Using an educational neuroscience approach to improve maths and science achievement in primary school

Safina Akram, MA Creative Writing student, shares her experience of attending Birkbeck academic Dr Iroise Dumontheil’s lecture, that took place as part of the lecture series celebrating 100 years of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil

I recently chose to spend my evenings at Birkbeck trying something different. I’d heard about Birkbeck’s 100th anniversary lecture series, celebrating 100 years of the College being part of the University of London.  And being a Birkbeck student on an MA Creative Writing course, I thought, why not?  It’ll be fun, something different and you never know I might learn something.

I entered the Clore building, to be greeted by the traditional lecture room.  George Birkbeck – what would you think of your Birkbeck now?  I wonder.  What would you think of me coming through these doors?  And what would you think of this lecture series?

The topic, you ask? ‘Using an educational neuroscience approach to improve maths and science achievement in primary school’ by Dr Iroise Dumontheil, Reader in Cognitive Neuroscience at Birkbeck.  Quite a mouthful and yet in one hour, this topic will be justified, explained and I would walk out of this room having been enlightened on what it was all about.

The lecture began, and it was interesting to hear how the series of lectures came about, that each school chose its speaker and the topic.  Dr Iroise Dumontheil was an articulate, informed and mesmerising speaker.  She had grace and elegance, and I was enthralled by the way her hands moved.  They conveyed her passion for her topic and we, her audience, were in safe hands, as step by step, we were led through her research.

The research took a ‘A stop and think approach.’  It’s interesting that neuroscience is working to understand how our minds work and what it is we can do to change the way we think.  Dr Dumontheil spoke about humans having a rational side and an intuitive side and the difference between the two.  She also talked about how the study was spread over different schools in the UK, the inclusion of children from lower socio-economic groups and the number of schools that took part. I took it all in, for it was captivating that research too is like a story.

Dr Iroise Dumontheil's lecture

The questions came from different parts of the room.  The inevitable cross examination of the sample size was there at the end.  This was followed by a question about the data.  Why such an impact on Year 5 and Year 6 children?  This is what education is about, ultimately, questions and answers.

We left the lecture hall and gathered around the table decked with drinks and snacks. I found myself conveniently next to someone, and so we began talking.  She was an alumna, a grandmother, who like me had commuted to Birkbeck that day.  We talked about the lecture, ate a few crisps, she told me how she too had been a student here.  She explained the impact it had made to her life, and how she had been interested in this lecture because she has grandchildren and wanted to understand what the research indicated.  I remember looking around, as people mingled and talked, from such diverse backgrounds, with their unique histories, here they were, in this space.

Reflecting now, I enjoyed the experience, I appreciated the opportunity of learning about something I hadn’t studied.  I liked hearing the stories of others, the people on the stage, and the ones in the audience too.  It led me to booking a place on the other 100th anniversary lectures, hearing from speakers Sir Ed Davey, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats, on the climate emergency; Baroness Helena Kennedy QC on the rule of law, I remember her passion and how it was infectious, for at the end of that lecture I too wanted to be like her; and Professor Dame Marina Warner, Re-imagining Place, Re-weaving Story, one word is all I have, inspiring, I dream of being a writer like you.

George, I do believe, you would be rather pleased, if you could see your Birkbeck now.

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Reverie: Taking time out to care for you

Held in collaboration with the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR), this Astrea event took a light-hearted approach to understanding the value of taking time out to care for yourself.

I am relaxed … I am alert … I am relaxed and alert at the same time.

Reciting meditative platitudes with mobile phones clasped firmly between hands in prayer pose, Sophie Huckfield and Sophie Bullock (together known as Ambience Factory)’s portrayal of the modern worker’s idea of taking ‘time out’ was simultaneously eye-wateringly funny and alarmingly close to the bone.

While convincingly masquerading as Chief Happiness Officer and Chief Resilience Officer, the pair’s real aim is to use play and comedy to investigate work practices.

Kicking off Thursday’s Astrea workshop on taking time out, Ambience Factory’s performance parodied some of the ways in which modern organisations pay lip service to work life balance, from mandatory mindfulness to unhelpful advice such as “don’t give in to stress: get over it.”

The science behind rest

The ice-breaking introduction was followed by a panel discussion featuring Ambience Factory, Dr Caroline Kamau (Organizational Psychology), Prof Felicity Callard (director of BISR) and Lise Groenvold (former graduate intern of Birkbeck Institute of the Humanities and BISR), and chaired by Lou Miller, BISR manager. The panellists began by exploring our understanding of rest. The picture that each of us conjure into our minds with the word ‘rest’ is likely to be very different. As one panellist put it: “Doctors will prescribe rest to patients, but rest is an undetermined term. While for one person, going for a run at 6am will put them in the most restful state of mind, for someone else, that won’t be the case.”

Historically, scientists have had a very black and white view of rest: you’re either doing a task or you aren’t. But social scientists are now collaborating with neuroscientists to show that some parts of the brain are far more active when we’re off task, pointing to prolonged benefits of taking regular moments of rest.

You are not alone

Another key point that came out of the discussion was the idea that people often feel that they must deal with stress in isolation. Dr Caroline Kamau from the Department of Organizational Psychology, whose research explores burnout and stress in NHS doctors, highlighted the severity of the issue – doctors suffering sleep problems or alcohol abuse caused by stress may be struck off – but also the fact that this is surprisingly common: “We want to normalise stress for doctors and find out the mechanisms of it.”

Stigma and guilt

Audience questions focused on the feelings of guilt that are so common when we take time to rest. Often, we feel we are letting colleagues, friends and family members down by prioritising ourselves. These feelings of guilt are a symptom of a culture where success is equated with busy-ness. These issues are social and it is everyone’s responsibility, including employers’, to introduce policies and enforce rules around absence, sick leave and working hours, to ensure everyone is well rested enough to work at their best.

Stress less

Based on her research, Dr Kamau hosted an adapted version of her Working Stress board game and app. Playing head to head (or in this case, table to table), each team had to not only use their knowledge and understanding of stress to answer multiple-choice questions, but also have open discussions about how we deal with stress and whether our strategies might be helpful or maladaptive.

There was even a task to develop and draw a novel idea for stress-relief in the workplace. The results ranged from the sensible to the bizarre. Some of the innovative ideas – inspired by the tech solutions hailed by the likes of Google but satirised by Ambience Factory — included a sustainable outburst booth (or SOB) for controlled venting of frustration through crying, and the popular Positivity Portal for My Birkbeck, which displays positive messages to boost your motivation – no PIN required! It was a hilarious end to a stress-busting event.

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The Map is not the Territory: Re-imagining Place, Reweaving Story

Natalie Mitchell, a first-year MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student, shares insights from Professor Marina Warner’s lecture that took place as part of the celebration of the 100-year anniversary of Birkbeck joining the University of London.

City of women map by Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro

Rebecca Solnit and Joshua Jelly-Schapiro, ‘City of Women 2.0’, 2019. Courtesy: the artists

Professor Dame Marina Warner took her audience on a fascinating journey through the role of mapping in storytelling and memory, in her lecture, which forms part of the 100 Years of the University of London lecture series. Using Alfred Korzybski famous axiom ‘the map is not the territory’, which suggests that a map cannot encompass the true quality of a place, Professor Warner considered the re-imagining of place and how mapping can become a rebellious act.

She began the lecture considering the many roles of cartography in territory making, defining borders, resources, military and governance, and how this informs our memory of place. The map attempts to ‘actualise history’ through naming, marking and dividing, but the construction of history is a type of narrative. A point Professor Warner emphasised through the words history and story, which are the same in many languages. As such, mapping can control the narrative of a place and becomes an important tool for colonisers, although it may bear little resemblance to the reality of a place by its indigenous people.

Adam Dant – Shoreditch as New York – 2018

The activity of creating maps can also realise fiction, such as the detailed fictional maps in the novels Gulliver’s Travels and The Lord of the Rings. Similarly, star maps give mythical gods a presence in reality through the stargazer’s eye and theme parks and Disney castles parody real locations through the child’s imagination. In this way, the fictional locations of stories can become real locations; these narratives ‘folding back’ onto the actual.

Professor Warner went on to suggest that the map can function in time as well as space, making the past present. This was particularly notable in Emma Willard’s mapping of aboriginal tribes in America and her Progress of the Roman Empire, charting time using the course of the Amazon river. These reworkings of maps can also perform a ‘historical resistance’ as seen in Layla Curtis’ NewcastleGateshead collaged map of all the places renamed after those cities, which highlights the colonial activity of claiming places through naming. Such use of cartography revealed the potential rebellious nature the renaming of maps can perform.

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease - Monarchs and Queens - 2010

Artist Mona Caron and cartographer Ben Pease – Monarchs and Queens – 2010

This type of resistance was expanded further by Professor Warner through many recent examples of the renaming and reworking of maps and places. In Paris in 2015, Osez le Feminisme flyered the city’s street signs, renaming them to notable women from history. Artists have also reimagined places via the redrawing of maps, such as Rebecca Solnit’s and Adam Dant’s maps, which create a visual narrative, questioning the authority of the map and returning to a cartography blending art and science. Similarly, Simon Patterson’s iconic reworking of the London tube map in his work The Great Bear renamed the stations after a myriad of famous and forgotten figures from history. Through each of her examples, Professor Warner showed how the reimagining of the map ‘makes the familiar unfamiliar’ and how a sense of place can be reclaimed by those in situ.

Simon Patterson - The Great Bear - 1992

Simon Patterson – The Great Bear – 1992

Professor Warner’s lecture was bookended by her recent work with a collective of young migrants in Palermo, Sicily, through the Stories in Transit workshop project Giocherenda. These workshops involved the young people developing stories of the city using the figure of The Genius of Palermo, a 15th century icon who has become a synonymous symbol of the city. The workshop took place around the city, where the young people placed the historical figure in different locations. Through this, they could develop their own sense of their new home in Palermo, but through the use of the city’s history. She expressed how it was the children who wanted to use mapping in their story creations and in doing so created a sense of belonging in an unfamiliar place.

Professor Warner concluded her lecture by emphasising the importance of continuing to create stories. Storytelling is an action and a way of history-making and in the days of fake news and big data, it is even more paramount.

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Bernal Lecture 2020: Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

Clare Samson, Senior Associate Lecturer in Birkbeck’s Department of Biological Sciences reports on the annual Bernal lecture that was given by Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science on Monday 4 February, that explored whether there really is an essentially male and female brain.

photo of head bust printed

Professor J.D. Bernal is remembered for work on the social consequences of science as much as for his ground-breaking research, and these lectures have frequently focused on societal issues. The choice of Cordelia Fine, Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne, Australia as the 2020 lecturer echoes Bernal’s passionate advocacy of women in science; Fine’s choice of title, Fifty Shades of Grey Matter, proved an engaging one. Tickets ran out long before the lecture, which took place on Monday, 4 February 2020; the lecture theatre was packed, and Fine held her audience’s attention throughout.

Fine began by explaining how our 19th-century ancestors viewed the difference between the sexes. Less than 150 years ago, the overwhelming majority accepted that men and women were biologically determined for their different roles. In 1876 a Professor Edward Clarke wrote a best-selling book that suggested that ‘if a woman were to engage in the hard-intellectual labour of higher education, it would divert energy from her [clearly far more important] reproductive system’. Even progressive voices supporting women’s education claimed that it would help them become ‘more interesting wives and better mothers’. Scientific justification for these views often focused on one simple variable: brain size. Since an average male brain is significantly larger than a female one, they argued, one would expect women to be intellectually inferior.

It is easy to argue against that viewpoint, since we are not ruled by elephants or whales. This degree of bias seems bizarre to our ears, yet, as Fine explained, we all – even neurologists and psychologists – look, perhaps unconsciously, through biased lenses. Differences between male and female brains do exist, but they are highly complex and subtle ones. She identified three main biases: androcentrism, in which the masculine view of the world is taken as central; gender polarisation, in which the masculine and the feminine are seen as polar opposites; and biological essentialism, in which traits are seen as innate and biologically (often genetically) determined, rather than arising from both nature and nurture.

Much of the lecture focused on the way in which gender polarisation continues to affect both academic and popular science. This bias is seen in the proliferation of ‘pop psychology’ books, arguing that men are from Mars and women from Venus; that men are like waffles and women like spaghetti; or that there is some innate reason why men don’t listen and women can’t read maps. Academic books setting out reasons for this ‘essential difference’ between male and female brains are still being written, and still sell well.

She presented a case study of a paper in a reputable journal that seemed to show innate differences between the connectivity of male and female brains: that is, the way they are ‘wired’.  According to this paper, female brains have stronger connections between the right and left hemispheres of the brain, while male ones have stronger connections between each hemisphere. Fine noted that although the difference was there, it was a tiny one. All the pairs of ‘bell curves’ showing brain characteristics of the women and men in the study overlapped so greatly that any differences would be described as ‘modest’ at most. No differences justified the word ‘striking’ used in the paper’s title, and no correlations were given with behaviour. Press officers, however, see headlines rather than read graphs. Publication of this paper led to headlines such as ‘Men and women wired like different species – expert’ (New Zealand Times); ‘Yes, each sex is really from a different planet’ (Metro, UK); and even ‘Women crap at parking: official’ (The Register).

Gender polarisation is summed up in the idea of a single scale with ‘100% male’ and ‘100% female’ brains at opposite ends, suggesting that they are opposites and, at times, equating the ‘extreme male brain’ with autistic tendencies. It is possible to take a quiz to position your brain at some point between the ‘systemising’ male brain and the ‘empathising’ female one, but the results can be odd: Fine quoted a colleague who found, on taking the test, that he seemed to have ‘no brain at all’. Even popular psychology makes more sense if ‘systemising’ and ‘empathising’ are seen as different characteristics with no relationship to gender. The idea of men as stereotypically problem-solvers and women as collaborators should be consigned to the past. Each community – including the scientific community – will flourish best when it is diverse, open and able to identify and eliminate bias.

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