Eyes in the back of their heads?

Is educational neuroscience all it’s cracked up to be? In a keynote speech at the London Festival of Learning, Professor Michael Thomas argues it can be used to provide simple techniques to benefit teaching and learning, and that in future machine learning could even give teachers eyes in the backs of their heads.

I could perhaps have been forgiven for viewing with some trepidation the invitation to address a gathering of artificial intelligence researchers at this week’s London Festival of Learning. At their last conference, they told me, they’d discussed my field – educational neuroscience – and come away sceptical.

They’d decided neuroscience was mainly good for dispelling myths – you know the kind of thing. Fish oil is the answer to all our problems. We all have different learning styles and should be taught accordingly. I’m not going to go into it again here, but if you want to know more you can visit my website.

The AI community sometimes sees education neuroscience mainly as a nice source of new algorithms – facial recognition, data mining and so on.

But I came to see this invitation as an opportunity. There are lots that are positive to say about neuroscience and what it can do for teachers – both now, and in the future.

Let’s start with now. There are already lots of basic neuroscience findings that can be translated into classroom practice. Already, research is helping us see the way particular characteristics of learning stem from how the brain works.

Here’s a simple one: we know the brain has to sleep consolidate knowledge. We know sleep is connected to the biology of the brain, and to the hippocampus, where episodic memories are stored. The hippocampus has a limited capacity – around 50,000 memories- and would fill up in about three months. During sleep, we gradually transfer these memories out of the hippocampus and store them more permanently. We extract key themes from memories to add to our existing knowledge. We firm up new skills we’ve learnt in the day. That’s why it’s important to sleep well, particularly when we’re learning a skill. This is a simple fact that can inform any teacher’s practice.

And here’s another: We forget some things and not others – why? Why might I forget the capital of Hungary, when I can’t forget that I’m frightened of spiders? We now know the answer – phobias involve the amygdala, a part of the brain which operates as a threat detector. It responds to emotional rather than factual experiences, and it doesn’t forget – that’s why we deal with phobias by gradual desensitisation, over-writing the ‘knowledge’ held in the amygdala. Factual learning is stored elsewhere, in the cortex, and operates more on a ‘use it or lose it’ basis. Again, teachers who know this can see and respond to the different ways that children learn and understand different things.

And nowadays, using neuroimaging techniques, we can actually see what’s going on in the brain when we’re doing certain tasks. So brain scans of people looking at pictures of faces, of animals, of tools and of buildings show different parts of the brain lighting up.

A figure representing human-rated similarity between pictures is available here:

The visual system is a hierarchy, with a sequence of higher levels of processing – so-called ‘deep’ neural networks. At the bottom level (an area called V1), brain activity responds to how similar the images are. It might respond similarly to a picture of a red car and a red flower, and differently to a picture of a blue car. Higher up the hierarchy, the brain activity responds to the different categories images are in (for example, in the inferior temporal region). Here, the patterns for a red car and a blue car will look more similar because both are cars, and different to the pattern for a red flower. This kind of hierarchical structure is now used in machine learning. It’s what Google’s software does – Is it a kitten or a puppy? Is John in this picture?

Again, teachers who know that different parts of the brain do different things can work with that knowledge. Brain science is already giving schools simple techniques – Paul Howard Jones at the University of Bristol has devised a simple three-step cycle to understand how the brain learns, based on what we now know: Engage; Build, Consolidate.

But there’s more – by bringing together neuroscience and artificial intelligence, we can actually build machines which can do things we can’t do. At a certain level, the machines become more accurate at doing things than humans are – and they can assimilate far greater amounts of information in a much shorter time.

I can foresee a day – and in research terms it isn’t far off – when teachers will be helped by virtual classroom assistants. They’ll use big data techniques – for example, collecting data anonymously from huge samples of pupils so that any teacher can see how his or her pupils’ progress matches up.

In future, teachers might wear smart glasses so they can receive real-time information – which child is having a problem learning a particular technique, and why? Is it because he’s struggling to overcome an apparent contradiction with something he already knows – or has his attention simply wandered? Just such a system has been showcased at the London Festival of Learning this week, in fact.

Of course, we have to think carefully about all this – particularly when it comes to data collection and privacy. But it’s possible that in future a machine will be able to read a child’s facial expression more accurately than a teacher can- is he anxious, puzzled, or just bored? Who’s being disruptive, who’s not applying certain rules in a group activity? Who’s a good leader?

This is not in any sense to replace teachers – it’s about giving them smarter information. Do you remember how you felt when your teacher turned to the blackboard with the words: ‘I’ve got eyes in the back of my head, you know?’ You didn’t believe it, did you? But in future, with a combination of neuroscience and computer science, we can make that fiction a reality.

This blog was first posted on the IOE London blog

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Histories of bioinvasions in the Mediterranean

Dr Simon Pooley, Lambert Lecturer in Environment (Applied Herpetology) at Birkbeck discusses ‘bioinvasions’  – the phenomenon of plants, animals and microbes being introduced more frequently into new regions – which is the subject of his new book, co-edited with Ana Isabel Queiroz.

Bioinvasions, a global environmental problem of anthropogenic origin, have been studied mainly by the natural sciences. However, it is widely acknowledged that it is also important to understand the human dimensions of bioinvasions. The book brings together environmental historians and natural scientists to produce historical narratives of bioinvasions, drawing on a bricolage of sources and methods. Central to our endeavours is our recognition that temporal and spatial scales are crucial variables in all narratives which attempt to explain the movement of invasive species across ecosystems and landscapes.

This book has three overarching aims: first, to provoke natural scientists working on bioinvasions to think more historically; second, to convince environmental historians to engage with the science of bioinvasions; and third, through sharing the research presented in this book, to convince them all of the richness of the research materials and themes and the importance of the issues, and so stimulate interdisciplinary collaborations on bioinvasions.

So, why focus on the Mediterranean region? Primarily, it is because of the antiquity of human and ecological relations in the region, notably regional (and from the fifteenth century, global) maritime communications and trade. While historians have studied the impacts of European trade and invasive plants, animals and diseases elsewhere on the planet, they have paid less attention to the reverse flow. The introductions of some well-known naturalised (non-invasive) plants such as tomatoes, potatoes, tobacco and citrus, are better known.

Of course, as the eminent environmental historian J. Donald Hughes has remarked, the Mediterranean region is a somewhat fuzzy concept, and has been defined differently depending on whether scholars have chosen biophysical, political or cultural variables and definitions. In our usage, it includes the entirety of the Mediterranean Sea, and terrestrially, the Mediterranean-type climate (MTC) region surrounding this sea.

This biophysical framework should not obscure how this region has been transformed by human actions—from agriculture to herding, burning to hunting and deforestation. Such is the scale and diversity of such influences, over millennia, that the region represents an archetypal landscape where humans and their physical and biotic environments have coevolved.

Our book includes historical case studies which collectively contribute towards a history of bioinvasions in the Mediterranean region. The histories of marine invasions best fit this aspiration, in taking in the full sweep of the Mediterranean Sea. Some of the remaining chapters are perhaps more histories in than of the region, but they all offer insights into the histories and processes of invasion in the region which share commonalities across a diversity of ecological and cultural contexts. In addition to climatic and topographical factors, and longer-term geological processes, these include: seaborne exploration, colonisation, communication and trade; the impacts of agriculture, forestry and pastoralism; and the convergent evolution of the flora in response to human disturbances, notably land clearing and burning.

Histories of bioinvasions undermine notions of timeless continuities or geographical or environmental determinism. They feature an array of introduced species from across the globe’s oceans and shores, following diverse invasion pathways facilitated by unexpected vectors, imported for numerous purposes (or accidentally). Just possibly, in aggregate, bioinvasions herald a terminal disruption of the ecological coherence used to define a ‘Mediterranean basin’ region. So, this book offers both an argument for thinking in terms of a Mediterranean region, and offers a warning of its fragility, conceptually and physically.

Our book features nine case studies of bioinvasions from the plant and animal kingdoms, encompassing marine, freshwater and terrestrial environments. These include an overview of all marine bioinvasions, a chapter focussing on invasive marine and freshwater decapods (crayfish, crabs and prawns), terrestrial invasions by Argentine ants and waxbills, invasions of islands by reptiles, amphibians and Australian plants, invasions of coastal salt marshes by cord grasses, and of freshwater waterways by African clawed frogs. These invasive species have been transported from around the globe or internally within the Mediterranean region. My own chapter includes a section on the important role of fire coupled with invasive introduced plants in Mediterranean ecosystems. It also adds a comparative look at South Africa’s Mediterranean climate region, and the history of invasions of its unique fynbos biome, examining the reasons for introductions, and cultural, political and scientific responses to their social and environmental impacts. The chronological range of this collection extends from the Neolithic and the Bronze Ages through Classical times, the ages of European maritime discovery, to the present.

Ana Isabel Queiroz (NOVA-FCSH, Lisbon) and I (the editors) are grateful for the enthusiasm and patience of the scientists among our contributors in working through many exchanges and versions to steer their work towards more historical writing. The material reads unevenly as history, in parts, but we feel the gains are substantial. In the course of editing this book, we have noted some interesting gaps in historical knowledge. For example, our knowledge of the chronology of introductions and spread of species prior to the twentieth century is surprisingly imprecise. Awareness of most of these invasions has come surprisingly late, with most discoveries and interventions described here occurring in the late twentieth or early twenty-first centuries.

In our Introduction to the book, Ana and I highlight promising avenues for further research by environmental historians. For instance, too little is known about some major pathways of invasion (notably maritime) into Mediterranean Europe, and historians have paid scant attention to invasions from species moved around within the region. There is interesting work to be done on the role of empires and their collapses, and resulting movements of humans and biota, in the introduction of invasive species. Comparative histories of management interventions and their outcomes could provide important contextual information for attempts to control bioinvasions in the region. It seems that shrubs of the region survive or recover from anthropogenic disturbances, and on the whole resist invasions by plants introduced from the other Mediterranean climate regions, possibly (as ecologist Jon Keeley has argued) because of the long history of coevolution of humans with the local biota. An exception is the western Iberian region, and it would be useful to have environmental histories of the introduction and spread of Australian trees and shrubs in this region. Finally, there are fascinating opportunities to synthesise histories of the colonisation of the region by the terrestrial fauna after humans arrived on the scene.

Histories of Bioinvasions in the Mediterranean ed. Ana Isabel Queiroz and Simon Pooley, is available now from Springer.

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Contemporary Trotskyism: the resilience of social movements

John Kelly, Professor of Industrial Relations at Birkbeck, discusses the social and political dynamics of Trotskyist organisations – the subject matter of his new book, Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain.

Almost eighty years after Leon Trotsky founded the Fourth International, there are now Trotskyist organisations in 57 countries, including most of Western Europe and Latin America. Yet no Trotskyist group has ever led a revolution, won a national election or built an enduring mass, political party. If the Trotskyist movement has been so unsuccessful, then how can we account for its remarkable resilience?

The book argues that to understand and explain the development, resilience and influence of Trotskyist groups, we need to analyse them as hybrid bodies that comprise elements of three different types of organisation: the political party, the sect and the social movement. It is the properties of these three facets of organisation and the interplay between them that give rise to the most characteristic features of the Trotskyist movement: frenetic activity, rampant divisions, inter-organisational hostility, authoritarian and charismatic leadership, high membership turnover and ideological rigidity.

As political parties, Trotskyist groups have always been small, never exceeding a membership of 10,000, and their vote shares in general and European elections have been derisory, rarely exceeding one percent. Yet Trotskyist groups are distinct from mainstream parties because in addition to their search for votes, office and policy implementation, they are also sects. This means they are powerfully wedded to the defence of Trotskyist doctrine, a core set of taken-for-granted beliefs that guide their actions and which are considered to provide the blueprint for ultimate political success. Trotskyist doctrine, like religious doctrine, appears in many different forms and struggles over the proper interpretation of Trotskyist and Leninist texts have splintered the movement into seven competing families.

Yet against this record of failure and division, Trotskyist groups have been assiduous in building a number of broad-based and successful social movements, to campaign on single issues. The Anti-Nazi League, created in the 1970s by the Socialist Workers Party, made a significant contribution to the electoral demise of the far right in that decade, whilst the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, created by the Militant Tendency in the late 1980s, helped destroy that Conservative government tax in the early 1990s.

These isolated success stories provide one element in the explanation of Trotskyist resilience, but an equally important factor is their astonishing efficiency in raising funds and building organisational capacity. The income per capita raised by Trotskyist groups from their members is around ten times greater than that of mainstream parties, an extraordinary achievement that allows them to employ large numbers of staff and to publish a wide range of newspapers, magazines and books. These organisational resources enable them to wield a public presence, on demonstrations and marches for example, out of all proportion to their tiny numbers. The same resources, coupled with their vigorous and uncompromising anti-capitalist message, allows them to recruit hundreds of young people each year, many of whom however quit after a short period.

Drawing on extensive archival research, as well as interviews with many of the leading protagonists and activists within the Trotskyist milieu, this is the first major study for thirty years of this small but vocal movement.

Contemporary Trotskyism: Parties, Sects and Social Movements in Britain is available from Routledge.

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The insecurity cycle

Sue Konzelmann, Reader in Birkbeck’s Department of Management and Founding Director of the London Centre for Corporate Governance and Ethics, discusses the ‘Insecurity Cycle’ – the subject matter of her new book, Labour, Finance and Inequality: The Insecurity Cycle in British Public Policy, co-authored with Simon Deakin, Marc Fovargue-Davies and Frank Wilkinson.

In the aftermath of the most serious financial and economic crises since the Great Depression, the question of why policy doesn’t always change when it looks like it ought to has been a regular topic of debate. This has been especially true of Britain, where the combination of the lack of a fixed, written constitution and the nature of its political and institutional system, in theory at least, make it more prone to change than much of the rest of Europe.

Examination of the major shifts in policy that have taken place since the dawn of industrial capitalism reveals an ‘insecurity cycle’ at work. This policy cycle results from opposing interest groups – working classes on the one side and capitalists on the other – applying pressure on policy-makers to shift the focus of policy towards the support of their own viewpoint and interests.

The insecurity cycle

Following periods of market liberalisation, in response to the resulting insecurity associated with rising unemployment, poverty and inequality, those affected can be expected to put pressure on policy-makers for social intervention and protection. However, this soon triggers a counter-response by capital and those in upper segments of the distribution of income & wealth – pressuring policy-makers to scale back social protections and liberalize markets. The perceived ‘zero-sum’ nature of this ongoing contest usually means that a gain for one side is seen as a loss by the other – resulting in a continuation of the cycle.

It is not, however, a contest of equals. Historically, the significant asymmetry of power between the forces of free-market capitalism and those of the social welfare state has meant that movement towards social interventionism has typically been long and drawn out, whilst shifts towards market liberalization have been relatively abrupt.

Winds of change

Our research on the dynamics of major policy shifts – from the industrial revolution to the present – suggests that four main factors produce the conditions for change. These include:

1) Crisis – usually of considerable duration; but such a ‘chronic’ crisis may be exacerbated by shorter, ‘acute’ crises.

2.) Democratic pressure, often at its greatest during elections, can also be highly influential in between. Over the years, it has resulted in the emergence of trade unions, pressure for expansion of the franchise and, more recently, socially based movements – such as Momentum – on the social welfare side of the insecurity cycle. But not all democratic pressure is on this side of the cycle, with the 1978-79 ‘winter of discontent’ producing a tide that swept Margaret Thatcher into office – and illustrating the two remaining factors:

3) New – or different – policy ideas; and

4) Credible political backing. Both of these were present in 1979, adding to both the chronic crisis of the 1970s, generally, and the acute crisis of the winter of discontent.

Combined with the resulting democratic pressure, change was almost as inevitable in 1979 as it had been less than four decades earlier, with the combination of the chronic crisis of the interwar years, the acute crisis of World War Two, the new ideas of John Maynard Keynes and the Labour Party, plus a highly ‘electable socialist’ in the form of Clement Attlee in 1945. The policy changes implemented after the elections of Attlee and Thatcher represent the two complete turns of the insecurity cycle so far, with the move to the left taking over 150 years to come about, and that to the right a scant 35. There have, however, also been many smaller shifts, that could be accommodated within the existing policy paradigm.

Axis of anger

The insecurity cycle is also a useful way to help make sense of events both in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. This is a policy cycle that is not primarily driven by numbers and data, so much as by feelings of unfairness, hopelessness, and in some cases, anger and fear. As the Brexit campaign revealed, such feelings are difficult to dissipate by politicians citing indicators such as GDP or ‘happiness’ coefficients in defence of the status quo, rather than implementing substantive changes in policy. From this perspective, the sharp polarization between support for the UK’s continued membership of the European Union, and those who feel it is damaging, as well as that between President Trump’s supporters in the US, and those who feel that they’ve lost out as a result of globalization, begin to make considerably more sense.

Is the insecurity cycle an inevitable part of policy-making? Perhaps – and if both sides continue to see it as a zero-sum game, almost certainly. However, what if the relationship between labour, finance and the social welfare state could be fundamentally changed? Continued technological change, as well as expanding populations – both in a context of finite resources – would suggest an uncomfortable intensification of the insecurity cycle if this is not at least attempted.

The links between social movements like Momentum in the UK, and Our Revolution, which has grown out of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in the US, offer the intriguing possibility that politicians like Jeremy Corbyn and Sanders – who are articulating an alternative vision of society and politics – may produce an axis as influential as that of Reagan and Thatcher during the 1980s. This, of course, would also mark a third complete movement in the insecurity cycle.

Labour, Finance and Inequality: The Insecurity Cycle in British Public Policy is available from Routledge. 

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