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Motivating Children to Learn: Based on Cognitive Science

Arthur Shimamura’s MARGE model of learning (MARGE is an acronym for Motivate-Attend-Relate-Generate-Evaluate) based on cognitive science, provides a powerful framework for both teachers and parents to help children learn better. Interested readers can download the free e-book on MARGE. In this post, we share a brief extract from the book on the first step in learning which is 'Motivate' and provide a couple of tips to teachers and parents.


Extract on 'Motivate' from the MARGE Book

A huge obstacle toward efficient learning is failing to motivate ourselves to action. In my career as a university professor, one of the most difficult aspects of teaching was keeping students engaged and curious about the subject matter.

There is a common misconception about academic learning that I call the sponge metaphor of education, which is reinforced by our familiar college lecture format in which the teacher's role is to pour out worthy facts while the student sits and "soaks" up the material. In psychological terms, this kind of learning is strictly a bottom-up process (bottom refers to sensations, and top refers to knowledge), which is highly inefficient and typically leads to failed attempts at rote memorizing a bunch of disparate facts.



Efficient learning depends on top-down processing, which is the active use of existing knowledge to guide and select what sensory information to process. At any given moment we are bombarded by a multitude of sensations and must therefore attend to relevant facts and information. Even basic perceptual analyses, such as recognizing the duck or rabbit in the ambiguous figure shown above, depends on using top-down processing to select "duck-relevant" features (e.g., focusing on the duck's "bill") or "rabbit-relevant" features (e.g., focusing on the rabbit's "ears"). Which animal you "see" depends on the way you use your knowledge to guide and select sensory information. Top-down guidance and selection is the key to focused attention, learning, and retention.


Practical Tips for Parents and Educators

Tip for Parents: Explore New Environments Together

Parents can significantly boost their children's motivation and curiosity by immersing them in new and stimulating environments. This aligns with Shimamura's emphasis on breaking away from regular habits and engaging the learning machine through novel experiences.


  • Practical Application: Plan regular outings with your child to places they have never visited before. This could be as simple as a nature trail they haven't explored, a new section of the library, or a local museum. During these outings, encourage your child to ask questions and explore their surroundings actively. This not only triggers their curiosity but also engages their reward circuit, making the learning experience enjoyable and memorable.

Note: The "reward circuit" in the brain is a system that creates feelings of pleasure and motivation. It's activated by enjoyable experiences, releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in how we feel pleasure.


Tip for Educators: Incorporate Curiosity-Driven Learning

In the classroom, educators can stimulate students' motivation by framing lessons around intriguing, big-picture questions. This approach is supported by Shimamura's suggestion of using personal anecdotes, demonstrations, or everyday examples to make concepts relatable and engaging.


  • Practical Application: Start each lesson with a thought-provoking question or an interesting fact related to the day's topic. For instance, if the lesson is about gravity, begin by asking, "What would happen if gravity suddenly became twice as strong?" Such questions pique students' curiosity, prompting them to engage more deeply with the material. Throughout the lesson, connect the dots back to the initial question, keeping their curiosity alive and driving the learning process.

By implementing these strategies, parents and educators can effectively harness the power of curiosity and motivation, leading to more engaged and enthusiastic learners.

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