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Getting Real About Wellness and Workload

The release of the 2018 Teacher Wellbeing Index last week brought to the fore what most of us already knew to be true: teachers are overwhelmingly overworked and unhappy. Amid a slew of wellbeing resources released in the fallout was a smaller but vocal concern that the idea of wellbeing aids, in any form, were a band-aid solution that failed to address the causes of teacher dissatisfaction at the roots. Coping mechanisms do not treat a problem, they enable a person to tough it out. And ‘toughing it out’ is precisely the condition under which teachers have been labouring so unhappily. Claire Hughes, an ex-teacher who now works at CENTURY, discusses her experience with workload and wellbeing below:

 

I became part of the third of teachers who leave teaching after five years or less, because frankly, it isn’t good enough. Like many teachers, I had become disillusioned with the heavy workload but also the sometimes factory-belt like cog of teaching children as a means to survive Ofsted or improve SAT results. 72% of teachers are considering leaving due to workload according to the latest Teacher Wellbeing Index. I truly believed-and still do-that teachers have one of the most important jobs in the world, but fantastic teachers are constantly choosing to quit because of how they are treated.

 

I realised early on that teachers are bound by a magical moral duty to sacrifice their lives in honour of their careers. Teaching is an odd career that doesn’t just expect you to work longer hours and weekends, but morally judges if you do not. Somehow, by not updating that display, you are failing as a teacher; and thus, you are failing the children. The workload is overwhelming as the work never ends. There are always more books to mark, better resources to laminate and more data to scrutinise.

 

Don’t take a day off work, or the guilt worsens. A third of senior leaders and teachers feel like taking time off work will negatively impact their relationships with their colleagues. You are just meant to suffer through it. There is a very pointed agenda of ‘I’m sick but I’m in school. If I can do it, you can too.’ Often the thought of missing a day was not worth the resulting extra stress. What if they marked my books incorrectly, or worse?

 

The knowledge that nearly half of teachers cope with stress by eating gives an ominous underlayer to stale staff meeting biscuits. You see that plain digestive? That is all you’re getting. 74% of staff think they don’t have enough guidance or support around mental health at work, which isn’t surprising, given 64% of educational institutions do not regularly survey their staff to establish levels of employee wellbeing. Over a third of educational professionals say there is no form of mental health support at all at their schools.

 

67% of educational professionals are stressed. There is a dangerous assumption that teaching and stress are synonymous. The months of teaching when I was unhappy and overworked, I was a bad teacher. The amount of enthusiasm and energy required to engage and inspire 30 children on a daily basis is colossal. For me, it was an impossible task when I was unwell and unsupported. Teachers deserve support; if not just for themselves, then for the children they are teaching.

 

The Teacher Wellbeing Index recorded that ‘making a difference’ and ‘the children’ were the top two things professionals love about teaching.  The workload of unnecessary paperwork is hated because of the disingenuity of it, but also for how it takes teachers away from what truly matters. Teachers need to be given practical solutions to save time so they can look after themselves. And then focus on the children.

 

Ofsted now factors wellbeing into school assessments. Some schools decided to handle this by creating compulsory wellbeing programmes for teachers which, unsurprisingly, proved largely unpopular. The issue with wellbeing incentives, whether they be programmes offered by schools on mindfulness or nutrition, or resources generated by well-wishing third parties, is that they are all a means to cope and not means for change.

 

Schools have a responsibility to account for staff wellbeing through proper support systems and monitoring as Claire keenly points out, but this must be with the aim to create strategies that better empower teachers, not to meet government standards. Wellbeing measures are a fantastic benefit in any workplace, but are only worthwhile if they supplement an infrastructure developed with efficient workflow and employee happiness at its core.

CENTURY Chosen as a Solve MIT Solution

From September 22nd to 24th, 2018, the CENTURY team headed to New York to participate in the Solve MIT Challenge Finals. The Solve challenges welcome submissions from teams the world over to come together to provide solutions to major global issues. Successful teams join the Solve community which links companies with a global network of peers to help invigorate project outreach and scale growth.

The CENTURY team participated in the Teachers & Educators Challenge which sought solutions to the question ‘How can teachers and educators provide accessible, personalized, and creative learning experiences for all?’

CENTURY pitched its innovative artificially intelligent learning platform as a means to provide personalised education and reduced teacher workload to schools everywhere, especially in disadvantaged communities:

‘The combination of providing personalised resources to every student and enabling educators to focus their energy where it is most effective can reduce achievement gaps, particularly for learners who are typically let down by the education system: those who are from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who have specific learning needs. It is a travesty that any child is left behind, but the blow is hardened when so many of these children are those who are already so vulnerable.’

CENTURY CEO and Founder Priya Lakhani took to the Challenge stage in an inspiring flash of energy – delivering a brilliant pitch on the importance of empowering every learner. The pitch was an accurate representation of what drives team CENTURY: knowledge, energy, and an unshakeable desire to create change. The team successfully became an official 2018 Solver – one of thirty chosen out of 1,150 submissions. Of only eight winning teams in the Teachers & Educators Challenge, CENTURY was the only UK company.

Of the experience, Lakhani remarked, “During the two day event, MIT Solve has already helped CENTURY Tech to meet new partners to collaborate with, from Ministers of Education wishing to deploy advanced technology in their schools, to investors and channel partners in harder to reach communities. We look forward to working with MIT Solve to establish more relationships in the sector and be an active member of the community.’

The CENTURY team is proud to be among the other inspiring entrants into the Solve community and eager to see the partnership in action.

Showing Up for Women in Tech

In August, the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the UK examined girls’ participation in STEM subjects. Recent GCSE results showed comparable STEM participation for girls and boys, but at A levels, girls were only awarded 43% of all grades in STEM (despite taking 22% more A levels overall).1 The IFS investigated the cause of this gap – what is preventing girls from pursuing STEM subjects in A levels after successfully undertaking them in their GCSEs?

 

The issue, they found, isn’t that girls were physically excluded from participation, rather they anticipated a lack of inclusion in potential STEM study and future careers. In the IFS study, girls strongly agreed with the statement ‘I often worry that it will be difficult for me in physics classes’.1 Similarly, a significant deterrent is the lack of perceived representation of women in STEM careers, with two thirds of female respondents vocalizing their concern that STEM careers are ‘male dominated’.1

 

Confidence seems to be the missing factor in getting girls from STEM GCSEs to A levels and beyond. 80% of teachers expressed the belief that  ‘these girls are just as able, but not as confident in their ability to learn STEM subjects as boys.’1 So what can be done? One Guardian article recommends the government do more to compile data on girls’ STEM involvement as well as bolster appropriate careers guidance.2 There is, however, a relatively direct and actionable way to get more STEM representation in schools: the Edtech already being used in schools should be responsible for aiding these efforts. Edtech platforms help students by providing learning tools and assessment processes, but can’t they do more? Shouldn’t they carry some pastoral responsibility towards those children they’re educating?

 

We certainly think so. The lack of female representation in the digital sector is something we explicitly sought to address as part of our new free CPD training for teachers. The digital sector is an ever growing cornerstone of the labour market yet only 17% of technical roles in the UK are held by women.3 We wanted to provide teachers a means to encouraging their female students towards careers in technology. Through the programme, teachers learn about skills students require to achieve success in the digital sector, so that they may nurture these skills in their students.

 

In regard to visible women leaders in the digital sector, CENTURY is proud to be an Edtech company that practices what we preach. CENTURY was founded by social impact entrepreneur Priya Lakhani O.B.E., who is constantly pushing the boundaries of technology’s capacity to create social change. The platform is informed by extensive cognitive neuroscience research – contributed in large part by Senior Cognitive Neuroscientist Alice Little. CENTURY is powered by a dedicated team of women and men – but it’s great to know that when girls use the platform for STEM subject revision, they’re interacting with something built in part by female tech innovators – that something they use everyday exemplifies the positive power of women in tech. Geoff Barton, who contributed to our CPD courses as an expert advisor, explains that ‘the more you can build a relationship with [tech companies]’ the more students can profit from seeing ‘the real human dimension which you wouldn’t otherwise’. Girls can look towards these examples of tech innovators and think ‘this is the job for me.’ This is absolutely a sector for girls to aspire to, and furthermore one where they have great potential to make a positive impact. We just need to be showing, not telling, them so.

 

To learn more about our CPD courses for teachers, head to smartercpd.org.

 

1https://www.ifs.org.uk/publications/13276

2https://www.theguardian.com/education/2018/aug/22/girls-top-science-gcse-deterred-study-higher-level-ifs-report

3https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmsctech/270/270.pdf

 

The DfE's Five Key Areas for EdTech Intervention: Non-Teaching Tasks

This is part four of five in a series of blogs addressing the five key areas where Edtech can have the greatest impact on British schools as outlined by the Department for Education and Education Secretary Damian Hinds on August 7th, 2018. Please click here to read our initial response article summarising their comments.

 

In the DfE’s 2016 Teacher Workload Survey, a staggering 93% of respondents stated that workload was ‘a fairly serious problem’ in their school.  Non-teaching tasks are a major contributor to this problematic workload volume. TES Scotland spoke to a group of teachers on the issue and found that reductions to support staff had lead to a drastic increase in the amount of time teachers were spending on things like photocopying, filing, and data input.  Teachers reported their frustration with the time demanded by these tasks. They detract from time and energy that should be directed towards actual teaching.

 

In response, some teachers have elected to work part-time, incurring a significant pay cut, because the workload demanded by full-time teaching is unmanageable. It’s a distressing paradox – teachers overburdened by non-teaching tasks are forced to further reduce their teaching time. It would be incorrect to assume that this pay cut comes with the benefit of reasonable workload and sufficient ‘off-duty’ time. There’s an important distinction between ‘full-time’ and ‘part-time’ teaching as it applies to teacher’s actual workload. Part-time may mean less physical time spent in the classroom, but the volume of non-teaching tasks still required of teachers is staggering. Schools Week reported that due to ‘unpaid planning, preparation and assessment time,’ part-time teachers worked 40 hours per week – what many of us would qualify as full-time work.  The 2016 Teacher Workload Survey found that nearly a third of part-time teachers worked 40% of their total work hours outside school. In comparison, a quarter of full-time teachers reported a similar distribution of work. This amount of work outside paid hours is unreasonable for full- and part-time teachers alike and is indicative of the sheer volume of non-teaching tasks currently diluting the time and energy teachers should, and want, to be directing towards teaching time.

 

Yet, implementing new Edtech can itself be a ‘non-teaching task’ that unduly drains teachers’ time if done improperly.  It’s integral programs are installed in a conscious way – there must be sufficient support and training to shorten span between launching a program and using it successfully. Teachers should not waste uncessicary time figuring out a new program – it’s up to Edtech companies to make the transition as easy as possible, and to ensure their technology is being used to its full potential. Without proper support, teachers may be more likely to deem new Edtech solutions cumbersome, or not worth their time, because they are putting in time and effort and observing inadequate return. CENTURY ensures schools feel confident using the platform via comprehensive training sessions and readily-available help – CENTURY support remains a visible, useful resource the entire time a school is using the platform.

 

Edtech services must be organic and flexible. One-size-fits-all solutions are insufficient. Static solutions can only address specific problems in certain contexts, but no issue – especially one as multifaceted as reducing workload or personalising learning – is actually so simple. We aren’t just talking about in-program adaptability like CENTURY’s AI powered programme. There are constant advances in educational technology and research – keeping a tuned ear to these developments and making informed improvements ensures a platform remains innovative and effective. Edtech solutions must consciously heed feedback from users – program development should be collaborative so that the platform is always moving to best meet users’ needs.  CENTURY’s FE content, for example, was generated from a UFI funded study observing the platform’s viability in several FE colleges. Instead of retroactively prescribing set content, material was built from real-time feedback concurrent to program usage. The solution to alleviating the burden of ‘non-teaching’ tasks is twofold: use Edtech to minimise time spent on administrative tasks but prioritise program support and functionality.

The DfE Asked - We Answered. Introducing Our New Free CPD.

In the first blog in our DfE response series, we discussed how Edtech can ‘improve learning outcomes’ by empowering teachers in their practice. Today, we take a closer look at the Department for Education’s question as to how Edtech can improve ‘methods for delivery of teacher training and development by upgrading educator support so they can learn and develop more flexibly’. The answer is simple: the most efficient method of delivering teacher training is through online learning. It circumvents the time expenditure required for the organisation and execution of in-person training  – there is no planning or physical travel time and information is delivered in a concise way. Teachers can improve their practice while prioritising actual teaching time.

Online learning is the best way to deliver teacher training – it’s an easy statement to make, but the DfE’s message was clear: how is Edtech actually tackling these issues? CENTURY’s new CPD training platform for teachers is our answer and proof. CENTURY is delighted to release the new online platform, completely free for teachers to use, this Autumn. The content ranges from digital safety to how to embed technological innovations in your teaching. You’ll learn about the most recent developments in educational science, like utilising flipped and blended learning, to maximise your impact in the classroom. Information is presented in concise, bite sized chunks to save you time. As you use the platform, CENTURY’s innovative AI builds a learning profile based on your unique behaviours – delivering the information you need most in the way that suits you best.

A lot of discourse surrounding Edtech suggests a world that is ‘increasingly’ digital – we disagree – technological innovation, and its intrinsic place in our lives, is not a future possibility, but our immediate reality.  In order to best help children safely and optimally navigate this reality, teachers must be informed of technology’s complexities and potential. We also address the misconception that technology is socially detrimental. Technology enhances human connection, bridging our diverse experiences. Edtech specifically eases communication and understanding between students, teachers, leaders, and guardians. Furthermore, The Digital Skills for a Changing Economy course explores how digital education has great potential to tackle opportunity inequality, equipping young people with invaluable skills to help them succeed. At CENTURY, we’re not trying to replace the human element inherent to teaching – we’re trying to make it stronger. In short, we’re using technology to promote education that connects educators, students, and guardians so they can work smarter, not harder. It’s #authenticallyintelligent.

Over the next few weeks we’ll be speaking with the various teachers, programmers, and industry contributors who made CENTURY’s free CPD for teachers possible. As you learn about the inspiration behind the project, the thought and work that went into its creation, we hope to give you a sense of the passion that drove us from start to finish. The team at CENTURY have been working hard to put together something that does justice to the dedicated work teachers are doing every day.

 

For more information, email: cpd@century.tech.

This is part three of five in a series of blogs addressing the five key areas where Edtech can have the greatest impact on British schools as outlined by the Department for Education and Education Secretary Damian Hinds on August 7th, 2018. Please click below to read our previous responses.

The DfE's Five Key Areas for EdTech Intervention: Assessment

This is part two of five in a series of blogs addressing the five key areas where EdTech has the greatest impact on British schools as outlined by the Department of Education and Education Secretary Damian Hinds on August 7th, 2018. Please see the news article below to read our initial response to their comments.

The second key area the Department for Education wants to see Edtech intervention is  ‘assessment processes, making assessment more effective and efficient’. At the time of writing this blog, students across the country are waking up to their A level results. For many, today is the culmination of months, if not years, of cumulative effort. Taking in the extensive news coverage and impassioned student responses, you can’t help but be struck by the monumental, make-or-break attitude we have towards assessment, marks, and achievement. Indeed, it’s a remarkable deal of pressure to think that one assessment can succinctly judge the entirety of previous effort and dictate what the next three years of your life will look like (or the rest of one’s life, according to the the more fatalistic among us). Summative assessment, whether in-school or nationally standardised, is used by schools and the Government to judge and maintain standards of teaching. While essential to macro analysis and accountability, these assessments have very real, personal implications for those students taking them.

 

This is where Edtech is proving itself invaluable today – it’s revolutionising the way schools conduct formative assessment. Without Edtech solutions, constant and thus effective formative assessment asks an unreasonable amount of time and effort of educators. Summative assessment, however, can only provide retroactive feedback to students – over reliance on it risks leaving gaps in knowledge or areas for improvement stagnating, if not unresolved altogether. Edtech platforms are providing students constant, intelligent feedback, allowing them to efficiently build and improve. Problems aren’t left unresolved until it’s too late. Edtech doesn’t just allow students to learn more, but to learn better. In addition to highlighting areas requiring work or stretch, formative assessments, integral to platforms like CENTURY, facilitate the ‘testing effect’ whereby material is better retained and remembered due to constant, low stakes retrieval.1 Platforms like CENTURY are ensuring that by the time students reach summative assessments, they’re demonstrating their mastery of a subject, rather than getting a cruel wake up call on what they do or do not know.

 

The benefit to educators is twofold – spend less time setting assessments and marking, spend more time making informed interventions. Digitising these processes allows teachers to dedicate more time to interacting directly with students and further enables them to aptly tailor teaching to their cohort’s needs. Summative assessments are as much a reflection of teaching as they are students’ achievement. As discussed in the previous blog on ‘teaching practices’ and Edtech, empowering teachers is integral to ensuring student success. We’re ensuring both students and teachers feel confident in the learning process: having a set course of action, as students do with CENTURY’s Recommended Learning Pathway; being able to clearly monitor progress, via extensive analysis available to students, teachers, and educators; not waiting until the last moment to find you’ve missed a step. When it comes time to face summative assessments, students should be prepared and in control, properly equipped with the knowledge and skills to achieve. Reading through students’ reactions to results, ranging from elation to despair, there’s an overarching equation of achieving with winning – that high level attainment is somehow conquering the system. This is symptomatic of the end-goal mentality enforced by high stakes summative assessment. We’re ensuring the duration of a student’s education, and teachers’ facilitation thereof, is as effective and constructive as possible. High level attainment on assessments is not a matter of David facing Goliath, but something we strive to make achievable for as many students as possible.

1Roediger III, Henry L., et al. “Test-enhanced learning in the classroom: long-term improvements from quizzing.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied 17.4 (2011a): 382

The DfE's Five Key Areas for EdTech Intervention: Teaching Practices

This is part one of five in a series of blogs addressing the five key areas where Edtech can have the greatest impact on British schools as outlined by the Department for Education and Education Secretary Damian Hinds on August 7th, 2018. Please click here to read our initial response article summarizing their comments.

 

The Department for Education and Education Secretary Damian Hinds have called on the educational technology (Edtech) sector to self advocate their ability to create meaningful change within British schools. The first of five key areas of recommended intervention is ‘teaching practices to support access, inclusion, and improved learning outcomes for all’. The phrasing here is quite strategic, and warrants brief notice. Rather than purporting technology as a direct solution to ‘access, inclusion and improved learning outcomes’ the focus is on technological supplementation of ‘teaching practices’, that is to say, how technology can best support educators in their efforts. It’s a constructive concept that resists positing technology as a passive solution. Rather it acknowledges that effective change, in this case the implementation of education technology, is reliant on the knowledge and capability of those implementing it. Teachers already have the intent and ability to ensure ‘access, inclusion, and improved learning outcomes’ but the workload burden placed on them by excessive administration tasks, assessments, and planning prevents them from dedicating the desired time to actually teaching. So this first point is essentially asking, how is technology helping teachers help students?

 

We will return to this, but first, let’s analyse what is meant by ‘access, inclusion, and improved learning outcomes for all’. Where technology is concerned, access and inclusion are as general a goal as ensuring there is fair and inclusive access to digital innovation for all schools. The Department of Education has specified in its Autumn Budget that funding will be dedicated to installing ultrafast broadband internet at more schools, the foremost prerequisite to employing Edtech. Furthermore, work is underway on an online portal through which schools have access to free training tools and software trials. The Department of Education, working with the British Educational Suppliers Associated and the Chartered College of Teaching, will provide schools with an autonomous means to explore their Edtech options, finding those solutions most pertinent to their needs.

 

In classrooms, access and inclusion, specifically in regard to producing ‘improved learning outcomes for all’, refers not to physical access to technology, but how Edtech addresses problems of individual access and inclusion to learning material. Once a student has access to Edtech, that software must address individual barriers to access and inclusion, in order to ensure learning outcomes are meaningfully improved. The Department for Education’s ‘Commission on Assessment Without Levels’ stipulates ‘assessment should be inclusive of all abilities’ and acknowledge relative markers of success such as ‘the amount of effort the pupil puts in as well as the outcomes achieved’ in order to produce fair and considered assessments, especially for pupils with SEN and disabilities. The beauty of Edtech is its ability to provide individualised educational support and assessment with a degree of sensitivity that would be unreasonable to expect of a single teacher managing a diverse cohort of students. Artificially intelligent (AI) technology, simply technology that learns by itself, rather than blindly executes what it has been programmed to do, draws on minute behaviours observed in a student and, informed by a massive database of cumulative observations, finely tunes material and assessment to that student’s needs. This does not imply that Edtech supersedes teachers’ preeminent role as educator – quite the opposite – it does the analytical legwork, which can otherwise spell endless hours of administration and data input for teachers, maximising their impact in the classroom.

 

The Education Secretary was direct in his message though – how can Edtech demonstrate not just its validity as an educational tool, but its commitment to creating meaningful change. At CENTURY, this goes without saying. Our mission, drive, and passion is ensuring a high level of education for all children. For this reason, we will soon be launching our CPD service for teachers. It’s free to use and covers a range of topics from digital safety to cognitive neuroscience. The Department of Education is not asking for for technology that magically ‘improves outcomes for all’ but one that supports ‘teaching practices’ that then produce improved outcomes. We know student success doesn’t just happen – it’s achieved through educators’ tireless passion and dedication – Edtech’s here making that happen.  

DfE Announces Five Key Areas for EdTech Intervention

In an op-ed article for the Telegraph last week, Education Secretary Damian Hinds called on the technology sector to action its potential to revolutionise British schools. Hinds extolled the possibility technology holds for teachers and students alike: “students are able to explore the rainforest, steer virtual ships or programme robots from their classroom, while teachers are able to access training, share best practice with colleagues and update parents on a pupil’s progress without being taken away from their main focus – teaching.”

 

The Education Secretary remarked that some schools were already taking advantage of EdTech innovations to great success. The accompanying news story on gov.uk  mentions Shireland Collegiate Academy as an exemplar of EdTech implementation in British schools. In the article, Sir Mark Grundy, Executive Principal at Shireland, explains ‘At Shireland Collegiate Academy we have used technology to support staff, students and families for a number of years’. CENTURY has been happy to partner with Shireland since 2017 to great success. Sir Mark Grundy has credited this partnership with ‘the progress 8 increase’ recorded at Shireland. At CENTURY, we know EdTech is integral to resolving issues facing schools today, like the workload burden currently placed on our teachers, and an innovative tool that has the potential to significantly improve student’s quality and depth of learning.

 

It’s refreshing to see the government setting out measures to ease schools’ ability to implement EdTech reforms.The Autumn Budget allocates specific funding for installation of ultrafast broadband at more schools making it easier to access this sort of technology. The Department of Education, working with the British Educational Suppliers Associated and the Chartered College of Teaching, has committed to providing schools with online training tools and free software trials. The Education Secretary’s point, though, was that in order to see significant proliferation of EdTech throughout the British schools system, the tech sector has to play a leading role  – demonstrating EdTech’s capability to revolutionise education.

 

The Department of Education has outlined five key areas where education technology can have the greatest impact. We will be discussing these points in depth over the next few days, looking at how we believe technology can produce these outcomes and discussing where we’ve already seen proof that, with the aid of EdTech, these outcomes are possible and worth working towards in as many schools as possible.

 

  • Teaching practices to support access, inclusion, and improved learning outcomes for all
  • Assessment processes, making assessment more effective and efficient
  • Methods for delivery of teacher training and development by upgrading educator support so they can learn and develop more flexibly
  • Administration processes to reduce the burden of ‘non-teaching’ tasks
  • Solutions to lifelong learning to help those who have left the formal education system to get the best from online learning
Can Attitude Improve Aptitude?

Student agency in learning

What is student agency?

The concept of student agency is centred upon the level of autonomy and empowerment that a student feels during their time in education. Agency is the opposite of passivity. Encouraging student agency means encouraging students to think independently, make unique connections and to act and think with purpose. Agency is the first step towards standing on your own two feet.

The research that backs it up

Albert Bandura, the revered social learning psychologist, has studied how agency is increasingly important to succeed and thrive in a globalised world. Additionally, social psychology studies have shown that building agency in young people is key to instilling a sense of confidence and competence in their own abilities. One Harvard study, using a sample size of 300,000 students, suggests that student agency is a fundamental outcome of schooling, equivalent in its value to basic scholarly skills.

What can we do to improve student agency

   1. Foster a growth mindset

A growth mindset means believing that your progress, success and abilities can be changed by your own actions. This mindset empowers students to believe in the value of their hard work, and is fundamental to student agency.  A study (1) looking at thousands of 15 year old students in Chile found that, at every socioeconomic level, those that held a growth mindset consistently outperformed those who didn’t, showing that attitude is just as important as aptitude.

      2. Give them options

By including a variety of learning materials, homework options and classroom tasks, when possible, a sense of agency over their own learning can be fostered. Different students thrive in different environments, and allowing them to take charge of their education will empower them. Indeed, Deci et al.’s study implies that choice plays a critical role in students’ intrinsic motivation for learning and engaging in school tasks, tests and homework. (2)

    3. Go beyond the syllabus

Don’t always stick to the syllabus rigidly. Ask your students to go home and find a news article relevant to what you’re discussing in history. Set them the task of keeping a record of the different phases of the moon for a month if you teach physics. Activities like this demonstrate that the relevance of education is not restricted to the school environment, and relates to students’ personal lives. This has been shown to increase motivation, particularly if the choices given, are personal, meaningful and related to their own values and goals (3).

   4. Nudge them towards the answer

If a student has made a mistake, don’t reveal the answer right away. Help them come to the correct answer by themselves by gently nudging them in the right direction with hints and clues. By allowing space for their independent cognitive processes, you can help to empower them to think on their feet.

   5. Encourage students to discuss amongst themselves

Ask the class a question and get them to chat in small groups and feedback. By creating an atmosphere where all students’ voices can be heard in some way, you bolster their self-confidence and sense of agency. Take this a step further by holding debates in class, allowing students to independently research a topic and come to their own conclusion.

How does CENTURY boost student agency?

   1. Motivational messages

CENTURY regularly gives personalised messages to students that encourage resilience and help to cultivate a growth mindset. Progress is recognised and achievements are congratulated. These messages appear at the optimal time for students to absorb them during their learning.

   2. Choices of learning material

We recognise that different students prefer to learn in different ways, and so have integrated a variety of types of learning material, such as slideshows and videos, into our platform. Students can choose which they feel will best suit them, granting them greater autonomy over how they learn!

   3. Interleaving

 

CENTURY generates a Recommended Path for each student that incorporates “interleaving”: encouraging students to study different subjects one after the other, for relatively short periods of time. This helps students to make unique connections between subjects, fostering independent thinking.

   4. Immediate and constructive feedback

Immediate feedback is actionable feedback. It allows maximum space for student improvement. CENTURY provides immediate, constructive feedback if a student gets an answer correct. This provides them with more information, allowing them to deepen their knowledge. If the answer is incorrect, CENTURY will prompt them to come to the right answer on their own, by providing helpful hints that supports the student’s problem-solving.

   5. Teacher dashboard

 

While it may not initially seem like a feature for teachers will improve agency in students, the teacher dashboard is key to boosting student autonomy. Studies have shown students thrive the most when they are appropriately “stretched” – when they’re doing work that is just a little bit out of their comfort zone, but not too much (4). The teacher dashboard shows which students need to be stretched more; the ones who are completing their tasks with high speed and high accuracy. It shows which students need to be encouraged and which need support. The immediate collation of this data by CENTURY can be transformed by the teacher into action; how they can best build student agency in their class.

 

Entering the adult world is daunting, but we can make it less so. As people passionate about education, we can all do our part in helping equip young people with the confidence to succeed. As technological developments rapidly transform our society, digital literacy skills become ever more important. CENTURY builds students’ confidence in using digital technology, by virtue of its digital nature. At every level, we have strived to instill a sense of belief, motivation and independence in the learning journey.

 

References

  1. Claro, S., Paunesku, D. & Dweck, C.S., 2016, ‘Growth mindset tempers the effects of poverty on academic achievement’, PNAS, 113(31): 8664-8668
  2. Deci, E., Williams, G. & Ryan, R., 1996, ‘Need satisfaction and the self-regulation of learning’, Learning and Individual Differences, 8: 165-183
  3. Katz, I. & Assor, A., 2006, ‘When Choice Motivates and When It Does Not’, Educational Psychology
  4. Evans, M. & Boucher, A.R., ‘Optimizing the Power of Choice: Supporting Student Autonomy to Foster Motivation and Engagement in Learning’, Mind, Brain and, Education, 9(2): 87-91
Occupying the Future

East London’s Tobacco Dock opened in 1811. It is a structure of cast iron rods, exposed brick and cloudy glass that was used for decades to store tobacco. There are dark basements and open atriums, shafts of light filtering through and casting stark shadows upon the industrial architecture. The Tobacco Dock lends itself to transformation – and is the place where past meets future.

Last Friday (6th July), I attended Nesta’s FutureFest – a space for ideas to come together, to be challenged and to be shared. Technology was a hot topic, as was sustainability, democracy and social welfare. The festival itself comprised of keynote speeches, panels, debates and “immersive experiences”; a personal favourite being the Black Box Bellagio, a casino where you don’t gamble with money but with your personal data. Just off one of the main stages was an art installation that asked people: Will the future be good? The festival was a space to decide what we want the answer to be.

“Should AI be feared or revered?” was the big question that was buzzing around the dock.

Nesta had brought together 4,000 people, each with a different perspective on technology and its potential, sparking off debates about the virtues and drawbacks of technological progress.

The day kicked off with “Educ-AI-tion Rebooted”, a discussion between Sir Anthony Seldon and Azeem Azhar, chaired by Nesta’s Director of Education, Joysy John. Seldon is currently the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham and is the former principal of Wellington College. He also wrote The Fourth Education Revolution so he knows a thing or two about using artificial intelligence in education. Seldon argued that the biggest flaw with our current education system is that it generalises students.

“Don’t ask how intelligent a child is, ask: how is a child intelligent?” he urged.

Children have a natural curiosity that is often stamped out by a rigid education. An educator’s job is to nurture this curiosity but teachers are all too often over-burdened by excessive marking and highly-demanding workloads. Rather than using technology to simply digitise, Seldon calls for the use of education to revolutionise. AI, he argues, can be used to give children a personalised education. At CENTURY, we wholeheartedly stand by this; it is the foundation of our organisation.

AI learns how a student learns and can suggest the optimum path through schoolwork or revision material for each pupil. But could AI replace teachers? This is a question that naturally springs to mind after learning about the capabilities of AI and was addressed by Seldon. He stated that AI is not going to take teachers out of classrooms, but that it could be used to support them and to encourage student autonomy. Azhar, who spoke after Seldon, echoed this point. The founder of PeerIndex and author of Exponential View, Azhar is another leading figure in the field of AI and education. Citing his own autodidactic journey as evidence, he posited that the traditional “3 R’s of education” – reading, writing and arithmetic – were not sufficient in the rapidly changing world we live in. Rather, he encouraged, we should look to instill the “7 C’s” into students and into ourselves. These, Azhar proposed, are the new core skills needed to thrive, not just in the future, but in the present too.

 

The “7 C’s” are:

Computational thinking, cultural communication, character, cognitive skills, creativity, collaboration and critical thinking.

We like to think of CENTURY as the 8th ‘C’ : we have endeavoured to ensure that CENTURY builds future-ready skills in students. Our platform encourages cognitive agility by prompting students to make connections between subjects, and the use of CENTURY itself promotes digital literacy in pupils, parents and teachers alike. We were thrilled to be included in the Ednology launch at FutureFest, where we showcased our platform to parents, teachers, students and others working in the EdTech sector. The excitement in the room was palpable. Everyone present was ready to embrace the coupling of technology and education because technology takes the heavy lifting out of teachers’ tasks and can also be used to foster uniquely human-skills like creativity and lateral thinking.

Much of the talks at the festival shared a common thread: that our world is changing so fast, but our traditional institutions are unable to keep up. The only solution is to radically transform them, and to transform them now. While the festival was titled “FutureFest”, it was as much a prognosis of the present as it was an evaluation of the future. The developments that were discussed are not hypotheticals; they are happening as we speak. AI is not “coming to transform education”; in the words of our founder, Priya Lakhani “AI has already arrived to transform education”. Everything that was called for in Educ-AI-tion is what CENTURY is putting into practice because we know we need to act now.

FutureFest generated a call to action to reconnect with our humanity in order to keep pace with technology. In many ways, technology will free us to do this. By taking care of menial, repetitive tasks, it will allow humans to focus on what only humans can do: debate, relate and innovate. While each person brought their own opinions and values to the discussions, a general consensus was achieved. In short: technology can be harnessed for good, but in order to do this, we need to tap into our collective humanity, our positive thinking and our radical mindsets.

Curious about Nesta and FutureFest? Watch some of the talks here!

Learning at CENTURY

At the heart of CENTURY Tech is the concept of learning.

Of course, as the creators of an education technology platform, this comes as no surprise. But this concept of learning is built into our organisation in different ways. We have made something that involves human and machine learning – and this compels us to be continuously learning too.

In other words, we, the people behind CENTURY, are always learning, always growing and always challenging ourselves. All the principles that we have incorporated into the platform to benefit students are also built into CENTURY’s working culture.

We’re an “education technology organisation” – this tagline tells you about our three core sections.

  1. The Teacher Team – the professional teachers who make the content for CENTURY. At present, we’re focussing on maths, English,  science, humanities and CPD. This team plans and creates all of the lessons that come built-in to CENTURY. They also do the voice-overs for the CENTURY learning videos and work with the design team on all the learning visuals!
  2. The Tech Team – the people who write the algorithms that make CENTURY learn how you learn. Coding is the language of computers and the Tech team are all masters of it. They are able to transform an idea to a reality – from tweaking a new feature to creating the first personalised artificial intelligence learning platform.
  3. The Business Team – this team builds relationships with schools, manages the finances, makes the big strategic decisions and generally, keeps CENTURY up and running.

The teams are constantly communicating and coordinating, and to help facilitate this, we run regular learning sessions and hackdays.

“UX/ UI, frontend, backend, node” – for those of us not working on the tech team, tech lingo can be pretty daunting. A whole new world opens up once you’re able to program computers; a world full of APIs and full stack development. In order to bring everyone up to speed with the work of the tech team at CENTURY, we have seminars run by different members of the team. Our most recent seminar was titled “A Day in the Life of a UX designer” (UX means User Experience, as I recently learnt!). In each seminar we learn about the specialisms of a member of the team, what concepts and frameworks they use and how we can better support them. This knowledge then feeds into other parts of CENTURY’s work; the better we understand each other, the better we work together.

Similarly, the teacher team give seminars about education-specific topics. In the past, they have demystified Ofsted and explained what it does and why we need to be aware of it. Our resident cognitive neuroscientist has also given us a masterclass about her field and the principles of the neuroscience of learning – which is built into the CENTURY platform.

The ethos behind these team-led sessions is for the team to be always evolving. As thought leaders, we can’t be stagnant.

Sometimes we do hit a bump in the road and when that happens, we hold a hackday. The whole team, from all sections, comes together to solve a problem. We conjure up ideas and engage in some blue-sky thinking so that we can keep moving forwards. The multidisciplinary nature of these sessions is their biggest strength. Solutions stem from a range of perspectives and the hackdays are designed to facilitate this. They can tackle any issue: from a specific technical problem to blue-sky-thinking for new CENTURY features.

We’re trying to achieve something big: high-quality education for all. We truly believe we can achieve this. We need the right amount of resources and the right amount of belief. But this has to start with ourselves. So we at CENTURY have integrated the principles we support for students, into our own practice. We have a growth mindset and a collaborative atmosphere and most importantly, we’re constantly excited to learn.

The Neuroscience of Learning

We’ve recently written about “Neuromyths in Education” (scroll down on our blog page here) because we believe in steering clear of pseudoscience and instead relying on neuroscience. As one might expect, neuroscience holds a lot of crucial information about how humans learn and so is very useful when thinking about education. Cognitive science research can be used to design more effective learning techniques that improve memory retention, information retrieval and deepen understanding. It can help students and teachers alike. We consulted our resident senior cognitive neuroscientist, Alice Little, and have brought her key insights here, ready to share.

So what can we take from the neuroscience of learning?

Learn a little bit of a topic everyday, rather than all at once

Half an hour a day over 4 days is more valuable than 4 hours in one day. This is called “spaced learning” and the time intervals allow the information to embed in your brain. Likewise, taking breaks from studying is crucial for optimising your memory.

Get enough sleep

On the subject of breaks: research has stressed that getting enough sleep is vital for memory retention and effective learning. 8 hours a night is the minimum – which is totally possible: go to bed by 11pm and wake up around 8am.

Alice says this: when you sleep, your brain consolidates everything it has learnt and done that day. This embeds the important information and makes connections with other experiences.

In other words, sleep is a crucial component of long-term memory. Hours of revision can be easily lost if you aren’t getting enough sleep.

Test yourself

Flashcards, practice tests and mini-quizzes – any way to test yourself will be helpful for when you are sitting in an exam without any of your notes. This is known as “retrieval practice” and can be frustrating at first. If it feels like you’re forgetting a lot of information – don’t despair! The process of actively remembering helps with your retrieval skills, which will help in an exam situation when you don’t have any of your notes.

Practice “interleaving”

Studying one subject for a prolonged period of time is not just boring, it’s also not as efficient for learning. Try “interleaving”: switching up your study routine and learning different subjects one after the other in shorter chunks. Here’s an example:

This technique helps to keep your mind engaged and encourages that effortful remembering that really entrenches information into your brain. It also helps you form mental links between different subjects – and maybe you’ll come up with a revision technique or an essay argument you would not have thought of before!

Develop a “growth mindset”

Studies have shown that teaching and cognitive abilities are not the only factors in intelligence, learning and academic performance – your mindset matters too. We have discussed growth mindset in more detail here (scroll down), but in short, the more you understand and believe that you have the capacity to improve, the more you do achieve. In this case, you can’t fake it ‘til you make it – you have to genuinely believe in yourself if you want to improve.

Developing a growth mindset is certainly achievable. Just saying to yourself “I can do this, and I will do this” can help your self-confidence. It becomes a positive cycle of believing you can do something, which helps you actually do it, which helps you believe you can do something else in the future. Plus, science is on your side here and we know you definitely can do it!

Use concrete examples

These are particularly useful for when you don’t quite understand a concept. Collect examples that your teacher has given, or find them online, and make connections between the abstract theory and the concrete example in front of you. These connections will be unique to you – they will be how you understand something. Practice saying these out loud or writing them down, so you have a chance to really test your new knowledge.

We are just scraping the surface of what neuroscience has to offer learning and education, but we hope that you have found these techniques helpful!

References

Benjamin & Tullis, 2010. What makes distributed practice effective? Cognitive Psychology, 61(3), pp.228–247.

Karpicke, J.D., Butler, A.C. & Roediger Iii, H.L., 2009. Metacognitive strategies in student learning: Do students practise retrieval when they study on their own? Memory, 17(4), pp.471–479.

Roediger III, Putnam & Smith, 2011. Ten Benefits of Testing and Their Applications to Educational Practice. Psychology of Learning and Motivation, 55, pp.1–36.

Trzesniewski, K.H., 2007. Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention. Child Development, 78(1), pp.246–263.

Learning Better: The Case Against Cramming

We are in the thick of exam season right now – GCSEs to be exact – and you can feel the worry simmering away in schools and libraries all around the UK. As an exam suddenly looms near, it’s only natural to think “Right, time to cram”. We’ve all done it: stayed up late the night before to go through the final chapters of a textbook, or woken up before the sun to memorise some final Shakespeare quotes. Those few hours before a paper are usually viewed as absolutely crucial – just ask any student who is hurriedly reading flashcards on the bus to the exam hall.

But why did we put ourselves through all that? And why are we standing by and letting it happen again?

This blog will argue for the case against cramming. Not only is cramming unpleasant, but a culture of cramming and last-minute revision speaks to something more worrying in our education system.

There is a special kind of panic that arises from frantically looking through revision notes right before an exam. You try and absorb any information possible, your eyes scanning the highlighted words, before you put them away and walk to your seat, only to sit down and think “Well…can’t really remember any of that”. The retention rate is low and engagement with the topic is superficial, especially if you have been staying up late the last few nights. Sleep is really key to cementing knowledge, so if you haven’t been getting enough rest in the run up to an exam, it’s likely that any last-minute revision will slip away easily.

Far more effective is when you have been learning regularly throughout the year: paying attention in class, completing homework, and then starting revision early, slow and steady, till the day comes and you can draw on your layers of knowledge to ace the exam.

The topics that we engaged with at school – To Kill a Mockingbird is often cited as a favourite – are the ones that we can speak about years later. They are the ones that will stick with us. Trying to memorise and then regurgitate two years of content might get you through an exam, but it won’t leave you with much once the exam is done. A culture of cramming – where students are constantly falling back on last-minute revision, and are even encouraged to do so – is indicative of how we think of education.

School stops being about learning, and is instead about passing an exam – a box ticking exercise. This is hugely reductive and limiting.

Education equips us with the skills – both academic, emotional and social – to thrive in the world and contribute something positive. It builds our curiosity, our critical thinking and our questioning. Last minute revision undoes all this, and shifts the focus from out-of-the-box thinking to jumping through the hoops for an exam. We should be inspired to think creatively and make connections between subjects and themes that haven’t been thought of before. Being spoon-fed information that is then desperately memorised before an exam may be conducive to passing, but it’s not conducive to learning.

We should step away from a culture of cramming and try and recentre what education means to us. But in the short-term, and especially if you are a student, there are some simple methods that can help you learn better.

AT CENTURY, we are big believers in learning better and learning steadily; embedding robust learning rather than stuffing your brain with facts for short term retrieval. We rely on neuroscience, not pseudoscience, and these are our main principles for becoming a better learner:

Interleaving: rather than studying one subject for a whole day, study multiple topics (English, then Geography, then English again, then Spanish). This pushes the brain to make unique connections between topics and to effortfully remember different subjects, which deepens long-term memory retention.

Test yourself: this reviews the topic and practises your memory recall abilities, which will be very useful during the exam.

Start early, study slowly: easier said than done, but doing a chunk of structured revision and then doing something different, like playing football or going to the cinema, will be more effective and enjoyable than “Today, I will do as much as I can…oh gosh, it’s 11pm and my exam is in two days and I can’t tell you where the time has gone”

The value of learning in a better way doesn’t end after A-levels or even after university. We live in a world which is changing so rapidly that being able to understand, critique and remember new information is increasingly important. And honestly, anything is more fun than those awful panicky hours before a exam.

 

'No BS' Guide to AI

Co-written by Professor Rose Luckin, director of EDUCATE at UCL and Priya lakhani OBE, Founder-CEO at CENTURY

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence refers to technologies which are capable of performing tasks as well as, if not better than, humans.

It’s useful to distinguish between what people call Strong AI and its opposite, Weak AI. Strong AI (also full AI or generalised AI) is what we see in sci-fi depictions: sentient robots able to perform any task much the way that humans can.

On the other hand, Weak AI (also narrow AI) is an AI system that can do usually just one task at least as well as a human can. Although movies and media might lead us to believe the robot invasion is just around the corner, in reality, we’ve only got as far as developing Weak AI systems.

Some examples of the Weak AI systems that we have are:

  • IBM’s Watson: Beat a human player at a game of Jeopardy
  • Deep Blue: Beat the current chess champion
  • AlphaGo: Beat the world champion at the game of Go
  • Siri/Alexa: Voice-activated personal assistants that can “understand” natural language and reply in kind
  • Amazon/Netflix/Spotify/Pandora: Recommendation engines that can predict what we will want to buy/watch/listen to based on what we have done before
  • Tesla/self-driving cars: Cars use AI to learn how to safely navigate and drive along roads.

So, is AI the same as Machine Learning?

Machine Learning (ML) is a way of achieving artificial intelligence. Rather than a software developer writing the specific rules and logic steps for a program, which can be hugely intricate and time-consuming, instead the program is “trained” using large quantities of data and basic algorithms are written to allow it to “learn” from this training to perform a specific task.

This means that artificially intelligent programs are far better able to cope with unusual cases, extreme examples or incomplete data. Rather than a programmer thinking of every single possible scenario, the program teaches itself and then draws conclusions. CENTURY is using this technology to understand how people learn and provide them with a personalised education.

I’ve heard people mention neural networks, how do they fit into all this?

Neural networks are a special form of machine learning that are inspired by the design of the neurons in the human brain. Neural networks are small networks of these ‘artificial neurons’. Similar in processing to real neurons, they can form connections and use those connections to detect patterns. This is widely used for image detection and natural language processing. Deep learning is usually mentioned together with neural networks; it is a special variant of neural networks.

You can think of artificial intelligence, machine learning and deep learning as nested within one another: deep learning is a type of machine learning; machine learning is a type of artificial intelligence.

What differentiates AI from other technology?

AI and ML generate an extremely fast feedback loop between result, feedback and learning. With conventional algorithms, results are produced and feedback collected from the user, but the learning is done by a human who will adjust the algorithm. That can take hours, days or months. AI and ML remove the human element and can, therefore, learn from user feedback within milliseconds.

They say you need a lot of data for AI to be developed. How much?

How much data is needed depends very much on the ML algorithm used. Deep learning or other neural networks are the most data hungry, needing tens of millions, up to billions of data points. On the other end, algorithms for ranking and recommendations can get by with hundreds of thousands to millions of data points.

Humans have been constantly processing information drawn from our 5 senses from the day that we were born (and from some senses while we were still in the womb). If we just take visual images and conservatively estimate that a person will see a distinct visual image every 30 seconds, this results in 17,531,520 distinct images by the time someone is 25. And this is just from one of our senses.

We said above that AI is named because it mimics – somewhat – human learning. This is why huge data sets have been associated with AI for as long as it’s been around. Most ML systems require millions, if not billions, of data points to be able to start making sound judgements.

A recent (2017) experiment led by Google and Carnegie Mellon University showed this with an AI trained in image detection. Most image detection AIs are trained on a standard data set of 1 million labelled images. This is the raw data that equates to the machine’s experience. In this experiment, Google wanted to investigate whether access to more data would improve the accuracy of the AI image detection. Because they’re Google, they had access to a data set of 300 million labelled images, which they used to train their AI. They found that as the amount of images in the training set increased, so did the accuracy of the AI.

Recently, huge advances have been made in training AIs with small data sets. In the Google experiment, although the data increase was 300%, the observed increase in performance was just 3%. So, is it really worth going to the trouble of gathering that much more data? The answer may well be ‘no’ – although the jury is most definitely still out on this one!

Some companies, particularly those without the vast quantity of data that a company like Google has at its disposal, are starting to make use of something known as ‘transfer learning’. With transfer learning, an AI that has been trained using a set of data can effectively “give” its knowledge to another AI that is going to use the same dataset, even if the outputs that the two AIs are generating are completely different. For example, an AI learning to recognise cars while driving can transfer the knowledge it has learnt to another AI that is trying to recognise trucks. In effect, one AI becomes the teacher of another.

When the terms ‘Personalised’, ‘Adaptive’ and ‘Differentiated’ learning are used by technology companies, what does this mean? Is this all AI?

The short answer is no. Personalised, adaptive and differentiated learning are outcomes that can be achieved in lots of different ways; AI is just one way to achieve them.

Most existing educational technology (EdTech) companies rely on rules-based technology to create personalised, adaptive or differentiated learning. This means that developers, usually in conjunction with teachers and pedagogical experts, explicitly tell the program what different routes are for students, based on what they’ve done previously. Although the developers might write algorithms, create complex routes and base this on what the user has already done, the algorithms and the machine cannot move past this: they aren’t doing any learning at all.

Rules-based adaptive learning platforms were beneficial because they were the first step along the road away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ education. However, it is not genuine personalisation. Because the rules are human-derived and have to be explicitly programmed into the software, the number of routes available is finite. In practice, this means that learners are grouped into cohorts and each cohort has its own route. We can think of rules-based adaptivity like the standard clothes sizing: some parts of it will fit well, other areas not so much and you probably have to compromise on fit in one area to get a good fit in another. It was good when it was all we had, but it’s not good enough anymore. AI can provide the equivalent of made-to-measure: genuine, full adaptivity and personalisation for a student.

Rather than developing specific rules for different routes, artificially intelligent learning platforms learn for themselves what the best route through the content is for a specific student in a specific moment. The ML algorithms will constantly learn, never leaving their training phase so that the intelligent insights they deliver are constantly improving, much like the best teachers are. This makes AI learning platforms significantly better for students than rules-based ones and allows education to fully move from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ model into genuine ‘one-size-fits-one’ personalisation.

CENTURY uses artificial intelligence to generate unique, truly personalised learning pathways for each and every student. As students complete diagnostics, learn and answer formative assessments on CENTURY, the AI picks up on their strengths, weaknesses and gaps in knowledge and immediately reacts to build on and scaffold the student as required. Not only does the AI determine what topic a student should study, it also learns what material is most appropriate for a student and automatically differentiates to their learning needs.

What about ‘algorithm’, then? That sounds pretty intelligent…

Although Artificial Intelligence technology is built using algorithms, so are all computer programs, even the most unintelligent of them: An algorithm is just a set of instructions, written for a computer to execute. So really, it’s a bit of a tautology when people say their platform is driven by algorithms. In the case of AI, the algorithms carry instructions for how the machine will learn what steps to follow, whereas in a standard program, the algorithms define exactly what the computer will do.

Lots of education technology companies will say that they use algorithms to help personalise learning. Usually, this will still be rules-based and so face the same limitations as described above. A good rule of thumb to follow is to assume if they don’t mention AI, machine learning or neural networks, they probably aren’t using any.

What happens to my data?

This very much depends on what the AI company is trying to do with your data. But, in general, data will be stored in databases depending on the type of data it is. Most companies will keep the data about what you do on their site separate from the data about who you are. This is to ensure that private data, such as your name and email address, is kept secure, whilst data that is going to be used by the AI system can be processed and analysed.

Data collected by CENTURY Tech is split into three distinct categories: personal data, learning data and content. These three sets of data are stored separately from each other. Learning data is anonymised and used to improve our algorithms. Content is stored in our CMS database to allow learning. Personal data is, of course, private, stored securely and only used when needed.

What can AI do for me?

AI is a tool, just like any other. There is no point trying to use any technology just for the sake of it, it needs to be used where it can make a difference to teaching and learning.

Artificially intelligent learning platforms, like CENTURY, provide genuine adaptivity for learners: Students can learn at their own pace, while teachers and parents can rest assured that their child is adequately supported and challenged and making the progress they should be. See this quote from the economist about personalised learning if you need convincing:

In nearly all the 41 studies which compared pupils using adaptive software with peers who were taught by conventional means the software-assisted branch got higher scores.

Teachers are also supported and enabled by AI. Take flipped learning, where students self-study a topic before it is taught by the teacher, allowing classroom time to be spent on higher-yield analysis, evaluation and problem solving tasks, rather than on basic knowledge acquisition. The EEF funded a study in conjunction with Shireland Collegiate Academy (Sir Mark Grundy’s pioneering school) which found that flipped learning can add up to 2 months of progress each year. An AI platform like CENTURY can enable and support flipping the classroom: teachers can access teacher-created learning material and assign it to their students. In their own time, students complete this work, getting immediate feedback from the platform and supported by the AI insights. The teacher can access rich learning data in realtime without having to do any marking or data entry. At the beginning of the lesson following the flipped homework, a teacher knows exactly where each of their students has struggled and excelled and so can pitch their lesson to meet the needs of the students.

It might sound too good to be true, but AI is here to change education.

CENTURY in the classroom

Improve your students’ learning outcomes, access real-time insight into each learner and reduce your workload.

Lesson planning and preparation can be the most time consuming part of teaching. Ensuring your lesson meets the learning needs of each and every student in your class, both supporting the weakest while challenging the most able, takes careful and lengthy planning time.

Fortunately, technology can help.

CENTURY learns how each student learns and presents them with a unique route through the curriculum that addresses their individual learning needs. This means that, unlike other online learning resources, students do not all begin their learning journey at the same point: weaker students are directed towards consolidation activities, whereas the more able are pushed towards harder topics and more complex questions. As a result, teachers do not have to look through each individual exercise to choose an appropriate level for each student; the platform automatically adjusts to the needs and preferences of the learner, thereby reducing teacher workload.

As an online, cloud-based resource, CENTURY can be accessed at anytime and from any place. Within the classroom, teachers can use CENTURY to develop a blended learning environment, combining teacher input with student led learning and automatic feedback. For example, a teacher will introduce a topic, then students will consolidate and build on their knowledge using the associated learning material (which we like to call ‘nuggets’ of learning) on CENTURY. Teachers can use the data presented to them to plan their follow-up lessons and identify any misconceptions among their students.

Outside of the classroom, teachers can use the platform to set and collect homework in the form of nuggets or typed essay style questions. Nuggets are auto-marked, providing students with immediate, personalised feedback, and teachers with insight into each learner. Having access to immediate learning insights also makes CENTURY an essential tool for flipped learning. Teachers can provide audio feedback by recording their voice on the platform, allowing students to have access to their feedback whenever needed. Audio feedback not only reduces teacher workload, but allows the feedback to be more detailed. Studies have shown that students pay little attention to written feedback (preferring just to know their grade or score), however, personalised audio feedback can be a far more powerful tool.

The data generated by CENTURY is invaluable for intervention purposes. Teachers and teaching assistants can see detailed feedback on students’ achievement, strengths, areas for improvement and skills, both in terms of effort and attainment. They have access to in-depth topic analyses which enable educators to easily pinpoint students’ areas for improvement. Nuggets can be repeated after a teacher-led intervention to measure impact and record progress. CENTURY’s advanced technology encourages students to revisit nuggets regularly so that knowledge is consolidated over time. By regularly revisiting material, students develop vital revision skills and are fully prepared for exam time.

So next time you find yourself planning, marking or data-inputting into the early hours of the morning, consider how much time technology could have saved you.

Written by Tom Thacker, Curriculum Lead at CENTURY Tech. Tom began his career as a Teach First maths teacher in the Midlands. Since then he has been Head of Department, Assistant Principal and School Governor. Tom then moved to Uganda where he taught for a further two years, before moving back to the UK and joining CENTURY.

CENTURY Tech wins prestigious Innovate UK grant to improve education

CENTURY is the first learning platform that learns how you learn. The groundbreaking platform uses artificial intelligence and data science, underpinned with insights from cognitive neuroscience, to provide students with a personalised education and to reduce teachers’ administrative burden. CENTURY has recently won a grant from Innovate UK, the UK government’s innovation agency, which will allow CENTURY to accelerate their innovation and continue to develop their revolutionary learning platform.

Priya Lakhani OBE, CENTURY’s Founder CEO says “At CENTURY we work tirelessly to improve education and develop groundbreaking and innovative technology that makes a real difference to the lives of many. It is fantastic we have been recognised by the UK’s leading innovation agency!”

CENTURY helps solve two of the biggest pain points in education – students being disengaged with their education and teachers dealing with huge, and often unmanageable, workloads. CENTURY gathers data on students via their interactions with the platform; every click, every score, every interaction is recorded. This data feeds into machine learning algorithms that learn how each individual student learns. The platform plots the most effective route through learning material to ensure that all children are adequately supported in their learning. Gaps in foundational knowledge are quickly identified and remedied, weaknesses are scaffolded and strengths built upon. Rather than a student having to wait weeks for work to be collected, marked and returned in order for misunderstandings to be corrected, CENTURY can intervene at the point of need.

CENTURY selects the most effective content for a student from a large bank, reducing the amount of time teachers need to spend planning lessons and preparing materials. CENTURY automates administrative tasks by marking formative assessments, gathering data and tracking homework, further reducing the admin heavy workload faced by teachers. The platform gathers data insights about each student, including their achievement, knowledge, skills and performance against assessment objectives, which are presented back to the teacher in real-time via easy to use dashboards. This data enables teachers to deliver timely, targeted interventions and to employ evidence based teaching strategies.

Feedback from CENTURY users:

“It’s great to have a diagnostic tool which accurately and constantly reflects what the student knows.” Headteacher, Sussex

“CENTURY offers a truly individualised and tailored approach to the preferred and most effective learning techniques of each and every student.” UK Secondary Academy Trust Director

“I like the way CENTURY adapts to my level of learning and helps me understand topics. It is also fun and easy to use.” CENTURY student, Kent

 

To find out more, please call 0800 612 6535 or email info@century.tech  

The future of education

The UK is renowned for having a world-class education system, yet is underperforming when compared with its peers. Fifteen year olds in the UK are ranked 22nd and 27th respectively in reading and maths when compared with other OECD countries in the Pisa tests, trailing behind much smaller economies such as Estonia, Poland and Vietnam. With 76% of teachers seriously considering leaving the profession due to their ‘unmanageable’ workloads, schools facing severe budget cuts and increasing class sizes it can begin to feel like schools are reaching crisis point. What can be done to improve this?

Well, we know that students benefit from immediate and constructive feedback; we know that differentiated lessons enable students, who learn in different ways and at different speeds, to make similar progress; we know that accurate data can be used to identify key strengths or areas for improvement more quickly. We also know that doing all these things for all students all of the time is hugely time consuming. As teacher numbers reduce and student numbers increase – pupil numbers are expected to grow by one million in the next decade, leading to a shortage of 30,000 teachers by 2020 – and with teachers spending up to 60% of their time on admin and data management, the time they have available to dedicate to each student is severely limited. This is resulting in a one-size-fits-all method of teaching often being used, leaving some students struggling and others under challenged. Clearly something needs to be done to help education as it is currently failing both the teachers and the students. But what is the answer?

When we look at other industries, such as travel, healthcare and retail, there is one thing that has helped revolutionise them all – artificial intelligence (AI). AI has made them more efficient, more personalised, helped to reduce their costs and allowed them to make more data driven decisions.

For years now websites have been gathering data on our online behaviour. This data generates insight into who you are, allowing the technology to learn about your preferences, likes, dislikes and identify your needs. Google uses this technology to learn about your search preferences, Amazon uses it to make relevant shopping recommendations and advertisers use it to place relevant adverts in key places. This technology can be applied to classrooms to learn how a student learns and provide them with a personalised education. By doing so, the time teachers need to spend analysing each student and planning differentiated lessons would be reduced, allowing them more time to focus on the learning and development of the student. Additionally, the students would benefit from a personalised education that is tailored to their unique learning needs, the end result being improved learning outcomes – the aim of any teacher or school.

Imagine a classroom where a teacher is armed with real-time data on each student, allowing them to quickly and easily identify which ones are struggling, which ones need pushing and what topics need to be revisited. This would super-charge teachers, allowing them to make timely and targeted interventions and make evidence based decisions in the classroom. Students would no longer have to wait weeks for work to be submitted, marked and returned for issues in their learning to be identified. Teachers would be reacting to up to the minute data, just like managers in other industries are. This is the future of education.

As education reaches crisis point and people look for a solution, there is a slow emergence of AI in education. Whilst it is a relatively new phenomenon, there are a few revolutionary AI learning platforms that are making waves. So next time you despair about the lack of time you have to plan a differentiated lesson, the amount of hours you spend marking, or the lack of time you have to recommend next steps to a student, remember – there is a solution. AI in education is new, it’s exciting and it could help solve some of the industry’s biggest pain points.  

CENTURY Tech links with the Your Life STEM campaign

April 2017

CENTURY Tech is a revolutionary online learning platform that uses artificial intelligence and data science to improve education for the teacher and the student. CENTURY Tech’s groundbreaking platform recommends learning topics for each individual student in order to address any gaps in knowledge or skills and teachers have access to shared content and real-time data insights into their students’ learning. Your Life, led by a board of directors chaired by Edwina Dunn, co-founder of dunnhumby and CEO of Starcount, is a three-year STEM campaign to ensure the UK has the Maths and Physics skills it needs to succeed in today’s competitive global economy. The Your Life campaign engages young people by creating inspiring video content and by running activities such as memorable visits to the U.K.’s most exciting STEM workplaces.

So, how are CENTURY Tech and Your Life joining forces?

On CENTURY, students access learning content and artificially intelligent algorithms plot the most effective route through the material. CENTURY provides courses mapped to the National Curriculum and Your Life create videos that are used as learning material throughout these courses. The videos provided by Your Life have been embedded into captivating mini-courses for extracurricular and lifelong learning and are also dotted throughout CENTURY’s GCSE Maths and Physics courses. CENTURY Tech and Your Life are continuing to work together to create exciting courses to inspire students to study STEM subjects by providing engaging material and a personalised route through their learning.

CENTURY Tech has been shortlisted for the prestigious Pitch@Palace programme

April 2017

CENTURY Tech, an artificially intelligent online learning platform, has been selected for participation in Pitch@Palace. Vote now to help them win the People’s Choice Award!

Pitch@Palace was established by The Duke of York to support entrepreneurs in the development of their business ideas. Entrepreneurs present their innovative ideas to an audience of CEOs, investors, angels and influencers. Attendees have the ability to catapult the entrepreneurs’ ideas to the next level, whether they be potential mentors, investors, or business partners. The theme for Pitch@Palace 7.0 is ‘human tech’, so all of the entrepreneurs’ business ideas explore the potential impact of technology on improving our lives.

CENTURY Tech’s purpose is to improve education for the teacher and student. This is achieved by using artificially intelligent technology to learn how each student learns and provide them with a personalised learner path based on their unique learning needs. By learning on the platform, students generate data which is then presented, in real-time, to the educator and provides insight into their strengths, weaknesses, completion and effort level. The platform also auto-marks short, formative assessments and selects suitable learning content for the student, helping to reduce the admin-heavy workload faced by teachers.

People can vote for their favourite business idea by voting for the People’s Choice Award, which is now open. The winner will be announced at St James’s Palace on 25th April. Vote for CENTURY Tech today at http://pitchatpalace.com/vote/.

Priya Lakhani, Founder CEO of CENTURY Tech said:

“Our aim at CENTURY is to improve education for everyone. We really hope people support us by voting for CENTURY in the People’s Choice Award so we can spread our message and help even more students and teachers!”

The Duke of York said:

“I am immensely proud of the achievements of the Entrepreneurs in the Pitch@Palace 7.0 programme. In less than three years, there have been over 500 pitches at events all over the United Kingdom and they have shone a light on the diversity and imagination across the country, clearly demonstrating that pursuing an idea or dream can be realised with knowledge and determination. I wish all those taking part in the People’s Choice Award and the final of Pitch 7.0, every success. ”

What is spaced learning and why does it matter?

April 2017

What is spaced learning?

Spaced learning is the principle that information is more easily learnt when it is split into short time frames and repeated multiple times, with time passing between repetitions. For example, if you have 30 minutes to spend studying one topic, it is better to split the time into three 10-minute study sessions than to lump it into one 30-minute session, and repeat again the next day.

Why does it matter?

Karpicke’s research (2012) identified that memory degrades quickly if information is not reviewed. Despite this, students in schools ‘mass learn’, where they study a topic in one go then move on to the next one, only reviewing the topic when they come to revising it for an exam. Revision often involves intensely studying a topic for a short amount of time, retaining the information for the exam and then forgetting it as they have not built a robust memory of the information. However, new research builds on the suggestion that spaced learning, where a topic is studied in short bursts and then reviewed at a later date, may be a more effective way of learning and retaining information.

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) recently conducted a feasibility study into spaced learning. Researchers conducted a 3-day preliminary investigation into whether gaps of 10 minutes and of 24 hours increase memory retention. Teachers were given 36 minutes of teaching material for three different subjects and students were split into the following groups:

In a subsequent test, the students in Test group 3 performed better than any other students. The researchers suggest that the combination of 10 minute breaks and 24 hour repetition results in better memory than traditional “massed” learning. They note that previous research emphasises the importance of the 10 minute break being a ‘distractor task’ rather than a simple break. By having multiple, shorter study sessions with distractor tasks in between, the learner will build a more robust memory of the information for longer as they have more practice at actively retrieving the information from memory.

Putting it into practice

At CENTURY our purpose is to improve the learning outcomes of all students using our platform, so we have spent time devising features that will encourage the long term retention of information.

When students study on CENTURY, they complete ‘nuggets’, which are small topics of learning that include a formative assessment. All nuggets are between 7 and 10 minutes long. Additionally, we have implemented other principles of retrieval practice and spaced learning into our learning platform. Firstly, we implement spaced learning into the Recommended Learner Path directly by reviewing previously studied material periodically; and secondly, we interleave nuggets from different topics (breaking up learning material on one topic with learning material from other topics), meaning that micro-gaps are achieved, even when students are studying in one longer single stretch of time.

Neuromyths in Education

Feb 2017

Neuromyths in education are nothing new. The Guardian has highlighted four of the most common, which our Cognitive Neuroscientist discusses.

There is no surprise that teachers should be interested in psychology and neuroscience. As a cognitive neuroscientist, it is encouraging to see so many teachers trying to incorporate evidence from the science of the brain into their lessons. However, neuroscience is anything but simple and the prevalence of so-called ‘neuromyths’ in the classroom is cause for concern.

The Guardian (2016), TES (2016, 2014, 2013), The New Scientist (2014), the BBC (Radio 4 programme, 2013) have all featured articles on this problem, calling out the common neuromyths and dispelling them. And yet, they persist.

Do we really need to worry? So what if people think that you can be left-brained or right-brained? How bad can it be to believe in learning styles even though there is no evidence to back this up?

Well, expert Paul Howard-Jones says it can be pretty bad, actually. He claims that belief in these neuromyths can hinder effective teaching. Usha Goswami, a researcher at Cambridge University (PDF), suggests that the best way to teach new material is through a range of styles. This contradicts the neuromyth that we have a specific learning style (Visual, Auditory or Kinesthetic). If children only receive learning materials in one of these styles — due to the mistaken belief that this is beneficial — their learning has been impeded.

So, what should the teacher interested in neuroscience in education do?

Luckily enough educational neuroscience is a rapidly growing area of research and it’s beginning to produce some interesting results. In 2014, the Wellcome Trust partnered with the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) to fund further research into promising educational strategies. There is plenty to interest teachers looking to incorporate cognitive neuroscience understanding into the classroom. Currently being investigated are projects into Growth Mindset, Working Memory, Spaced Learning and Gamificationin the classroom.

They have also compiled a Teaching and Learning Toolkit which is a summary of educational research on teaching 5–16 year olds and is constantly updated to reflect the latest understanding of teaching strategies.

CENTURY is committed to incorporating the best teaching and learning research into our platform. Our recommendation engine currently includes adaptivity based on active retrieval practice (spaced learning and the testing effect) to encourage robust memory formation. We include cognitive messaging around our site to encourage growth mindset, resilience and grit to develop independent, confident learners. We are also piloting an investigation into the role of emotions in learning and long-term memory.

Cognitive neuroscience can provide useful strategies for improving learning outcomes. But we have to be aware of neuromyths, of overselling the evidence and of drawing conclusions that aren’t warranted. If we can do this, then we can drive powerful change in the classroom and beyond.

What’s the big deal with Growth Mindset, anyway?

Feb 2017

Growth mindset is a term coined by Professor Carol Dweck at Stanford University. She distinguishes between growth mindset and fixed mindset. A growth mindset of intelligence is the belief that intelligence can change over time: it is possible to increase your abilities by applying effective learning strategies. In contrast, a fixed mindset is the belief that intelligence is a fixed, innate attribute that cannot be changed: the ability you have at the outset is as good as it will get.

We see mindsets at work everyday, both in the classroom and out. Typical fixed mindset statements look like this:

“I can’t do maths”

“I’m just not creative”

“Oh, I’ve never been sporty”

In all these statements there is a fixed mindset declaring that there is no control over ability.

It’s easiest to see growth mindset in action around games. If you lose a level during a videogame, you typically start it again trying to do better this time:

“Oh, I nearly had it that time! This time I’ll get it”

When you start a game, you believe that you are capable of winning, even if you don’t win straight away. In other words, you have a growth mindset towards the game.

Why does it matter?

Let’s pretend we have a class of two: Alex and Sam. They are given a problem to solve and they both get it wrong. What happens next?

Well, Alex has a fixed mindset so he believes that his ability to solve this problem is already set. There is no point in trying to solve the problem again, no point in learning more about it, trying to understand other ways to solve it. He is either intelligent enough to solve it the first time around or he isn’t. He didn’t, so there is nothing more he can do.

Sam has a growth mindset which means she believes that with effectively applied effort she can solve the problem. She will keep on trying: trying new strategies, trying to understand more; trying to solve it. Sam believes that she will be able to solve the problem eventually.

So, why does mindset matter? Because it alters what we do when we encounter set back. Ultimately, mindset matters because it has a strong relationship with outcome. Students who keep trying are more likely to achieve better outcomes.

What’s the evidence?

Blackwell, Trzesniewski & Dweck (2007)

Carol Dweck has done comprehensive research into the relationship between mindset and learning outcomes. In 2013, she conducted a review showing that mindset interventions result in improved learning outcomes for children who have a fixed mindset (Yeager, Paunesku, Walton & Dweck (2013)). Interventions which change the type of praise a student receives have been shown to encourage a growth mindset. Additionally, interventions which teach children how the brain learns or which focus on the try-fail-try-again routine of famously successful figures are effective.

How does CENTURY incorporate this research?

CENTURY encourages a growth mindset in a couple of different ways.

Students get sent personalised cognitive messages which encourage resilience and growth mindset. These messages offer learners effective learning strategies based on their current performance and effort levels. They also inform the students about how the brain learns to more implicitly encourage a growth mindset. All messaging around results is also grounded in growth mindset research to encourage a mindset which can improve learning outcomes.

Additionally, CENTURY has a course which teaches students how the brain learns. Dweck’s research, among others, showed that understanding of the basic functions of memory and learning can help learners see that abilities are not innate. This course was developed in conjunction with HRH Duke of York, as part of iDEA. It is aimed at learners aged 11–14, but there is something there for everyone. Why don’t you give it a go today and see what you can learn?

Citations

Blackwell, L., Trzesniewski, K. & Dweck, C., 2007, ‘Implicit Theories of Intelligence Predict Achievement Across an Adolescent Transition: A Longitudinal Study and an Intervention’, Child Development 78(1): 246–263

Yeager, D., Paunesku, D., Walton, G. & Dweck, C., 2013, ‘How Can We Instill Productive Mindsets at Scale? A Review of the Evidence and an Initial R&D Agenda’, White Paper for the White House meeting, Excellence in Education: The Importance of Academic Mindsets.

CENTURY Tech takes to the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield

Dec 2016

With 1.3 million children underperforming in the UK (Ofsted, 2016) and 74% of teachers considering leaving the profession due to unmanageable workloads (TES, 2016), it is clear that the current education system is facing some serious challenges. CENTURY has been created by teachers, students, parents, software developers and neuroscientists with the purpose of improving education for all.

CENTURY’s revolutionary technology has taken centre stage at the TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield 2016 to showcase its platform which leverages artificial intelligence and big data technology. CENTURY Tech’s technology learns how each individual learns, adapting their learner journey to reflect their learning needs. CENTURY uses a range of adaptive variables including pace of learning, difficulty levels, modality preference and effectiveness, spaced learning algorithms and item response theory.

Priya Lakhani OBE, CENTURY Tech’s Founder CEO says, “At CENTURY, we are passionate about improving education. Our platform uses advanced technology that makes a real difference to both the teacher and student. I am thrilled that this has been recognised by TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield!”

So, how does it work?

Students access learning material through CENTURY. CENTURY hosts a multimedia library of content including, GCSE maths and English language, and maths and English Functional Skills, Entry Level 3, Level 1 and Level 2, all of which is mapped to the curriculum. Teachers can also easily add their own subjects and content.

Artificially intelligent technology then learns how each student learns, providing them with a personalised and adaptive learning journey, constant, formative assessments and instant feedback. All messages students receive are tailored to their experience and are grounded in cognitive neuroscience, designed to encourage a growth mindset and resilience.

Teachers and SLT are presented with real-time actionable data that supports evidence based teaching and reduces time spent on planning. By tracking homework, auto marking and finding resources, CENTURY reduces the admin burden faced by teachers. The deep insights presented to educators show their students achievement, knowledge, skills and performance against assessment objectives, identifying their strengths and indicating where interventions may be necessary.

CENTURY Tech is currently being used by more than 10,000 students, with several more secondary schools and colleges receiving their logins in January. CENTURY Tech is also a finalist for the BETT Awards and Learning Awards and Founder CEO, Priya Lakhani, recently won the Special Achievement Award at the Mayor’s Fund Awards.

CENTURY will be exhibiting at BETT 2017 as part of BETT Futures, stand F60. During the exhibition, CENTURY will be giving live demos of the platform as well as short seminars on artificial intelligence, cognitive neuroscience and data in the classroom, among other topics. In addition, CENTURY will be offering schools and colleges that sign up during BETT, free access to the platform for the rest of the academic year plus a significant discount for the following academic year.

To find out more, please email info@century.tech

Promoting A Healthy Data-Driven Culture

 Nov 2016

What are good data practices? What should be avoided?

Liz Macfie, Data Scientist at CENTURY, gives us some insight.

Over my years in data science (and also those as a mechanical engineer before that) I’ve had to learn good data practices, often through making mistakes. I’m going to share some of the more easily avoided slip-ups I’ve seen/done with the hope that this might especially help organisations without a dedicated “data” team (or at least without someone as outspoken as me!).

Track everything. Immediately.

Resources can be spread thinly when starting a new project, especially if there are tricky deadlines to hit. Regardless, data gathering has to be an immediate priority, even if nothing is done with it straight away. We can guarantee that in 3 months time some bright spark will ask how current user behaviour compares to past user behaviour.

I’d also recommend having a kick-off meeting with all personnel who might eventually want to use the data. Perhaps developers don’t know the whole story and would have left out the tracking of a metric that later became a key business priority.

Avoid vanity metrics

It’s understandable, especially when just starting a new project, to be fascinated with raw user numbers. We want to track every action they take, we want to know how many there are, we want to see live activity. This is perfectly fine and can create a shared excitement as screens go up showing what users are doing in real time. However, we have to go deeper than these metrics for business decisions.

A very simplistic example: Let’s say the most important part of our product is a button, and every time a user presses it, we magically get some money. Obviously we want to measure engagement with this button, so we create a graph showing the number of button presses each day.

We spot that the button press numbers go down at the weekend and start fretting over what this could mean: do users only want to pay on weekdays? Someone then thinks to plot number of daily button presses per number of daily users and gets this:

It turns out there is no problem with button engagement, there are just fewer users at the weekend. Reporting the “vanity metric” (number of button presses) rather than the actionable metric (number of button presses per user) was unhelpful.

Keep numbers accurate

We’ve all been there. The quarterly report is due, and we’re the tiniest of fractions below a particular target. Knowing that there are three kinds of lies (lies, damned lies and statistics) we work out a way to “massage” the data so that it falls on the correct side of this arbitrary line. Ethics aside, there are a couple of major problems with this:

  1. Anyone else wanting to produce the same numbers has to know about our statistical manipulations otherwise there will always be discrepancies, and trust me — if there’s one thing any board hates, it’s discrepancies.
  2. If we actually improve the next quarter, but still don’t hit that target, what do we report? The accurate apparently lower number, or do we engage in more data trickery to also bring this second number above the target, so correctly reporting an improvement?

I say, the more honest you are with data in all reports, the more grateful future-you will be.

Verify all results

I don’t think I’ve ever regretted taking a little longer to check numbers I’m about to report, but I’ve certainly often regretted moving too fast and reporting an inaccuracy. This can so frequently be avoided by having multiple ways to generate the same statistics: perhaps we send website data to two sources; perhaps we store the same information in databases in two slightly different ways; perhaps we carry out a calculation again with the steps in a different order.

In addition to this, there should always be an idea of whether variations being reported are “significant”, but that’s a topic for another post.

And finally… my personal pet peeve…

Throw out the pie charts

Just no. Can we please stop with these now? They are a tool to teach students about circle sectors or to show the proportion of uneaten pizza… they are not a valid data visualisation!

All of these are very basic non-technical ways to start a healthy data-driven culture within any company. After setting these principles, the fun begins!

So, what is Cognitive Neuroscience?

 Nov 2016

CENTURY’s Cognitive Neuroscientist, Alice Little, gives us an insight into what cognitive neuroscience really is.

Let’s start with the ‘cognitive’ bit: what is cognition? Cognition refers to all the stuff that goes on in your brain when you think. It refers to all the stuff that happens when you process the world via your senses. Acquiring knowledge, learning things, perceiving. Any mental action or process is a form of cognition.

Cognitive science is the multidisciplinary field that studies cognition. Understanding the memory process, or perception, decision making, problem solving, language acquisition or emotion regulation are all the domain of cognitive scientists, amongst many other things. If it’s a mental process that involves thought, then cognitive scientists are all over it.

Now for the neuroscience bit. Neuroscience is the study of the physical structure and function of the brain (and nervous system). It is the study of neurons, of the chemicals in the brain, of the electricity flows in the brain. Neuroscientists might look at specific instances of brain damage to deduce what that area of the brain is involved in; they might use imaging techniques; they might look at the function of an individual neuron or a highly specific neurotransmitter. They might investigate human brains, primate brains, rodent brains or even the more primitive brain-like structures in simple organisms. But the thing that brings all neuroscientists together is that they are studying the brain itself.

So, what do you get when you cross a cognitive scientist with a neuroscientist? Well, you get a specific method for studying cognition. Cognitive neuroscientists investigate any aspect of cognition with direct reference to what is going on in the brain: we study the brain to understand what the mind is doing.

In short, cognitive neuroscience is the study of brain processes to understand how the mind works.

And how is CENTURY using Cognitive Neuroscience?

CENTURY’s general principle behind incorporating cognitive neuroscience is the same with any features we design and implement. We trust our data to tell us what is effective and what isn’t effective. We will design implementations of various theories and then let the data tell us whether they are successful for learning. If not, we will iterate and try again. Ultimately, we are attached to no cognitive dogmas; we have no vested interest in seeing one theory succeed or fail. The only thing we are driven by when considering the inclusion of cognitive theories into CENTURY is this:

Does it make the learning better?

There is nothing revolutionary about applying cognitive theories to pedagogical practice, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be innovative with how we do that. In the coming blogs I will give a more detailed picture of a couple of the cognitive principles we are currently using in our software and what the evidence is for their benefit for learning, so look out for What’s the big deal with Growth Mindset, anyway? and Let’s test out the Testing Effect if you’re interested in learning more.

Surviving a year of TypeScript

Nov 2016

Tiago Relvão is CENTURY’s Tech Lead. Here he shares his and the Engineering Team’s experiences, frustrations and revelations using TypeScript.

In October 2015 I joined CENTURY Tech just as they were releasing the first version of their software. It was a monolithic lump of three different apps written in Meteor, Jade and CoffeeScript . Although this was a very custom stack, it was also their first project with it and they were running to a very tight deadline (#StartupLife).

After a couple of weeks maintaining that thing, we were all ready for something else — anything else really. The stars aligned and a decision to slowly move into a micro-services architecture was made. We decided to try TypeScript even though no one had any real experience with it. How could that go wrong?!

I started writing some JSON APIs and we decided it was safer to use it server side only to begin with. The idea was that we could use TypeScript as an es6 linter and we would figure out the typed stuff as we went.

That worked surprisingly well. By setting TS in implicit mode and disabling most of the warnings in tsconfig we had this very powerful linting tool, but we were struggling with node modules. We had awesome intellisense for our code but nothing for external dependencies.

We were hooked. We needed to import the type definitions for these JavaScript libraries that made the magic intellisense work. We found definitely typed and tsd, deprecated by typings and now again, in TS2. Fun, right? That allowed us to pull definitions for most of the libs we used.

Great. Types everywhere! But then we needed to release our own node packages. Moving some shared code into their own node modules broke TS — no more types. The same code moved into a node_modules folder failed to recognise type — what was going on?! It seems we also have to export typings in this case.

One of our developers decided to learn all about type definitions by reading the docs. Not Stack Overflow — the actual docs! He is now our go to person whenever TSC starts babbling incomprehensible error messages (you should definitely get one of those in your team if you want to go the TS route!). After a while it all started making sense to us. Until it didn’t again… it’s a recursive process.

Most data is submitted by users, databases or API calls. Your code assumes some sort of type but who knows what gets submitted — users can be a strange breed of human. What was frustrating was all that time spent writing type interfaces that we couldn’t use in runtime, but interfaces aren’t the only way to define types. You can use a class!

This is where we are going now, converting our interfaces into classes that include runtime validation. We still have to define the primitive types as TS annotations but it’s easier to define a validate method that takes care of runtime validation. Writing type definitions is now looking much easier.

Using types is great but be prepared to spend some time writing them. I now love re-factoring/debugging TS code, especially after a couple of weeks when I no longer remember writing it…! So far, I have spent as much of my time re-factoring code as I have writing it, but that is the nature of the beast. I am grateful that our team decided to go with TS. My only regret, maybe, is not spending a couple of weeks learning this stuff. The slow migration from es5 to fully TypeScript (es6 + types) feels a waste of time now that I look back.

By the way, we finally killed the Meteor app. It will not be missed. We replaced the front-end with Polymer and web components, which is also a cool story.

Harnessing technology to make teachers’ lives easier

 Oct 2016

Nadya Thorman is the Chief Operations Officer at CENTURY and previously taught with Teach First for three years. Here she explains how technology can be used to benefit teachers.

When I started my Teach First journey in 2010, I, like many participants, had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself into. I had applied to Teach First after being shocked by the appalling social mobility statistics I had come across in my university studies. Teach First offered an opportunity to address the issue; I could make a real difference to the lives of young people, and I could do it immediately.

Within a few weeks of the school term, that starry-eyed, naïve, young graduate was exhausted and dispirited; I was beginning to doubt whether I could convince Abdul to bring a pen to class, let alone transform the educational opportunities of the students I taught.

Teaching was, and still remains, the most difficult thing I have ever done. Don’t get me wrong — I loved teaching; I loved the students who made me laugh every day, and I loved the colleagues who worked tirelessly to improve the life chances of others. I was even pretty good at it, at least so others told me. But it was hard, and it didn’t feel sustainable, so, after three years and much soul-searching, I made the decision to leave the profession.

Unfortunately, I was not alone in finding teaching a challenge: in a recent survey of teachers, 82% of respondents reported that their workload was unmanageable. I have returned again and again to this dilemma: if good teaching is beneficial to society (and I think we all agree that it is), then how can we make it a more sustainable career? So when I was asked if I would join education technology startup CENTURY Tech, which aims to improve learning outcomes while reducing teacher workload, I jumped at the opportunity.

Teachers know how to make learning happen: we know that students benefit from immediate and constructive feedback; that differentiated materials enable students, who learn in different ways and at different speeds, to make similar progress; that accurate data can be used to identify key strengths or weaknesses more quickly; that for some students, a ‘fixed’ mindset holds them back, and that more than teaching them new skills, we need them to understand that they have the ability to grow their intellect. We also know that doing all these things for all our students is a monumental task. Our intention at CENTURY is to make this task easier.

CENTURY’s learning platform provides students with a personalised learner path at the same time as arming teachers with learner data, so that they are the very best educators they can be. The platform uses artificial intelligence technology, cognitive neuroscience and big data insights to begin to understand how students learn best by analysing students’ behaviour on the platform, e.g. time active, accuracy of answers, media studied, response time, etc. According to the DfE, data management and marking are the biggest drivers of ‘unnecessary and unproductive tasks’ in a teacher’s day. So CENTURY aims to reduce teachers’ workload by automating the marking of students’ work and presenting learners’ data in an easy-to-use dashboard. Teachers are provided with a real-time view of how their students are progressing so that they can intervene as and when necessary.

We have big dreams for the future of education and are busy working with innovative schools and colleges in order to achieve them. We are always looking to collaborate with educators who are excited about the possibilities that technology can bring to education. If you fit the bill, or are interested in finding out more, please email info@century.tec.

We can’t wait to work together to make a difference to the world of education.

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CENTURY in the news

CENTURY named as CogX finalist

We are delighted to announce that CENTURY has been named a CogX finalist! The CogX awards celebrate the best AI – not just in the UK, but in the world. CENTURY has become a finalist for the Best AI in Education award and we are honoured to have made it this far.

CogX is a conference that brings together thousands of innovators from across the field of Artificial Intelligence to speak, debate, challenge and spark conversations on the past, present and future of AI.

To find out more, visit their website or check out their Youtube channel for a Live Stream of the fantastic talks and panels at the conference.

TES investigates AI in education
National news, international awards and free training

March 2017 

CENTURY gains global recognition
The i newspaper investigates CENTURY's personalised learning platform
AI, big data and the future of your classroom
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CENTURY's social media