneficial? Could this association be depended on the task or learning content? Is there a certain age in which individuals develop activation in reward pathways when interacting with peers, or are we born with this neurological association because we are, in fact, social creatures? Further studies should work to compare multiple education practices and their effects on the reward system, motivation, and memory.
Clark, I., & Dumas, G. (2015). Toward a neural basis for peer-interaction: what makes peer-learning tick? Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 28. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00028
Krill, A. L., & Platek, S. M. (2012). Working Together May Be Better: Activation of Reward Centers during a Cooperative Maze Task. PLoS ONE, 7(2), e30613. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030613