I had lunch recently with an assistant head of a leading independent school and he told me about their ‘growth mindset’ work. He was excited about this and he’s by no means exceptional. Eton, Wellington and Stowe have all enthusiastically embraced it, as have thousands of state schools. Highgate Wood, a comprehensive in north London, says on its website that ‘growth mindset is the cornerstone of our learning ethos’.
I hesitate to call growth mindset a ‘fad’ because that implies it lacks the imprimatur of academic respectability when the opposite is true. The term was coined by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford, who made a startling discovery in the course of researching children’s cognitive performance in the 1970s. She noticed that children who believe intelligence is learnt are better at solving problems than those who think it’s innate. ‘In a fixed mindset, students believe their basic abilities, their intelligence, their talents, are just fixed traits,’ she wrote. ‘They have a certain amount and that’s that… In a growth mindset students understand that their talents and abilities can be developed through effort, good teaching and persistence.’ Having stumbled across this finding, Professor Dweck went on to discover something even more remarkable: a growth mindset can be taught. In a series of landmark experiments, she set two groups of children the same tasks. After completing them, both groups were told they’d done extremely well, with one praised for their ability — ‘You must be smart at these problems’ — and the other for their effort — ‘You must have worked hard at these problems’. The two groups were then asked to perform a second set of tasks and in study after study those who’d been praised for their hard work outperformed those told they were smart. Not just that, those children who’d been encouraged to have a growth mindset were more willing to take on another, harder set of problems, more likely to attribute their failure to solve these problems to a lack of effort rather than a lack of intelligence, and more inclined to persevere in the face of these setbacks. (To read more, click here.)
In 1961, shortly after getting a job as a lecturer at Cambridge, my father had an idea. The faculty buildings, he discovered, were largely unused for six months of the year. The colleges, too, were empty. Why not create two Cambridges, one for term time and one for the holidays? Unlike the Cambridge of dreaming spires and glittering prizes, the second would be for ordinary people who’d missed out on the chance of a university education — labourers, tradesmen, clerks, housewives. It wouldn’t be a place of privilege and over-indulgence, but of hard-working people eager to soak up knowledge. And instead of propping up the English class system, it would turn it on its head.
When he presented this proposal to the university authorities he was met with near universal derision. One don drew attention to his use of the word ‘campus’ to describe the university’s footprint — a ghastly Americanism that no self-respecting Cambridge man would ever use. It was as if some crazy, socialist idealist had suggested to the owners of a stately home that they let their servants sleep in their beds when they weren’t there. (To read more, click here.)
Nineteen years ago I was threatened with a libel suit by Harold Evans because of an article I’d written in the Spectator about his departure as president of the New York publishing company Random House. Via his solicitors, Evans threatened to sue me for libel unless I paid his legal costs, gave a sum of money to charity and signed an undertaking that I would never write about him again.
I can’t claim to have been a high-minded journalist taking on a corrupt businessman. It was more of a Mickey-taking piece, pointing out that the former Sunday Times editor, once a titan of British journalism, had become a humourless, self-important twit since marrying Tina Brown and moving to the U.S. The article was accurate and well-sourced but, being a freelance hack, I was in no position to fight the case. On the other hand, I was reluctant to sign his gagging order, particularly as he wanted me to promise never to write about his wife as well. It was the hypocrisy that really stuck in my craw. Evans presents himself as a champion of free speech yet here he was, trying to use Britain’s libel laws to silence a pesky gadfly.
After Sir Stafford Northcote and Sir Charles Trevelyan completed their report on civil service reform in 1854, in which they made the controversial recommendation that recruitment should be based on a competitive exam, the government carried out what today would be called a consultation. Among the more interesting objections was the view that the reforms would make the civil service less democratically accountable. This argument was summarised by Helen Andrews, an Australian policy wonk, in a fascinating essay entitled ‘The New Ruling Class’ published last summer: ‘Civil servants who felt they owed their jobs to no one and nothing but their own merit would be independent, which was also to say impervious to checks and balances.’
One hundred and sixty-three years later, this warning about the first-ever meritocrats, namely, that they would come to see themselves as an elite whose intelligence and expertise trumped the will of the people, seems rather prescient. Isn’t that exactly why the European and American elites got such a bloody nose in the EU referendum and the US presidential election? (To read more, click here.)
And so it begins again. This time last year, I decided to see how long I could last without alcohol. Not just a dry January for me. Oh no. I saw myself lasting right the way through till the following December. According to a doctor friend, your liver only really regenerates after 12 months. Less than that and the health benefits of not drinking are negligible.
You know how this story ends, although, to be fair, I lasted until 8 February. I’d been booked to give an after-dinner talk to a group of head-teachers at one of England’s most prestigious private schools and I assumed that the wine would be so good — it was an elite group of about a dozen top heads — that I’d have to abandon my teetotalism for one night.
Veteran alcoholics will recognise the siren voice of temptation in this anecdote — the seemingly reason-able excuse, the calm assurance that if you fall off the wagon you can clamber straight back on. Breathtaking naivety. (To read more, click here.)
I’m keeping my eyes peeled for one of those billboards saying ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ so I can gleefully point it out to Caroline. Regular readers of this column will know that my wife brought home a Vizsla puppy last December, her surprise ‘gift’ to the family, and that the cute little fellow has turned into a snarling, slobbering hound who has ruined my life.
Mealtimes in our household now resemble a scene from Jaws, with Leo circling unseen beneath the table then bursting out to grab a leg of chicken or a baked potato, or, if he can’t get hold of any food, just bite one of the children. (To read more, click here.)
Last week I was asked to give a talk about generation snowflake. This was at a breakfast organised by a recruitment company called GTI Solutions and the idea was that I would provide an urban anthropologist’s take on this new tribe for the benefit of their corporate clients, most of whom are thinking about how to recruit them and, once they’ve got them, how to keep them happy. This has given me an idea about a new consultancy service I could provide.
The main challenge thrown up by employing these new graduates, it seems to me, is that they won’t be particularly good at communicating with members of other generations in the workplace. One of the hallmarks of the ‘me, me, me generation’ is that they’re marooned in a kind of no man’s land between adolescence and adulthood. I say ‘no man’s land’, but perhaps ‘safe space’ is a better description because they clearly like being there. Why do they refuse to take the final step into adulthood? Partly because their immersion in social media since the year dot has accustomed them to just communicating with their peers. It’s difficult to grow up if you have no idea how to talk to grown-ups. (To read more, click here.)
Last week, my 13-year-old daughter Sasha and her friend Tess were taken by her god-father, Sean, to see Catfish and the Bottlemen at the Wembley Arena. I bought the tickets myself on Viagogo, one of the biggest secondary ticketing websites, and had no reason to think they wouldn't be valid. As a QPR season-ticket holder, I've used Viagogo in the past to resell tickets to home games and it's worked fine.
Not on this occasion. I knew some-thing was wrong when I received a message from Sean asking me to email him a picture of my driving licence. The concert organisers were refusing to admit anyone who'd bought their ticket via a reseller, so if you couldn't prove you were the person named on the ticket you couldn't get in. The name on their tickets was "Shael Pilcher" so a picture of my driving licence wasn't any use. They were refused entry along with hundreds of others. Not wanting to disappoint Sasha, Sean bought three new late-release tickets at the box office and they were able to go to the concert, but others weren't so lucky. He reported seeing dozens of teenage girls in tears outside the venue. (To read more, click here.)
A few months ago I joined forces with Sir Anthony Seldon, the vice-chancellor of Buckingham University, to run an idea up the flagpole. Why not make it possible for senior managers from outside the teaching profession to retrain as heads? Anthony, who was a successful head himself, is in the process of setting up the Buckingham Institute of School Leadership to train the heads of the future. He proposed creating a mid-career and late-career entry track into this programme so successful managers in their thirties, forties and fifties can retrain as school leaders.
This idea was met with some scepticism by teachers and I can’t say I blame them. It rankles for the same reason that allowing people from outside the profession to set up free schools rankles, as well as encouraging people to teach who don’t have QTS (Qualified Teacher Status). It implies there’s nothing particularly valuable about the training or experience that goes into the making of a good teacher — any Tom, Dick or Harry could waltz in off the street and do what they do. It’s symptomatic of a failure to take the profession of teaching -seriously, which is an continuing source of resentment. If I were a teacher it would certainly annoy me. (To read more, click here.)
I give an after-dinner speech occasionally called ‘Media Training for Dummies’. That may sound condescending, but the dummy in question is me. It’s a compendium of anecdotes about my disastrous media appearances, each more humiliating than the last. At some point I’m going to turn it into a PowerPoint presentation, interspersing the talk with clips so the audience can see that I’m not exaggerating.
Until recently, my most embarrassing moment was in New York in 1995, when I took part in a spelling bee broadcast live on the radio. I was the first contestant and my word was ‘barrette’. I’d never encountered this before — it’s the American word for hairclip — and asked the quiz-master if he meant ‘beret’. I said ‘beret’ in a thick French accent to advertise just how cosmopolitan I was, but he was unimpressed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘The word is “barrette” and I’m pronouncing it correctly.’ A few seconds later I was leaving the stage, tail between my legs. (To read more, click here.)