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Introducing MARGE: A superb ebook about learning by Arthur Shimamura.

Earlier this week, twitter sharing came into its own with a glorious gift.  Dan Willingham shared a link to a new, free ebook from Arthur Shimamuradownloadable here.   I picked this up via one of  Ollie Lovell’s regular info updates.   It’s a gem.

Shimamura, a professor of psychology specialising in memory and cognition has written a short guide to how memory works with numerous implications for teachers and students.  It’s written from a university lecture perspective but it has a great deal to offer classroom teachers in schools.  The ideas are expressed through the neat acronym MARGE, a reference to Marge Simpson.  I found it a fascinating read and I recommend it very highly.  It’s only 50 pages or so  – so the best thing is to read it yourself.  However, here’s a quick sketch of some of the things I took from it:

MARGE means: Motivate, Attend, Relate, Generate, Evaluate.  Each element provides something useful for teachers and students to consider. As a whole it represents a model for how our brain works as we learn.  The book is full of references to brain structures and neurological experiments that link brain activity to various inputs in different trials.  It gives some easy-to-understand structural biological models to help make sense of some common cognitive science concepts.  The role of the prefrontal cortex in coordinating various other functions is fascinating – as is the description of how we form memory of events and experiences differently to memory of things like how to speak or academic facts.

Oliver Caviglioli has made this lovely pdf to capture the essence:

MARGE

Download the pdf here.

Motivate:  We need to use energy to keep focused on the learning process (see Attend) and so we need to be motivated to do so. Motivation here can come from the learning itself eg, the importance of framing learning as a big question.  Questions are often how we frame curiosity.  We need to keep the big picture framework of what we’re learning very prominent so students can organise their thoughts efficiently in a schema that facilitates further learning and retrieval.

Shimamura suggests that the ‘aesthetic question’ is also powerful for motivating learning; ‘What do you think? How does it make you feel? Why is it good?  As he explains:

” The aesthetic question engages emotional brain circuits and forces us to attend to and organize our knowledge.”

Shimamura also promotes the use of story-telling, much as Willingham does as I describe in this post.: Great Teaching. The Power of Stories.  Stories have a range of motivational elements built-in; they keep us hooked and they help us remember.

Attend:   Academic learning is what Shimamura calls a ‘top-down’ activity whereby we have to consciously attend to the information needed to build our schema from all the stimuli we’re exposed to. However, this is hard – ‘mind wandering’ is very common and teachers need to expect it. Ideally students will consciously attend to the learning goals at hand and will consciously make connections – but it’s all too easy to drift.

The suggestions here are to capture attention very early on, then to break up learning episodes and to deliberately refocus attention at various key points. He introduces the idea of the three Cs: categorize, compare and contrast – within the context of a big picture  question to help students sustain their attention to their learning goals.  I like the idea that sometimes an instructor needs to act as their students’ prefrontal cortex to encourage their top-down processing.

Relate:  This section is packed with ideas supported by biological insights about how we store and connect information through memory consolidation.  The practical strategies include deploying elaborative-interrogative questioning – asking how and why  – using mental images, analogies, constructing concept maps as schematic representations of sets of connected ideas and training students to make notes organised in hierarchical structures.

Generate: I found this section a superb addition to my understanding of retrieval practice.  Shimamura suggests: Think it, say it, teach it! These are the simplest things to do to improve your memory”.  He details multiple ways in which our memories are strengthened when we generate information from our memory.  If we tell someone what we’ve learned we can improve our memory by 30-50%.  This is all explained in terms of various brain functions and reinforces the widely known retrieval practice concept.  However, Shimamura suggests it’s important not to just restate information you’ve learned; you need to say it in your own words.  This is the active self-generate effect.  In common with others he emphasises the implications for effective revision:

For the most part, “study” time should mostly be “test” (i.e., retrieval practice) time.

Evaluate:  The final element of MARGE is that we need to monitor our learning as it happens.  This is the territory of metacognition with the nice metaphor of the prefrontal cortex acting as the conductor of the orchestra of brain functions.

There’s an excellent exploration of the problem of the illusion of knowing  when we are familiar with information even when we cannot fully recollect it.  We can stop trying to learn more if we kid ourselves into thinking we already know it.  This has implications for how students should be taught to check their understanding – using spaced, interleaved retrieval practice, with a gap after the initial learning, using flash cards and other self-testing techniques and, linking back to Generate – generating information by explaining our learning to others as a form of self-test.

I’ve already read the book three times; it’s all so quotable, I could write more and more about it.  It’s just so useful and interesting to have ideas that are familiar from other sources (Nuthall, Willingham, Bjork, Rosenshine, the Learning Scientists) restated in a new style with a different emphasis.

Thanks to Prof Shimamura for sharing his work so freely and to Prof Willingham for getting it out into the twittershere for us all to see.  I really think MARGE could catch on as a model.

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