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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Bitcoin: Future or Fad?

First year BSc Economics student Lydia Evans provides a recap of an event organized by Birkbeck’s Economics + Finance Society, at which Financial Times journalist Isabella Kaminska discussed the future of Bitcoin.

What does Bitcoin mean to you?

To some, it epitomises the promise of the free market ­-  perhaps even, if one ‘mined’ it early enough, a path to becoming a millionaire. To others, it is reminiscent of Tulip Mania or the South Sea Bubble. The valuation graphs are eerily similar both in curve and timeline.

The Financial Times (FT) was started to help investors make informed decisions. Many were often victims of the Penny press. It was most germane to listen to what the FT’s Isabella Kaminska (FT Alphaville) thinks about the most popular cryptocurrency and its underlying technology, Blockchain.

Kaminska thinks that Bitcoin has been good for engaging previously uninterested parties in banking and finance. The evolution of its ecosystem also highlights the importance of harnessing the ever-expanding abilities of technology. This is as far as Bitcoin can be considered ‘on the money’.

She said that most of us have had a form of digital currency for ages, ever since we first signed up to a bank; the very basic concept of Bitcoin is not, therefore, a new one. However, unlike the technological advancement in traditional banks, she believes that Bitcoin might take us backwards.

We have no idea as to the actual asset structure or as to where it is being invested. But if capital has to be reinvested to create value, where is Bitcoin being invested?  Similarly, although Bitcoin appears to promise a dissolution of typical dealer/broker relationships, they are still very much in place.

Details regarding any potential intermediary from an established, regulated institution are readily available. There is rarely transparency when it comes to those associated with a Bitcoin Exchange. Kaminska’s research into the companies that sell and process Bitcoin showed that the vetting process is astoundingly lax.

Another claim is that it is free and easy. Kaminska thinks Bitcoin is still not user-friendly for the general public. The increasing costs could even lead to it becoming a luxury lifestyle product. Maybe, she jokingly suggested, one that could be featured in magazines such as ‘How to Spend It’.

Regulation will be the catalyst of all its future developments. It could even dismantle key principles of the whole project. This leads to a crucial question: Does Bitcoin serve a purpose or is it a solution looking for a purpose?

Perhaps Blockchain offers a solution. It has provided a means to mass collaboration that is hard, if not impossible, to get with traditional banks. But this depends upon who is collaborating and for what reasons. Due diligence is not an option in this very closed world – you are only as strong as the weakest member.

Kaminska opines that volatility undermines a currency’s usefulness. This can be demonstrated by examining any chart documenting the cryptocurrency’s history. She sees Bitcoin as a utopia for those disillusioned by, or unwilling to participate with, the mainstream banking system. Utopia is rarely what it seems.

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