We must stop the waste of talent

Focus on education - Peter Lampl argues that, if British universities are to have a more eq

Though we read from time to time of new efforts by universities or colleges, such as Clare College, Cambridge, or Bristol University, to admit students from non-privileged backgrounds, we know that the peaks of British higher education are still overwhelmingly favourable to those from more affluent homes. At present, we are just tinkering with an injustice that feeds through into the professions and the whole social fabric.

Contrast that with the United States. When I lived there, I heard many complaints about entry to higher education, but they came from my wealthy New York friends. Despite sending their children to exclusive private schools, they grumbled, they could not get them into the top universities. I decided to find out why, starting in Boston with the Massachussetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, and working down the East Coast visiting Brown, Yale, Columbia, Princeton and finishing with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. I subsequently spent a day at a Harvard admissions committee meeting as an observer.

Breakfast in Boston set the tone for the trip. I met the director of summer schools at MIT, a black graduate. He had gone to an inner-city school in New York, but had done well on his Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a multiple-choice test designed to test aptitude and potential rather than achievement in nationally moderated exams like A-levels. MIT made him an offer in April on condition that he got on a plane to Boston and worked through till September, so that he could handle the work when the degree course started.

Up the road at Harvard, I found an admissions department with its own building. It had 50 people working in undergraduate admissions alone to admit 1,650 students each year. I wondered what they all did, and was told that most of them are involved in recruitment; each admissions officer is responsible for one area of the country and it is his or her job to identify talented kids and persuade them to apply. In the UK, by contrast, leading universities do virtually no recruitment and the admissions offices rarely have more than two or three full-time people, working alongside part-timers.

Harvard is not at all exceptional. In the universities I visited, the average size of the undergraduate admissions office was 40 people, most of them involved in active recruitment. Some have responsibility for a target group (say, a particular ethnic group), others for a geographical area.

All the American universities that I visited are committed to the idea that a fundamental part of university life is a student body with a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and talents. They are private institutions that are registered charities and, as such, they serve a social purpose. They take this responsibility seriously, so they are not primarily focused on producing outstanding academics (although they naturally want to maintain academic standards), but on finding individuals who will make a valuable contribution to university life and who will become leaders in their chosen fields.

These universities acknowledge that they compete with each other to recruit the best candidates, and they go to great lengths to find them. They target by a mailshot all those whom they identify as high achievers through the database of SAT scores which is available. In addition to the admissions staff, the alumni take a very active role in identifying potential candidates - people who have won academic prizes or shone in some other way - in the areas where they live.

It doesn't end with the initial recruitment. The universities make great efforts to ensure that anybody who has been offered a place feels comfortable about accepting it. They employ current undergraduates from similar backgrounds to telephone them for a chat and to answer questions. They run "taster weekends" for groups which they believe are in particular need of encouragement, such as under-represented minorities. Some universities (Columbia, MIT, Penn and Princeton) operate a summer programme before the start of the first year, for students who are deemed to be in need of extra support. It means that these students get some academic credit and are able to hit the ground running when term starts.

The major differences between our leading universities and the US universities are the enormous resources that they put into recruitment of students from non- privileged backgrounds and their wider criteria for selection which are designed to pick out high achievers in society. Selection is on the basis of merit, but that is judged not only by academic performance but also by SAT scores, rank in class, extra-curricular activities and other outstanding achievements. And it is all done in the context of where the student is now in relation to where that student has come from.

Does all this work? The Mellon Foundation did a research study of over 20,000 students who came through the system that is now in place. The overwhelming conclusion was that the entry practices at leading American universities have been successful at creating outstanding people in all fields. For example, it was found that 40 per cent of black graduates in the survey went on to get a qualification that provides entry to the top professions in the US. This is a slightly higher success rate than that of their white counterparts; blacks were five times more likely than the general college-going population to get a qualification in medicine, and seven times more likely to get one in law.

Now look at Britain. Bristol University recently published an access report, which showed that very few students go to Bristol from the bottom 50 per cent of schools. The same is almost certainly true for the top dozen or so universities in this country. If you attend a school where the average A-level score is, say, 12 points (three Ds), the chance of getting the 28 points (two As and a B) that you need to get into Bristol is slim, even if you are brilliant. The average A-level score in some of the top private schools is greater than 28 points.

So we have nothing like a level playing field. Rather, it is a Mount Everest of injustice, with the leading private schools at the top and the inner-city comprehensives at the bottom. I am not suggesting that we should dumb down. I am suggesting that we stop wasting so much talent. Lots of children are underachieving academically through no fault of their own. They just happen to attend schools where results are below average, and these are mainly in less affluent areas.

The government's strategy is to improve state schools, particularly those that are underperforming, so that the playing field will become more level.

I support this endeavour, and the Sutton Trust, which I chair, will be funding the establishment of a number of specialist state schools which have shown significantly faster rates of improvement than the average comprehensive. But I am sure it will take many years and huge resources to make a significant difference. Even if state schools improve, we cannot expect private schools to stand still. So we have to accept the enormous disparities in performance between schools, as the Americans do, and make an allowance for them.

Bristol has started to do this. It has documented evidence that a student from a below-average performing school can be accepted with lower A-level grades (by two to three points) and get a degree as good as, or better than, the student who comes from a high performing school. This is a small opening of the door, but it doesn't nearly go far enough.

The problem with the UK is that there is no test of aptitude and potential; entry to university is measured solely on achievement at A-level or, worse still, projected achievement at A-level. The introduction of a test along the lines of the SAT would enable universities both to identify bright students who are underachieving academically and to use it as part of selection. In other words, if you had a student with Bs and Cs from a below-average performing school who scored well on a SAT-type test, you might want to do further work to see whether that student could handle the course at a top university. Interestingly, Singapore, which has in the past relied solely on A-levels for entry to its universities, is now introducing the SAT to be used in conjunction with A-levels.

No test can be entirely objective. US critics argue that the SAT discriminates against candidates from certain ethnic minorities and that good coaching and lots of practice can enable candidates to improve their scores. If we introduced a similar UK test, we would need to address these objections.

At the Sutton Trust, we are looking at the feasibility of such tests and we have discussed running pilots with leading universities. Recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that students from social classes three to six account for roughly two-thirds of the population but less than one-fifth of the entry to leading universities and medical schools. It is crucial that we find some solution to this problem - not only in the interests of social justice, but also to stop the waste of talent.

Peter Lampl is chairman of the Sutton Trust, a private charity established to help overcome social inequality in education

This article first appeared in the 31 January 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Why arms sales are bad for Britain

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge