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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Examining the class system in British museum employment

Sam Evans, a PhD researcher at the Department for Organizational Psychology, is leading a series of focus groups which will ask participants to reveal what it takes to get in and get on in the museum sector, and how social class shapes career chances and experiences.

I’m interested in how inequality is reinforced in the workplace. Class, until recently, has been surprisingly absent from the debate. Research into diversity or equality, often overlooks class, as does occupational psychology in general. Part of the reason for this absence is that class is not a legally protected characteristic, like age or gender, but also it is argued that there has been a more fundamental ‘individualisation’ of Western culture.

Class identities have become more difficult to see or express in the workplace. Our careers are thus seen as our responsibility, and we don’t often think or talk about the structural inequalities that might frame this. However, there is research suggesting inequality at work is increasing, professions are becoming more not less exclusive, and social mobility is declining.

I want to explore these issues in-depth in my research project, The Museum of Them and Us; I am interested not just in how people are classed, but also occupations, roles and organisations. I am particularly interested in why some careers and types of work favour some groups of people and not others. We assume anyone can get in and get on, no matter how tough, given they have the right personal qualities. But what is this really like for people from different backgrounds? I have chosen to look at museums, partly because I am familiar with the field, but also because visiting and working in museums is described as middle class. But why is this, does this account for all types of work, and what does this mean for people who might not be from middle-class backgrounds.

I don’t have a fixed definition of the term ‘class’ (this is a subject that has been debated for 150 years and most researchers recognise there is no one single definition), but am using Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of capital of class. This involves looking at the types of economic, social or cultural capital that are valued within different types of museum work and how this relates to the type of capital people actually have, or are able to acquire. Cultural capital is particularly important as this relates to accent, dress, education and knowledge of particular types of culture, and is often highly valued in cultural work.

I have already conducted interviews with representative bodies, trade unions and membership bodies as well as analysing reports and websites to look at how ‘getting and getting on is described’. I have found that, as with other research, museum work has become less secure and more competitive. The onus seems to be on the person to develop themselves as specialist and professional, and yet also flexible and versatile. This potentially makes it riskier and less beneficial for anyone entering the field. Class was talked about but was often described as difficult to see or measure, and most diversity initiatives were aimed at developing the individual to fit the required ways of working, rather than look more closely at how ways of working might be creating inequalities.

With the focus groups and interviews, on the one hand, I am asking people to talk about their work – what it takes to get in and on, how this might have changed, how this might be different for different roles, are some roles held in higher esteem than others and why. On the other hand, I want to talk about social class – what does it mean to people, do they think class matters and if so, how? I am also asking people to contribute images or photos that they think represent their work.

Take part in the focus groups:

If you have worked or volunteered for a museum you can take part in a focus group or an interview. If people think that class has mattered to them in particular, I am also conducting private interviews.

Taking part is confidential, enjoyable and you will be helping the sector. To take part in a focus group or an interview and for further information, please contact me or visit my website.

Thursday 5 April
6PM – 7.30PM, Birkbeck Main Building, Room MAL 420, Malet Street, WC1E 7HZ  

Wednesday 11 April
6.30PM – 8PM, Birkbeck Main Building, Room MAL 420, Malet Street, WC1E 7HZ.

Thursday 26 April
6PM – 7.30PM, Museums Association Offices, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0AZ

Friday 18 May
2.30PM – 4PM, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Chamberlain Square, Birmingham B3 3DH

Wednesday 23 May
6PM – 7.30PM, Museums Association Offices, 42 Clerkenwell Close, London, EC1R 0AZ

Thursday 7 June
4PM – 5.30PM, Whitworth Gallery, The University of Manchester, Oxford Road, Manchester, M15 6ER

Thursday 14 June
5.30PM – 7PM, M Shed, Princes Wharf, Wapping Road, Bristol, BS1 4RN

Or schedule an interview:
If you think social class has mattered to you personally in your work or career then you can take in part in an individual interview, by email, Skype or face to face (depending on your location).

If you are interested in finding out more, please contact Sam directly.

About Sam:

I studied History originally, and then spent about 25 years working in marketing in the museum, cultural and public sectors. A lot of my work was really about understanding people and organisational cultures as much as ‘doing’ marketing, hence my interest in studying organisational psychology.  I started studying part time about 8 years ago, first obtaining a degree in psychology at OU, then moving on to the MSc in Organisational Psychology at Birkbeck.

About the same time as graduating, I was made redundant, which forced a decision – stick to the marketing “battleship” I knew, or jump onto the less stable “raft” of psychology. I had already met some PhD students and Dr Rebecca Whiting who became my supervisor, and thought I would really like to study for a PhD here. So when I was offered a studentship, I took the leap. It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made!

From Dr Rebecca Whiting, a lecturer in the Department of Organisational Psychology and Sam’s PhD supervisor:

Sam brings a wealth of experience to her research from working in this sector and an intellectual rigour from her academic training. Class is a challenging concept to research because of the many and sometimes conflicting ways in which its conceptualised and measured.

Many definitions reflect the relationship between class and socio-economic and cultural status. However, since class is not a ‘protected characteristic’ under the Equality Act 2010, it doesn’t always appear as an aspect of diversity in organizations, so is ripe for critical investigation. Museums are key locations of our socio-cultural heritage but are an under-researched context in organizational and occupational research.

This highlights the importance of Sam’s research which brings together this topic and context to explore how class impacts on museum work.

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Physical fitness linked to lower cognitive impairment in dementia

Dr Eddy Davelaar from the Department of Psychological Sciences discusses the importance of physical fitness in offsetting cognitive impairment in adults with dementia.

 

Dementia and cognitive impairment cost the UK economy approximately £26 billion per year. The number of people with dementia in England and Wales has been projected to increase by 57% from 2016 to 2040, primarily because of extended life expectancy. Finding ways to slow its severity and progression could have life-changing effects for the 800,000 people estimated to be living with dementia in the UK.

With the increased incidence in dementia, people are interested to know whether it could be prevented through changes in their lifestyle, such as eating habits, exercise, and decreased environmental stress. Research does suggest that a healthy lifestyle lowers the risk of dementia. We were interested in physical fitness as one of the lifestyle factors. In our recent article published in Frontiers in Public Health, we asked the question of whether self-reported physical fitness is associated with cognitive, or thinking ability in people with dementia.

To assess this, we used a cross-sectional design with two groups. The first group was made up of 30 older individuals (aged 65+ years) with dementia, who were attending the Alzheimer’s café social events. Those people in the dementia group have lower cognitive performance than the 40 age-matched participants from our control group, who do not have dementia.

We tested everyone on a wide range of cognitive tests, such as verbal fluency, prospective memory, and clock drawing. We also administered a 15-item questionnaire on physical fitness, which asked about strength (eg. ability to lift things), balance, and aerobic conditioning (eg. taking a brisk walk or taking the stairs instead of lifts). Many studies have shown strong correlations between self-report and objective measures of physical fitness. In addition, this questionnaire is available to everyone for self-assessment.

Our findings showed that in the group of dementia patients, those with greater physical fitness also had a greater general cognitive ability. Even those patients with the best cognitive performance still performed worse than the healthy individuals, who did not show this link between physical and cognitive fitness. Thus, physical fitness seems to buffer dementia-related cognitive deterioration.

We ran a number of checks on the results and found that the association did not change when we controlled for the age of the participants, the number of years since dementia diagnosis, the type of dementia, or even whether the person used to be physically active when they were younger. The latter finding suggests that the current state of being physically fit and capable is key to observing this cognitive benefit.

There are at least two explanations for these findings. First, the cardiovascular hypothesis states that physical activity stimulates blood circulation in frontal-striatal circuits (neural pathways that connect frontal lobe regions with the basal ganglia that mediate motor, cognitive, and behavioural functions within the brain), that are critical in executive functioning, such as planning and reasoning.

A second hypothesis suggests that physical fitness measures, such as strength and balance, require efficient brain representations of motor plans. The processes by which these motor representations become more efficient also leads to enhanced cognitive representations. Both hypotheses underscore the expression, ‘what is good for the heart is good for the brain’.

We are currently in the process of addressing the question of whether physical fitness (using both self-report and objective measures) is associated with cognitive decline or cognitive impairment in the absence of dementia. This would assess whether greater physical fitness is associated with greater mental fitness in general, or with cognitive fitness specific in the context of dementia.

Future research could also extend this work using longitudinal study designs in order to address the question of whether a change in physical fitness is associated with a change in the risk of dementia, which has important implications for health policy and age-appropriate physical intervention programmes for both healthy individuals and dementia patients.

Read the original, peer-reviewed article: Increased Physical Fitness Is Associated with Higher Executive Functioning in People with Dementia (2017).

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Assessment, feedback and technology

In a new open access book from the Bloomsbury Learning Environment, Sarah Sherman and Leo Havemann look at the role of technology in educational assessment and what looks set to change.

Assessment lies at the heart of formal learning, and therefore at the heart of our work as educational technology practitioners. For our students in higher education institutions throughout Bloomsbury and the wider sector, undertaking coursework typically involves the use of online services and software to research and produce digital documents which are then submitted via a virtual learning environment (in our case, Moodle). Increasingly, marking and feedback also takes place online. These changes to assessment practices have been brought about through dialogue, collaboration and investment of precious time by academics, administrative staff and learning technologists, and by and large, the results appear to be welcomed by both students and staff. Yet this is not the full story of the role technology already and potentially plays in assessment. Online submission and marking of digital documents represents a digitisation of offline practices, which brings various new affordances (and of course removes others), but is not necessarily transformative.

Student attainment and satisfaction are sector-wide concerns, leading to calls from influential agencies such as the HEA and Jisc to enhance and transform assessment practices. The Bloomsbury Learning Environment (BLE) agreed in 2014 to focus the consortium’s shared activities on the ways in which learning technologies can enhance and support assessment and feedback. We wanted to gain an overview of current practices throughout Bloomsbury, and at the same time uncover and share examples of people making use of learning technologies in ways which go beyond the norm of digitised offline practice. Over the two subsequent academic years, we organised a programme of online and face-to-face events, conducted research, and collected case studies highlighting good practice.

In our experience, teaching staff often do not have much opportunity to find out what their peers are doing. Therefore, we have now published the written outputs of our enhancement theme as a freely available, open access ebook entitled Assessment, Feedback and Technology: Contexts and Case Studies in Bloomsbury. The ebook contains three research papers, which capture macro-level snapshots of current practice across the BLE partner institutions, as well as a wide range of pedagogic and technical case studies. These chapters have been contributed by academics, learning technologists, administrators and consultants, bringing a variety of perspectives to the topic. In developing this collection, our aim is therefore to offer an overview of current assessment practices, and hopefully some inspiration and ideas for making better use of technology.

The research presented in the first three chapters of the book include specific examples of practice at the BLE partner institutions from which broad recommendations have been drawn to help inform wider practice. These papers focus on:

  1. The use of technology across the assessment lifecycle
  2. The roles played by administrative staff in assessment processes
  3. Technology-supported assessment in distance learning

The first chapter introduces the assessment lifecycle model, developed by Manchester Metropolitan University and Jisc, which helps to contextualise the Bloomsbury landscape. The chapter was prompted by a wide-ranging survey conducted by each partner member to gauge how assessment practices were delivered and supported with technology. The second chapter offers administrative perspectives of the processes involved in assessment, and the research provides insight into how course administrators manage their responsibility in the workflow. We explore their pain points and consider improvements. Finally, the third chapter describes the assessment and feedback practices in the Bloomsbury programmes which offer distance learning (DL). Although it specifically considered DL, the findings and recommendations in this chapter are applicable for all teaching models.

The subsequent chapters are case studies of digital assessment and feedback practices, which operate at the micro-level of specific modules, offering an understanding of the pedagogy underlying the adoption of particular tools, and the associated benefits and challenges. The practice described does not simply replicate standard offline practices in a digital way, but extends the role of assessment and feedback. The case studies are categorised into five themes:

  • Alternative Tasks and Formats
  • Students Feeding Back
  • Assessing at Scale
  • Multimedia Approaches
  • Technical Developments

The final section contains three case studies of technical developments, which have been undertaken locally to support or enhance aspects of practice. The book acknowledges the inspiring work of our colleagues but also contributes to the wider discussion in the education community regarding improvements to assessment and feedback. Most of all, we hope this collection will be of interest to academics throughout Bloomsbury and beyond who are curious to learn about and develop new assessment approaches.

Further information: http://www.ble.ac.uk/ebook.html

Authors:
Sarah Sherman, BLE Service Manager, Bloomsbury Learning Environment @BLE1
Leo Havemann, Learning Technologist, Birkbeck, University of London @leohavemann

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