Bobby Seagull Wikimedia Commons

Though he’s swapped his usual dapper waistcoat and tie for hot pink Emmanuel College running stash, Bobby Seagull retains all the charm and energy which stole him the limelight captaining the University Challenge team in 2017.

“When I did my Master’s at Emma, my objective was [that] I wanted to use that to become a reflective teacher… When I went on University Challenge my only aim was, “I'd love to win it, maybe get to the final”, nothing beyond that. Obviously it’s given me a platform, and it's a platform where people now listen to me, and I'm trying to use it responsibly … to really make the public think about numeracy”.

The situation is “grave”; in one study, one quarter of the adults sampled were unable to calculate 5% of nine pounds, even when allowed a calculator. “That’s the expected level of skill from an 11 year old. … It's a numeracy emergency that we have!” The report, published in July 2017, concludes that “poor numeracy remains endemic in the UK”, and costs the UK some £20 billion a year. 

"It can happen to schoolchildren, it can happen to university students that are PhysNatScis. Even though they’re good at maths, given a problem never seen before, they get that fear"

Rectifying this is the subject of Seagull’s doctoral research with the Faculty of Education, part of which explores a phenomenon known as ‘maths anxiety’, “the negative emotional response that people encounter when dealing with maths. It can happen to schoolchildren, it can happen to university students that are PhysNatScis. Even though they’re good at maths, given a problem never seen before, they get that fear. Compared to the population they’re clearly very competent, but it can impact all of us.” He emphasises the importance of a positive frame of mind as a starting point for tackling the problem of adult innumeracy: “If you can change the attitudes of people towards numeracy and science, I think the competency will happen as well.”

In his work as a secondary school maths teacher, and with live-streamed lessons three days a week with #MathsWithBobby, the lack of a “palpable sense” of students’ reactions presents significant barriers in addressing maths anxiety. “I think it's made me realise that online teaching has a place, but actually there's a premium placed on physical face to face teaching, whether it's at school, college or university.”

However, he remains hopeful that the experience of online learning will enable wider use of ‘flipped learning’, a teaching approach where students encounter lesson material individually, instead using classroom time to deepen understanding: “I think people will now realise that there is a value to be had in technology. … If you're a history teacher, you shouldn't be spending time teaching the key dates you need to learn. The ‘teaching history job’ should be to get into a discussion about ‘What are the really important causes of World War Two?’, ‘What are the interlinks between the social and economic factors?’ … We should make sure that [in-person teaching] is used for addressing misconceptions and misunderstandings rather than just the basics.”

“I think the gap between the haves and have nots will widen significantly, and as a sector, when we go back into school, when normality resumes, I think that’s going to be a big issue”

As a sixth form scholar at Eton and now as a state secondary school teacher, Seagull notes the worrying potential of technology in education to deepen socioeconomic inequality, an effect known as the ‘digital divide’. “A lot of my students at my state school don't necessarily have access to technology; they might have a phone, but at home they don't have a computer”, he tells me. “I think the gap between the haves and have nots will widen significantly, and as a sector, when we go back into school, when normality resumes, I think that’s going to be a big issue”. 

Democratising knowledge across socioeconomic boundaries is a mission close to Seagull’s heart; as a child, he spent many Saturdays in his local East Ham library. He now advocates for the funding of public libraries as a UK Libraries Champion. Among his recent projects is TV series Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures, together with quiz-rival turned co-host Eric Monkman, in which the duo explore Britain’s history of invention.

He describes the appeal of the Industrial Revolution as being “a period where the world's transformation occurred at an [unprecedentedly] rapid rate”. Though the programme provides a “nostalgic look back” on Britain’s history of industrial innovation, he also hopes that viewers will “appreciate the importance of science and technology” in Britain’s continual growth. “I think it should make us feel a bit more humble about where we are, and realise that things have changed, and things are constantly changing.”

This isn’t their first foray into popular science; the 2017 radio show Monkman and Seagull’s Polymathic Adventures discussed the shift in discovery of knowledge, away from pioneering polymaths—such as fellow Emmanuel alumnus Thomas Young, described in one biography as ‘The Last Man Who Knew Everything’—towards collaborative collective efforts. “When we think of inventors in the 1760s, 70s, 80s, even 1800s, often it was someone tinkering away in the laboratory by themselves; James Watt did that. Whereas nowadays, if you look at the Nobel Prizes, obviously there's an individual that gets it, but there's a huge team or a huge lab behind that… It’s much more difficult to come up with a quantum leap individually now.”

With an ever-advancing frontier of knowledge comes an increasing need for effective science communication, and arguably never more so than during the coronavirus pandemic. The UK government’s press releases drew ire over their handling of the science behind their response. 

"If the government gives advice, we need to follow them. That [compliance] happens if there's trust in a government, and the numbers and the science can play a part”

“If you're trained in A level maths or beyond your immediate reaction to that is ‘It's insane’. They tried to say, ‘Let's create a clear equation that makes sense to the public’, but in the end, it ended up being something that just attracted criticism. If the government gives advice, we need to follow them. That [compliance] happens if there's trust in a government, and the numbers and the science can play a part”. 

UK Govt. Website

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How, then, do we present the science of Coronavirus in a way that instills confidence?“The reality is, a lot of the public won't associate [themselves] with Chris Witty because he's an academic. We need to somehow work with people that are popular influencers. Again, it sounds a bit ridiculous and probably no one has considered this, but a lot of young people watch Love Island and football, they'll follow football personalities. Why not have public conversations on Instagram Live with a reasonably well known scientist? … Young people [like] my students are constantly on TikTok right now—imagine if there were scientists using some of these influencers on TikTok”. 

In many ways, remarks Seagull, the Coronavirus pandemic has “brought science back to the fore”, elevating it from an “ivory-tower pursuit” to a vital part of public health policy.“I think when kids now ask me, ‘What's the point of maths?’, I'll say ‘Look at Corona! How important was maths and science there?’”.

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