Plastic fantastic – how the brain grows

Stress BallA major new idea was presented to the world in 1991, to many it will mean very little but in terms of improving our understanding of the brain it was a milestone.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) had seen its roots in the earlier MRI, but instead of creating images of organs and tissues, fMRI looks at blood flow in the brain to detect areas of activity and so show how the brain works in real time.

The implications of this for learning are significant because for the first time we were able to identify which parts of the brain were reacting when different tasks were being performed. For example, we know that the cerebrum which is the largest part of the brain performs higher functions such as interpreting touch, vision, hearing, speech, emotions etc.

Brain plasticity

But it is the next discovery that is far more interesting from a learning perspective. For many years the common belief was that brain functionality (intelligence) was to a certain extent hard wired, largely genetic, with a fixed number of neurons. It probably didn’t help that the computer gave us a simile for how the brain worked which was misleading.

That all changed when it became possible to observe the brain and watch how it responded to what it saw and was asked to do. What this showed was that the brain has the ability to generate new cells, a process called Neurogenesis.

Click here to listen to neuroscientist Sandrine Thuret explain how humans can generate new brain cells i.e. Neurogenesis.

This may make sense for children given the basic brain functionality when a child is born, something must be happening to turn them into caring and thoughtful adults. In fact, by adolescence the brain has produced so many synapse, the connections between cells, they have to be cut back or pruned. Hence the term synaptic pruning.  What was perhaps more of a surprise was that growing new brain cells was not just something children could do, adults were able to do it as well.

The classic example is the evidence by Professor Eleanor Maguire from the Wellcome Trust Centre and colleague Dr Katherine Woollett who followed a group of 79 trainee taxi drivers and 31 controls (non-taxi drivers). Their research showed that London taxi drivers developed a greater volume of grey matter i.e.  cell development, three to four years after passing “the knowledge”  when compared to the control group.

Learning about learning

This may leave you thinking, all very interesting but what does it mean for me as a student?

In the same way that people can develop a growth mindset, bringing it within your control, you can do the same with your academic performance. Just because you don’t understand something or pick it up very quickly doesn’t mean that you won’t be able to. This is not to say that some people are not “brighter” than others, it is estimated that around 50%/60% of your intelligence is genetic, but that’s on the assumption your brain cannot change, and what this proves is it can.

And here is one last interesting observation, knowing how the brain works can actually help rewire it. There is evidence that students who know more about how they learn, (meta cognition) will naturally reflect on what they are doing when they are learning which in turn will help grow new cells, how good is that.

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Artificial Intelligence in education (AIEd)

robot learning or solving problems

The original Blade Runner was released in 1982. It depicts a future in which synthetic humans known as replicants are bioengineered by a powerful Corporation to work on off-world colonies. The final scene stands out because of the “tears in rain” speech given by Roy, the dying replicant.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

This was the moment in which the artificial human had begun to think for himself. But what makes this so relevant is that the film is predicting what life will be like in 2019. And with 2018 only a few days away, 2019 is no longer science fiction, and neither is Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Artificial Intelligence and machine learning

There is no one single agreed upon definition for AI, “machine learning” on the other hand is a field of computer science that enables computers to learn without being explicitly programmed. The way it does this is by analysing large amounts of data in order to make accurate predictions, for example regression analysis does something very similar when using data to produce a line of best fit.

The problem with the term artificial intelligence is the word intelligence, defining this is key. If intelligence is, the ability to learn, understand, and make judgments or have opinions based on reason, then you can see how difficult deciding if a computer has intelligence might be. So, for the time being think of it like this:

AI is the intelligence; machine learning is the enabler making the machine smarter i.e. it helps the computer behave as if it is making intelligent decisions.

AI in education

As with many industries AI is already having an impact in education but given the right amount of investment it could do much more, for example

Teaching – Freeing teachers from routine and time-consuming tasks like marking and basic content delivery. This will give them time to develop greater class engagement and address behavioural issues and higher-level skill development. These being far more valued by employers, as industries themselves become less reliant on knowledge but dependant on those who can apply it to solve real word problems. In some ways AI could be thought of as a technological teaching assistant. In addition the quality and quantity of feedback the teacher will have available to them will not only be greatly improved with AI but be far more detailed and personalised.

Learning – Personalised learning can become a reality by using AI to deliver a truly adaptive experience. AI will be able to present the student with a personalised pathway based on data gathered from their past activities and those of other students. It can scaffold the learning, allowing the students to make mistakes sufficient that they will gain a better understanding.  AI is also an incredibly patient teacher, helping the student learn from constant repetition, trial and error.

Assessment and feedback – The feedback can also become rich, personalised and most importantly timely. Offering commentary as to what the individual student should do to improve rather than the bland comments often left on scripts e.g. “see model answer” and “must try harder.” Although some teachers will almost certainly mark “better” than an AI driven system would be capable of, the consistency of marking for ALL students would be considerably improved.

Chatbots are a relatively new development that use AI.  In the Autumn of 2015 Professor Ashok Goel built an AI teaching assistant called Jill Watson using IBM’s Watson platform. Jill was developed specifically to handle the high number of forum posts, over 10,000 by students enrolled on an online course. The students were unable to tell the difference between Jill and a “real” teacher. Watch and listen to Professor Goel talk about how Jill Watson was built.

Pearson has produced an excellent report on AIEd – click to download.

Back on earth

AI still has some way to go, and as with many technologies although there is much talk, getting it into the mainstream takes time and most importantly money. Although investors will happily finance driverless cars, they are less likely to do the same to improve education.

The good news is that Los Angeles is still more like La La Land than the dystopian vision created by Ridely Scott, and although we have embraced many new technologies, we have avoided many of the pitfalls predicated by the sci-fi writers of the past, so far at least.

But we have to be careful watch this, it’s a robot developed by AI specialist David Hanson named “Sophia” and has made history by becoming the first ever robot to be granted a full Saudi Arabian citizenship, honestly…..

 

What’s the use of lectures?

Robot lecturerThe title of this month’s blog is not mine but taken from what many would consider a classic book about what can realistically be achieved by someone stood at the front of a classroom or lecture theatre, simply talking. Written some 25 years ago but updated recently Donald A. Bligh’s book takes 346 pages to answer the question, what’s the use of lectures?

What makes this book interesting is the amount of research it brings to bear on a topic some consider an art form and so not easily measured or assessed.

With many in Higher education questioning what they get for their £9,250 per annum, and contact time being one way of measuring value, it’s as important a question as ever.

For clarity, we should define what we mean by lecturing, as ever Wikipedia can help –  A lecture (from the French meaning ‘reading’) is an oral presentation intended to deliver information or teach people about a particular subject.

What should happen in a lecture?

If you’re a student attending a lecture you would hope to learn something, however as many of my past blogs have discussed, learning is a complicated process and so we may need to break this question down a little further by asking, what should a lecture actually achieve?

A lecture should….

  • Transmit information
  • Promote thought,
  • Maybe change opinion or attitude
  • Inspire and motivate
  • Help you be able to do something i.e. develop a behavioural skill

Well here is the bad news, according to Mr Bligh, a lecture is only really good for one of the above, to transmit information. And it’s not even better than many other methods e.g. reading, it’s simply as effective, but no more.

Promoting thought, changing opinions

Lectures are relatively passive whereas a discussion requires that people listen, translate what is said into their own words, check if it makes sense with what is already understood, construct a sentence in response etc. In effect, a discussion is far more effective than a lecture in developing thought.

In addition, putting the student in a situation where they have to think is important, for example by giving them a problem or asking a question as is the case when you have to answer a past exam question for example. A discussion can also help change opinions, especially where you can hear other people’s views, often different to your own. It has a longer-term impact when the group comes to a consensus.

Inspiration and motivation

Bligh also argues that on the whole lectures are not an effective means of inspiring or motivating. He suggests that it should certainly be the objective of the lecturer to try, it’s just they rarely succeed. I find myself slightly disagreeing, lecturers can be inspirational, and yet maybe this is just my personal bias from having watched Sir Ken deliver his “do schools kill creativity“  or the last lecture delivered by Randy Paush.

But perhaps, these are just the exceptions that prove the rule.

Developing skills

And finally, if you want to help people become good at a particular behaviour, you don’t tell them how to do it, you get them to practice, over and over again, with good feedback.

The end of the lecture?

I don’t think this is the end of the lecture, these criticisms have been around for many years. But I can’t help thinking that with new technologies and online learning, lectures are going to have to get a whole lot better in the future.

And what will Universities point to as value for money then?

 

 

The 5 top EdTech trends – summer of 2017

Glastonbury a marginally more interesting gathering….but only just.

We are in the season when many learning and technology leaders gather to discuss what’s new and what’s trending in the world of education. And at two recent conferences, Learning Technologies and EdTechXEurope there was plenty to see. Generally, the role of technology in learning seems to have found its place with many acknowledging it should support learning not drive it. However it’s still very easy to look at the latest shiny new offerings and think, this is great how can I use it, rather than, what learning problem does it solve.

Here are a few of the most notable developments.

1. Video is getting even better – fuelled by the YouTube generation of learners, those who would rather watch a video than read a book as a means to consume knowledge, we have some new developments.

Firstly, using video to deliver micro learning.  Not just small chunks of video but untethered, JIT, 3 minute courses that offer the learner digestible easy to remember information. Think of micro learning as a series of very short courses that could be linked to each other or not, and can even include assessment.

Secondly, interactive video. TV is no longer the all commanding medium it once was, it like other technologies has had to evolve. In recent years the shift has been towards better engagement, offering spin off programmes where there is a live audience, web sites that showcase the backstory to the characters and programmes that require the audience to vote and so influence events. Now we have interactive video, where the individual can choose what they would do and so change the future. Check out this amazing example, used by Deloitte to attract new talent.

2. Gamification is becoming better understood. For the uninitiated gamification is the use of game based principles to improve motivation, concentration and more effective learning. Gamification uses Points (P) as a measure of reward, Badges (B) as a visual record of success, and leader boards (L) to create competition.

We now believe Dopamine, the pleasure induced neurotransmitter (chemical) is not created as a result of a reward e.g. by being given a badge, it is the challenge and subsequent achievement that releases the dopamine which in turn leads to pleasure. This might seem obvious, with hindsight, no one gets pleasure from being top of a leader board, if they did nothing to get there.  In addition, dopamine is released when you have a new experience, so think about changing pathways, setting different questions and tasks, it’s certainly not very motivational to go over the same content again.

3. Information overload is leading to a need for Knowledge Curation – we are living in an age where  information is abundant. You can learn anything from the internet. But there lies the problem, we have too much information, we suffer from information overload. Curation is the collecting and sorting of meaningful content around a theme, and it is now in some instances being thought of as more valuable than the content itself.

Arguably curation is not so much about what you curate and share but what you don’t share. In addition to the organisation of content the curators need to have an expertise in the subject and an understanding of their audience and what they want.

Steven Rosenbaum in his book Curation Nation, offers up a good summary. “Curation replaces noise with clarity. And it’s the clarity of your choosing; it’s the things that people you trust help you find.”

4. The market is becoming more accepting of user generated content (UGC) – organisations are beginning to see the benefits of UGC for a whole host of reasons. It’s a very fast way of generating content, there is a lot of expertise that can be uncovered by allowing individuals to share what they know, it’s often user friendly, and importantly its cheap. It is of course not perfect, and there are concerns about quality, but by allowing the users to rate the content, the quality might just look after itself.

5. Virtual reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Artificial intelligence (AI) – not that these are all related, but just a simple way of me summarising three areas to keep an eye on in the not too distant future. All of these technologies are becoming cheaper, largely because of the investment made and experience being gained in the gaming industry.

By way of a footnote Google have released an open source software called Tensorflow which can help with machine learning, something that they believe will help drive new initiatives in AI.

Sensemaking, humility and the humanities

human-being-girl-picture

For a variety of reasons, I have been engaged this month in thinking not so much about examinations but what subjects should be examined.

Whilst the news has been dominated by terrorism, Trump and Brexit, we may be facing a far bigger problem, of which these news stories are a good example, how can we be sure of making the right decisions in a world of mass information, complexity and change.

People voted Brexit for a whole variety of reasons, many “facts” were presented in simple terms, we will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS, immigration will be reduced as we gain control over our borders. Yet these facts are far too simplistic, any level of analysis, critical thinking and challenge would have revealed the difficulty of delivering them, and in many instances they won’t be delivered. If this is the case, did people vote to leave, or stay not on the facts as presented but using other criteria, maybe they were just naive and placed far too much trust in Politicians or perhaps they had never been taught about sensemaking, humility or studied the humanities.

Sensemaking

An interesting article caught my eye earlier in the month, “Silicon Valley needs to get schooled”. it was by Christian Madsbjeg, author of the book Sensemaking and senior partner in ReD, a strategy consulting company based on the human sciences. In the article Madsbjeg argues that the reason for a lack of new and exciting products from Silicon Valley is not because of a shortage of ideas but a complete failure to understand people.

In the book Sensemaking he expands on the problem. In order to cope with complexity, we look to science, logic and the algorithm (a rules based process) for a solution. On the face of it crunching big data so that it spews out the correct answer seems perfect, but, and this is a quote from the book, Madsbjeg makes a very important point, he says we stop seeing numbers and models as a representation of the world and we start to see them as the truth – the only truth”.  We are in fact looking at the numbers without the context of the world from which they came or a sufficiently deep understanding of the behaviours we are measuring.

We rely on science and the scientific method for so much of what we do but where people are involved we need a different approach. To put it another way “When human beings enter the equation, things go non-linear” Neil deGrasse.

Sensemaking is “how we make sense of the world so we can perform better in it”. It recognises that situations are complex and information ambiguous. It requires people to make a continuous effort to understand the connectivity that exists between people, places, and events in order to anticipate their trajectories and act accordingly.

Humility

trumpwillwin-notextIntellectual humility as defined by the authors of a recent paper entitled, Cognitive and Interpersonal Features of Intellectual Humility is the opposite of intellectual arrogance or conceit. It is in effect, recognising that you could be wrong. One of the findings from the research was that people who displayed intellectual humility were better than the control group at evaluating the quality of evidence they had been presented with. A very useful skill indeed, given the world of false news in which we currently find ourselves.

Humanities

And what job will you get after studying History for three years……

The humanities (English, History, Philosophy etc) have been given a bad press in recent times. Overshadowed by the drive to develop coding skills and with the constant chanting of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) in the background, it’s not surprising that less people are studying them. They were at an all-time low in 2014 at 6.1% of all bachelor’s degrees, a long way of the 1967 record of 17.2%.

But it is generally recognised that the humanities can teach us a lot. In another reference from Christian Madsbjeg’s book, Sensemaking, he suggests the humanities can teach us, one that other worlds exist, two that they are different and three, we learn how to imagine other worlds that in turn helps us better understand our own.

As with sensemaking and humility, are these not the types of skills we need to learn?

Examinations – what to examine?

What subjects should be examined depends to a large extent on what job you would like to do. But with the claim that 60% of 11 year olds will leave school to do jobs which have not yet been invented it’s hard to know the answer. What we do know is that the world is unlikely to slow down, change not happen, data become less available and complexity give way to simplicity. As a result, we need to teach people and so examine the skills that will help them better navigate this world. Maybe when those primary school children go onto higher education they will be studying sensemaking, humility and the humanities.

Even though the ink is barely dry on the letter sent by Theresa May bringing about our formal negotiations to exit Europe, the interesting thing is we will never know if this was a good or bad decision. Because post Brexit people will behave differently, some will work hard to make the impossible possible whilst others will continue to frustrate the process, and none of that could have been foreseen at the time.

So, let’s hope the basis for the original decision to leave was not because of the headline – We will save £350m a week and this money will go into the NHS!

Teaching to the test – another point of view

point-of-veiw-2A point of view is a programme on radio 4 that allows certain well-read, highly educated individuals, usually with large vocabularies to express an opinion. It lasts 10 minutes and is often thought provoking, concluding with a rhetorical question that has no answer.

This week Will Self the novelist and journalist gave his point of view on teaching to the test, as you might imagine it caught my attention. Self starts by telling a story about the life of a “good student,” and how it would unfold. He describes the way in which their concentration intensifies when the teacher states that what they are going to learn next is important and often examined. The story continues, as a result of their diligence and technique, the “good student” gets the necessary grades to go to University. They don’t however select the University on the basis of the course of study or on what they passionately wish to learn, no its based on the Universities credibility in league tables.

Upon successfully gaining a degree the student, now an employee gets a desk job that rewards a similar style of rubric mentality. As an employee, they are assessed against targets, performing well only on the ones that promise promotion and a pay rise. Eventually they retire and die.

Self concludes that this ordinary, dull, uninspiring life started back in the classroom all those years ago, when the teacher failed to educate and inspire, and simply taught to the test.

Over egging the pudding

There is a logic to this story, and it sounds ever the more inevitable as Self narrates it in his black and grey voice. But that’s all it is, a story. It avoids detail and colour, offering little regard as to the individual’s ability to reflect at some point in their life and ask searching and probing questions. It is as if somehow because the teacher highlighted the importance of one piece of knowledge it somehow stifled the student’s capacity to one day think for themselves.  Self is how they say, overegging the pudding, taking an interesting question as to the impact teaching to the test might have and serving up an omelette.

Teaching to the test is not bad

Brunel university asked a question as to what makes an unmissable lecture. In addition to many arguably more commendable answers, including the passion of the tutor and because they wanted to learn, the likelihood of the subject being taught having a high probability of being in the exam was key. Suggesting that a specific topic might be on the exam paper firstly, ensured a good attendance and secondly guaranteed the student listened intently.

Attention is important but even for the diligent student focus is vital. Learning everything is simply not possible, faced with 20 chapters, the student needs some clue as to where they need to direct their energy and time. Of course, the educationist will say that everything is important, but saying that will not make it so. Knowing that something is examinable at least gives a starting point and helps guide the student through the material quickly and efficiently. It’s also worth adding that It does not exclude the need to be inquisitive, in fact by making the student read a particular topic it may inspire them to find out more.

Exams and exam answers also provide examples of what is expected and the standard the student must reach if they are to be successful, no amount of narrative in the student handbook or curriculum guidance will do this as effectively.

The type of assessment matters

Of course, in Selfs world, teaching to the test removes the need to do anything more than learn about what will be in the exam. He suggests that students need to think outside the box rather than simply tick them. I have to admit I like that sentence.

But he does have a point, if the test is so narrow that it only assesses memory or a very small part of the syllabus then that is all the student will focus on. But that is just a bad test, this is of course where I am in danger of becoming idealistic and painting a picture that is not a true reflection as to what is happening. Not all tests are good, and undoubtedly some students will pass with limited thought and little more than good memory skills. Yet with changes in technology it becomes ever more possible to build tests and simulations that asses the student ability to perform in real world situations, and for that matter think outside the box.

Teaching to the test has become a term used to describe bad teaching and poor assessment and no one would agree that either of these are desirable. But it is not the process that’s problematic, it’s the application. Testing in its many forms is part of learning but it needs done well and thoughtfully.

In conclusion

Having now read the blog I would encourage you to listen to Will Self – click. It is of course not for me to say who presents the right point of view, you need to make up your own mind. For those however who were taught to the test no matter how long ago, you probably won’t understand even what I am asking because to the best of my knowledge this question has never been tested before……………?

 

Mr/Madam President – who has had the best education

trump-clinton

I would like to return to the idea that education has to play a part in forming an individual, their views and ultimately who they are. In April 2015 I considered the educational experiences of the leaders of the different political parties in the UK. I concluded that in my opinion, Nick Clegg followed by Nigel Farage probably had the “best” education. The logic being they had both been exposed to a variety of views, opinions and cultures, whilst many of the so-called career politicians had relatively insular academic journeys. Given the recent US elections I thought it might be interesting, post results to see how the two presidential wannabes Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump compared.

Donald Trump

young-donald-trump-military-schoolDonald John Trump was born on June 14, 1946, in Queens, New York, the fourth of five children of Frederick C. and Mary MacLeod Trump. Frederick Trump was of German descent, a builder and real estate developer, who left an estimated $250-$300m. His Mother was from the Scottish Isle of Lewis. Trumps early years were spent at Kew-Forest School in Forest Hills, a fee-paying school in Queens. From there aged 13 he went to the New York Military Academy, leaving in 1964. Fordham University was his next stop but for only two years before moving to the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated in 1968 with a degree in economics. After leaving Wharton Trump went onto to focus full time on the family businesses, he is now said to be worth $3.7bn.

As to how good or successful Donald Trump was as a student or in fact as to his achievements whilst at school, it is difficult to establish. Trump claims he was best in his class, and yet there are no records of this being the case. What we can say is that he did not graduate with honours. In addition, some claim that the only reason he got into Wharton was after an interview with a “friendly” Wharton admissions officer who was a classmate of Trump’s older brother.

“I went to the Wharton School of Finance, I’m, like, a really smart person.”

The most telling comment, and one I will use by way of summary is that Trumps favourite lecture was from a Wharton Professor, who argued that the essence of good business was to understand the desires and even the psychologies of those on the other side of the negotiating table.

Hillary Clinton
hillory-cHillary Rodham Clinton was born October 26, 1947, Chicago, Illinois. She was the eldest child of Hugh and Dorothy Rodham. Her father, a loyal Republican, owned a textile business which provided a “comfortable income”. Hillary’s mother who met Hugh Rodham whilst working as a company clerk/typist did not have a college education unlike her father. However Dorothy Rodham is said to have had a significant impact on Hillary and believed that gender should not be a  barrier.

Clinton’s academic career is far more traditional:

  • Eugene Field Elementary School, Park Ridge, Illinois, 1953-1957.
  • Ralph Waldo Emerson Middle School, Park Ridge, Illinois, 1957-1961
  • Maine Township High School, East and South, Park Ridge, 1961-1965
  • Wellesley College, Wellesley, Massachusetts, 1965-1969. As Senior Class president, Hillary Clinton became the first student speaker at graduation. Click to listen to the speech
  • Yale Law School, New Haven, Connecticut, 1969-1972. It was at Yale that she met Bill hillary-clinton-schoolClinton, they married in 1975. She graduated with a JD in Law and had a paper published in the Harvard review, under the title  “Children Under the Law”.

 Ambitious at one point to become an astronaut, she wrote to NASA and received a response that stunned her when she was informed that women were not accepted for the astronaut program.

After leaving Yale, she joined a small law firm, and in 1979 became a full partner at the Rose Law Firm. She was twice named in the list of “The 100 Most Influential Lawyers in America.”

And the winner is……

This is a far more difficult decision than looking at the UK leaders. There it was easier to see a clear distinction between those that had a broader educational experience compared to the more insular establishment bubble.

Of course, it could be argued that Clinton has followed this more traditional/establishment path, but she is self-made, having come from a relatively ordinary background and given the evidence has a far broader academic journey and the better academic record. Trump on the other hand was born into a very wealthy family but has made his way in the business world, much like Nigel Farage, he went to the university of life. An interesting comparison!

Perhaps the answer lies not so much in what you learned at school but in your ability to continue learning. The one that has had the best education will be the one who is willing to listen and continually learn, and on that basis, I think I know who my winner would be. For Hillary Clinton there is clearly much to reflect upon, but for Donald Trump I worry he has forgotten what learning is all about, lets hope not.