What Schools Need to Know About Neuroscience

This is the story of a headmistress who took Continuing Education psychology courses, and was inspired to set up a charitable company which applies neuroscience in the classroom.

It all started when Julia Harrington, head teacher at the independent girls’ school Queen Anne’s in Caversham, had the chance to meet a neuroscientist. Dr Ian Devonshire, who was visiting her school, explained that brain function could be observed in live brains, and interventions were being developed to help people with conditions like Parkinson’s. Her interest piqued, Harrington then by chance met the Head of Psychology at Reading University, who told her about some of his work in this field and his interest in conducting research on adolescents.

Harrington realised that although advances in neuroscience meant we are discovering more and more about what stimulates (or depresses) young minds, this knowledge was not filtering through to the classroom or the playground. To bridge the gap, she founded BrainCanDo in 2013. Julia’s school – and others - started getting involved with psychology and neuroscience research with the universities of Reading and Goldsmiths, and developing materials for teachers, students and parents to help them understand the way the young brain learns and flourishes.

A teacher who wanted to learn

It was at this point that Julia and her colleague Lauren Troake were excited to hear about Continuing Education’s ‘Brain and Behaviour’ psychology course, led by Dr Anna Scarnà, a neuroscientist and psychologist.

When Julia Harrington first introduced herself in class as a headmistress, Dr Scarnà was, she confesses, a little nervous. She explains: ‘My heart always sinks when a student says they are a teacher. It changes the dynamic and I immediately become the terrified schoolgirl again.  It is fair to say that I was an anxious child who did not enjoy school very much.’

But as the weeks unfolded on the Brain and Behaviour course, it became apparent that Julia was not a typical headmistress. ‘Highly experienced, witty, warm, and always late for class, Julia is the only student who has done all my courses but not submitted any coursework,’ Dr Scarnà smiles. After Brain and Behaviour, Julia and Lauren went on to do her Understanding the Self: Theories of Personality course, then Common Psychological Disorders, and finally that year, a one-off course on psychology in films.

Oxford Starbucks became a meeting place where Anna, Julia and Lauren would discuss ideas for study, psychology experiments and neuroscience in the media. Dr Scarnà was delighted to be invited to join the board of directors for Julia’s BrainCanDo programme, which she thought ‘a clever and creative vision for neuroscience in education’.

Making learning fun

The project develops practical teaching strategies underpinned by neuroscientific evidence on memory, stress, learning, language, and music. ‘Learning about the brain is key to effective teaching and learning, and to creating a richer educational experience for all,’ says Dr Scarnà.  For example, learning is fun when you know what the brain is doing, and when you know you don’t have to be there – a truth evident in her own teaching at Continuing Education, she notes. ‘How many of our students come from unconventional backgrounds? “Ah!” they say, “If only my learning at university had been like this.” In truth, it is like this – I give pretty much the same lectures in the weekly classes as I do to my (often hungover) “conventional undergraduates” in Experimental Psychology and other Psychology departments.’

The knowledge gained through the Continuing Education courses has been ‘pivotal in helping develop the programme and Scarnà’s input has been invaluable’, Harrington says. 

Dr Scarnà is equally happy with the connection forged: ‘It is testimony to Julia’s vision that she won the prestigious TES Independent Schools Award for Outstanding Post-16 Innovative Provision, and it has been a privilege to have been a part of that - plus I have been able to desensitise myself to my fear of schools!’ 

For more information about the Department's courses in Psycology and Counselling is available online.



Published 27 June 2018