The impact of emotional contagion

Julia Harrington, headmistress of Queen Anne’s School and founder of BrainCanDo, discusses the preliminary findings of her research into the role of social influence on motivation to learn

Every teacher knows about emotional contagion – that sense of a classroom being directed by something intangible. A wave running through it that is hard to pin down, far less control. We know about ringleaders and can usually see them exerting their influence, but sometimes a class can seem to be affected or driven by something more subtle. 

I wanted to find out more about this phenomenon, especially the role of social influence and peer groups on the motivation to learn. BrainCanDo, an educational neuroscience and cognitive psychology research centre which I founded five years ago, commissioned research from the University of Reading to look into it.

We are now in the final year of the research, which has investigated the dynamics of student social interaction and emotional connections, their impact on learning and, crucially, how it can usefully be managed in the classroom. 

The research, which concentrates on students in years 8 and 9, has been tracking brain changes over the course of the two years to see if friends’ brains physically change to become more similar to one another.

The research has included the collection of social network survey data and brain imaging data retrieved from students (while in an fMRI scanner) doing ‘quiz tasks’ to assess curiosity (or intrinsic motivation) in a variety of school subjects. The last scans will take place in May 2019 and the findings of the four-year research should be ready next year.

The idea of collecting brain imaging data while students are in an fMRI scanner is perhaps controversial, so I was astonished by the enthusiasm not only from the girls at Queen Anne’s School but from their parents

The idea of collecting brain imaging data while students are in an fMRI scanner is perhaps controversial, so I was astonished by the enthusiasm not only from the girls at Queen Anne’s School but from their parents. The project was, of course, approved by the University of Reading Research Ethics Committee and all data will remain anonymous. Every girl was given a photograph of their own brain, which turned out to be surprisingly popular mementoes of the summer term.

What does the research show so far? Preliminary findings are fascinating. In terms of attitudes and motivation, younger students share similar attitudes about the value of learning and the strategies they employ to help them to learn effectively. As the students get older, they also begin to show similarities in their own beliefs about their competencies and anxieties, especially about maths (‘I can’t do maths so I only want to be with people who can’t do maths’).

Interestingly, this is less powerful in, for example, English. But what about the impact of a student who has a significant interest in one particular subject – does she have the power to encourage interest in that subject among her friends? 

The spread of motivation through social or emotional contagion depends on the configuration of students’ social networks inside and outside the classroom. School activities that try to encourage pupils to move out of existing friendship groups and interact with other groups could have an impact on these processes and allow for positive motivation to flourish (leading to a harmonious classroom) and demotivation to be limited (and disruption avoided).

There are a number of ways to do this: rejigging tutor groups, allocating pupils to different groups to complete group work during lessons, making regular changes to lesson seating plans, and organising mixed year groups for sport, music and drama.

Queen Anne’s School is an independent girls’ school for 11–18-year-olds. Whatever our findings and how we implement them, it will, of course, be interesting to establish if the patterns we discover might be different in a boys’ school or a co-ed school. Or how they might affect the workplace.

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