Sunday, 22 September 2019
WHEN I started in education I was excited to share my passion for my subject, history, with my students and I began to consider more and more what is going on behind the scenes when we learn.
Over the years that I have worked with adolescents, I have become fascinated by the way the brain learns.
Thanks to developments in science and technology we know more about how the brain is wired, fires and receives and processes information.
It therefore seemed to me vital to be able to use this knowledge to help our young people learn and develop.
This is ever more important with the changes to technology that have exploded in our world, so very useful in so many ways, but also impacting on our young people in a way that most of us never had to deal with while we struggled with our GCSEs,
A-levels and beyond.
When I became headmistress of Queen Anne’s School, I could see that some focused research could have a huge impact on the 450 students that pass through our doors each year.
So, in consultation with neuroscientists and psychologists at a number of top universities, we were ready to explore more of this fascinating area.
The resulting BrainCanDo is a cognitive psychology and educational neuroscience research centre that I started at Queen Anne’s five years ago.
It has allowed us to dive deeper into the science of the learning brain and how this can help us to understand where, how and why learning happens, and harness this information to guide our young people both to learn and thrive in this increasingly complex world.
After all, it is their world. They will be the ones who will solve global warming, who will harness artificial intelligence, who will literally reach for the stars as we explore the universe.
So let’s give them all we’ve got in our armoury of knowledge to help them rather than expecting them to rely on the old methods of learning and revision.
I certainly recall the boredom of studying for hours by going over and over the same old material! How I wish I had known then what I know now. Over the last five years it has been a privilege to be part of some interesting BrainCanDo research projects, from looking at music and the brain to exploring the way in which social interactions with peer groups impacts on attitudes and motivations.
This year, we have been busy with the launch of the BrainCanDo revision guide. It caught attention in the press because we talked of the way lemons could aid memory and recall, but it was also packed full of up-to-date knowledge on how the brain gathers, retains and can then recall information.
We are already seeing the impact of this work on Queen Anne’s students and on results day this year, we were delighted that the number of top A-level grades achieved by our girls had risen, yet again.
I asked some of the girls what they felt they had learnt about the power of study and revision techniques. They spoke about how they had learnt how to study and revise — not to sit there, reading and underlining, but to really work that material so that their brains have to process and understand the material they were working into their long-term memories.
They also told me how they have learnt to push themselves into the zone where they know that learning will take place — often seen as the “failure” zone but the only place where new learning can form.
We have also been looking at biorhythms and the importance of sleep.
Gone are the days when we think that an “all-nighter” (as it was known in my day) is a good thing. We understand the importance of sleep hygiene, particularly for the developing adolescent brain and all that we have learned suggests that the way the school day is currently organised runs counter to the biological rhythms governing our teenagers.
Much to the delight of 70 17-year olds, we took the bold move to allow our lower sixth to have a later start to the day for the whole of June this year.
The effects were very interesting — teachers found more focused students in class, girls reported improved wellbeing and parents described happier and more comfortable teenagers.
We will now look at how we can implement a sixth form timetable that allows these benefits to be embedded into school life for these year groups.
The next steps for Queen Anne’s and the BrainCanDo team is publishing a book on the work that we have done so far, the science behind it and the projects that we are developing for the future.
We are passionate about sharing this important learning and understanding with other schools locally and seeing how it can make a difference to other adolescents at such a crucial time in their lives.
Meanwhile, at Queen Anne’s, I couldn’t be more proud of how the girls have grasped the challenges through exam season and of how they are so ready to make their next steps.
Our girls are not afraid to move out of their comfort zone; they know how to manage the anxiety and stress of the exam period and put themselves in the best position possible for performance and success.
Like athletes, they are at the top of their game — and ready to take on the world!
I am very proud of them and we continue to work to help to understand how to get the best out of those brains they have been blessed with.
• Julia Harrington is headmistress of Queen Anne’s School in Caversham, an independent day and boarding school for girls aged 11 to 18.
09 September 2019
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