Useful Psychology with a Dash of Mind Control Magic

ISSP Psychology Summer School for Year 7 Students

My colleagues queried, “Aren’t Year 7 students too young to grapple with concepts in Psychology like perception, naïve realism and schema theory?” Not at all, it turns out; and they love it! Able Year 7 students can cope just as well as the Year 9, 10, and 11 students to whom I have taught Psychology master classes in recent years. In fact, my experience makes me think that Psychology should be part of the KS3 & 4 Science curriculum. Indeed, in future years educationalists will say “What?! We (humans) understood all this about the brain and behaviour and we hadn’t started teaching it in school?” There is so much useful and inspiring psychology to be had yet UK students are able to finish their education without ever having studied it.

I have been running ISSP master classes in York for several years, aiming to engage students with the subject. These are open to any ‘able and interested’ (aka Gifted and Talented: we have changed the label to be more inclusive) Year 9-13 students from York partner schools. This year I was invited to run a Psychology summer school at the end of July, but this time for four whole days with a group of twenty three Year 7 students.

With a free rein and no spec. to follow, what Psychology would you teach such youngsters over such a long time? My aim was to give students a taste for some of the literally awesome research findings in psychology – e.g placebo effects, neuro-images and TCMS – and offer them some skills for self-change and wellbeing. One of my learning outcomes was to equip students with the tools to spot pseudoscience and to be discerning about what they read and view on line. I wanted to develop their skills of critical thinking in questioning the latest developments in neuro-science (and science in general) without becoming cynical – put another way – to have open-minds, but not so open that their brains fall out.

I planned to leave them with faith in techniques available to them for mind / behaviour change (both ancient and modern – from meditation to CBT and NLP) whilst promoting a filter for ‘neuro-nonsense’ in the media. To do this we drew contrasts: stage illusions compared to the psychophysics of perceptual illusions; stage mind control tricks compared to the real power of placebo effects; stage psychics’ and hypnotists’ techniques in contrast with research into the real mind control of adept transcendental meditators.

I showed a few well-chosen TED talks (of course) and we covered a good deal on perception – schema, illusions, change blindness and the neuropsychology of agnosia and unilateral neglect, etc. The students were trained in visualisation techniques for performing memory feats (touching on the phenomenon of synaesthesia) leading on to the finale: a self-hypnosis session for stress management and confidence building. During the workshop, students analysed their own mind-set and their character strengths using Seligman’s Positive Psychology questionnaire. We all enjoyed the mind magic tricks sprinkled over the four days and the summer school was a fun opportunity to learn and practise these, challenging the students to work out how they are done using the psychology they had been learning about – misdirection, cold reading, social influence, etc.

The highlight was certainly the group self-hypnosis session. As I brought the group into a darkened room with candles and music, the atmosphere was that of a sleep-over pyjama party for twenty three 12 year olds and I wondered how on Earth I was going to guide them into a meditative state from that position! Yet sure enough, they were soon silently following their own hypnotic count downs. The techniques they learnt were apparently life-changing for one insomniac: ‘I had just had my best night’s sleep in 7 years – thanks soooo much’.

This Summer School was an intense four days but well worth the effort. A huge range of students arrived on day one, from the hyper keen to the totally disaffected; from the hyper confident to the bullied and painfully shy. Psychology won them all over – they left head over heels in love with our wonderful subject and with some really useful psychology under their belts.

Harriet Ennis is Head of Psychology at Bootham School in York. She is a member of the ATP (The Association for the Teaching of Psychology) Committee and her most recent ATP conference presentations modelled how to use TED talks to promote psychology.