Please tell me about your childhood
My father was a portrait painter, whose subjects include the Queen, President Clinton and Pope Benedict XVI. My mother was a scholar, an expert on Edward Lear. I grew up in a house full of books so I suspect my love of literature was inevitable. From an early age I loved the way novelists created imaginary parallel worlds I could slip into whenever I chose.
But it was a teacher at Eton who inspired you to study English at university?
Yes. Michael Meredith’s incredible breadth of knowledge and passion for the subject made me think that teaching might be fun. He was the first person to tell me I was good at English, which came as a surprise as I had planned to focus on science.
Which writer most inspired you as a teenager?
Henry James. I read all his books in the garden by the river at Eton. It’s confusing being a teenager, when you’re trying to make sense of who you are and how you fit in. I learned a lot about how to do that from James’ ability to convert the messiness of human psychology into prose that was so clear and elegant. He said that: “Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue.” I think I got into Cambridge because the don who interviewed me was impressed by my knowledge of James’ work.
What do you most value about the culture at Eton?
The focus on academic achievement. It’s cool to be clever here. It’s cool to work hard.
What keeps you interested in teaching English?
You’re talking about different people’s experiences of life. You might teach a play like Hamlet year after year, but the changing classes always bring fresh perspectives to it and I experience it differently. Every group has its own chemistry. The curiosity, enthusiasm and humour of teenagers is infectious. It’s a pleasure to see them open little windows of insight. Discipline and sense of purpose is always important in a classroom, but sometimes it’s a challenge to draw boys in and I’ve abandoned texts when I can see they’re not engaging. I hated wasted time. I recently taught My Antonia by Willa Cather: I wasn’t sure the boys would like the novel’s intense emotional focus on nostalgia and lost innocence. But they really took to it.
What else did you learn in the classroom?
I realised that the person at the front of the class can’t always read the room. You might think a class has flown really well. A boy might look enraptured. Then you ask him a question and it turns out he hasn’t heard a word you said. He’s enraptured with something that’s going on in his own imagination. Also, mercifully, this can happen the other way around. You might think you’ve bored the boys one day and those sighs or furrowed brows can turn out to be deep concentration. So you always need to be in touch with your students. You have to ask them.
What about beyond the classroom?
Before the pandemic I loved theatre trips to Stratford and London. Eighteen years ago Random House commissioned me to co-write a series of books on contemporary novelists (including Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Susan Hill and John Fowles) for which I interviewed them at home. It was fascinating to see how their houses reflected their literary style. Now I like to take boys on trips to see where writers like Shakespeare and Milton lived.
You became Director of the Tony Little Centre for Innovation and Research in Learning (CIRL) in 2014. What is the Centre’s purpose?
We help teachers — both at Eton and its wider network — keep up with the fast moving developments in research into education. We believe that teachers can always build on what they’re doing. We run courses, discussion groups and conferences. Teachers are very busy, they don’t have time to keep on top of all the new ideas. We write a blog and drop them emails to make it easy for them to remain current.
IT is revolutionising education and for many teachers that technology is a world apart from what they knew. We reassure teachers that the collision of these two worlds is nothing to be scared of. Online work can coax different skills from the boys. We’re involved in some interesting work on character and resilience too. We also keep abreast of the latest discoveries in neuroscience.
How has our greater understanding of neuroscience affected teaching methods?
We’ve learned so much about the way memory works in recent years. Counterintuitively, your memory works best when we introduce what we call “desirable difficulties”. That means that we are more likely to remember things that we’ve been asked to recall once we’ve started to forget — the muscle has to work harder and is strengthened. In practice that changes our understanding of exam revision. We now know to leave topics behind for a while before revisiting them to optimise memory.
We’ve also learned that great ideas — in science, business and the arts — often come from the idling brain. Cognitive effort can block the subconscious. Eton is a very busy place and there are many pleasures in productivity, but we do also recognise the value of downtime.
Our understanding of the adolescent mind has also improved. Sarah Jane Blakemore’s studies of the teenage brain reveal that the emotional reward centre is capable of eclipsing the prefrontal cortex. Historically, teenagers were beginning to strike out on their own. Although they’re as capable of making good decisions as adults, they couldn’t survive alone and needed to prioritise social acceptance. Once we know that teenagers are more motivated to impress each other than to make smart choices we can work with that. Because that can enhance and hinder learning in the classroom. We’re continually encouraging teachers to experiment and try new techniques.
So your work with CIRL is your greatest contribution to Eton?
I’m really proud of what we’ve achieved here. Our work has earned international recognition. I hope we continue to inspire our colleagues to expand their portfolio of skills and get the best out of the boys.