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Ripley St. Thomas Academy, Lancaster

It has been nearly three years since I wrote a post which considered the question of the role of books in today’s digital world – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/rhizomatic-learning-knowledge-and-books/ That post led to a surprisingly heated discussion about the value of books and a comment quoting Iain McGilchrist.

 

“Life can certainly have meaning without books, but books cannot have meaning without life. Most of us probably share a belief that life is greatly enriched by them: life goes into books and books go back into life.” (p. 195, The Master and his Emissary)

This week I have watched a BBC documentary that seems to support McGilchrist’s view. The title of the documentary was ‘The School that got Teens Reading’. It caught my attention because it was filmed at a local secondary school, Ripley St Thomas Academy in Lancaster which is purportedly the biggest state school in Lancashire and has received an ‘outstanding’ Ofsted Report. Despite this the Headteacher bemoaned the fact that too many of her teenage pupils could not be persuaded to read a novel. Her attempt to solve this problem was to call in the help of actor and comedian Javonne Prince who owned to having left school at the age of 16 without being able to read properly, but who was introduced to Shakespeare and the power of books in drama school and now believes that discovering books changed his life. The Headteacher gave him three weeks to convert 15 reluctant and resistant teenagers into passionate readers. These pupils were selected because they admitted to not having read a book for the past two years or more.

Needless to say Javonne found he had a tough job on his hands and after a rocky start had to call in the help of two friends, Helen Skelton, a children’s author and TV presenter and Russell Kane, another comedian and actor. Ultimately through the use of a variety of strategies they achieved success, at least in the short-term, with 11 of the pupils. Only time will tell whether these teenagers become long-term passionate readers.

What was interesting were the initial attitudes of these teenagers, who said things like ‘I don’t do reading’, ‘Reading is boring’ and that books are not relevant to their lives. They claim not to have time to read and would prefer to be on Facebook, or watch films on Netflix, TV or YouTube. If they need to know something they Google it on their phones. They like a ‘quick fix’ to any questions they have. A shot of the pupils at the end of the school day in the school grounds showed most of them on their phones. One pupil said, ‘I don’t think I have the attention span to get into the book and understand the character’.

During the documentary reference was made to various pieces of research, clearly selected for the purposes of the documentary and unsubstantiated in any way, but nevertheless interesting and no doubt it would be possible to check on them. The following statements were made:

  • British schools’ teenagers don’t like to read. Reading novels has fallen out of fashion all over the country.
  • Year 10 (14 & 15 years old) reading rates have declined
  • The percentage of 11-17 year olds who don’t read at all has more than doubled in recent years from 13 to 27%
  • Research shows that teenagers who read for the joy of it are much more likely to get a better job as adults.
  • Research shows that teenagers who spend just an hour a day playing on their screens can drop the equivalent of two GCSEs
  • Parents play an important role. Primary school children who are read to every day are more likely to enjoy reading into adult life.
  • Most teenagers spend 4 hours a day online which is double the time of 10 years ago.
  • Reading is one of the best ways to strengthen empathy. Some American psychologists believe that reading literary fiction helps us recognise other people’s emotions and understand how they feel.

Iain McGilchrist has also talked about how children are losing the ability to empathise – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2015/03/27/the-divided-brain-are-we-actually-alive-iain-mcgilchrist/.

The documentary did not at any time suggest that the problem lay with technology; rather it attempted to make the case for the valuable learning that can come from reading novels. One thing that did come out of the programme is that there is little point in having the whole class read the same book, since each child/teenager has their own unique personality, skills and interests. What was not discussed was why the teenagers were asked to read a hard copy of the same book. If they had used technology (Kindle, phone etc.) they could each have read a book of their choice, but presumably this approach would not fit with the school’s assessment constraints!

Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education was published early this year.  I bought the book soon after it was published but have only this summer got round to reading it.
cover

It’s a pity that this is not an open access e-book, which might have received more immediate attention and discussion. I think it does deserve to be discussed since Knox questions whether MOOCs really have been revolutionary and disruptive saying in the introduction,

‘MOOCs have emerged simply as the latest in a long and established line of educational endeavours premised on the nurturing and refinement of a particular kind of human being: one that thinks in a reasoned way; has a natural capacity for independence; and which shares these exclusive traits with all others assumed to be of the same species’(p.2).

He argues that despite the differences between xMOOCs and cMOOCs, ultimately they both promote humanist assumptions of universalism, essentialism, autonomy and transcendental subjectivity.

The problems with these assumptions are explored through Chapters 2, 3, 4 and 5 of the book, in which he develops the following arguments.

The assumption of a universal humanist subject:

  • has been at the heart of the design of MOOCs which emanate from the West, thus resulting in a new form of colonialism, where instead of acquiring geographical territory MOOCs acquire data. Knox calls this ‘data colonialism’ and uses visualisations of the globe and global barriers, with visualisations of global enrolment numbers in MOOCs to support this view.
  • homogenises MOOC participation and ‘[…] forbids internal difference as well as societal difference, and acts to continually close down the possibilities for alternative, immanent relations with the richness and diversity of the world.’ (p.212)

Knox argues that participation in MOOCs is measured through visible activity, retention and completion rates and ‘lurking’ or associated non-visible activity (i.e. difference) is seen as problematic. This view is supported by the number of research outputs that focus on completion and retention rates. ‘[…] ‘lurking’ is made visible only in the form of a negative response to the specific data capture and quantification strategy’ (p.101). Rather than embrace the diversity of MOOC participants a lot of research has focused on categorising participants. Knox sees the attempt to quantify participation as another colonisation practice.

He also sees the promotion of personal learning networks (PLNs) as a promotion of a focus on the individual humanist subject, which seems to be at odds with the open, sharing, networked learning that MOOCs, particularly cMOOCs, aspire to.

‘[…] the PLN seems to reinforce the idea of MOOC education as a self-determining and self-centred endeavour.‘ (p.115)

  • privileges bounded and located place and face-to-face teaching and learning, maintaining institutional elitism and inequality and promoting in/out boundaries and campus envy. Knox uses the very successful MOOC, Modern and Contemporary American Poetry as an example of a MOOC which uses the campus–based location to promote a sense of place.
  • fails to take account of ‘the complex relations between human action and algorithmic execution, resulting in an impoverished grasp of the way MOOC spaces are enacted’ (p.213) and the influence they can have on each other, how they ‘contaminate’ each other. To support this argument he uses examples from the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC (EDCMOOC) which with colleagues from Edinburgh University he helped to design and deliver in partnership with Coursera. He writes of how learning spaces in this MOOC were not stable but produced through movement and transition and ‘the entanglement of human users and non-human algorithms which create contaminated spatial orderings’ (p. 178).

Given my own involvement in MOOCs and MOOC research since 2008 I can see lots of parallels between Knox’s work and my own research. The notion of MOOCs promoting a new form of Western colonialism makes sense to me, as does an ethos of ‘tyranny of participation’ which I first started to think about in 2007 after a discussion with Vivien Hodgson about the paper she was to present with Debra Ferreday at the 2008 Networked Learning Conference.

My research has also highlighted concerns with the homogenising tendency of MOOCs (Tschofen & Mackness, 2012; Mackness & Bell, 2015)

And from recent research with Frances Bell and Mariana Funes (Bell, Mackness & Funes, 2016) I know that social media algorithms can contaminate spatial orderings and that technology is not neutral.

Even the discussion that the ModPo MOOC’s promotion of a sense of place might result in a form of elitism seems a reasonable argument, but it was this argument that made me realise where I stand in relation to Jeremy Knox’s points of view.

I have been a participant in the ModPo MOOC twice and it stands out for me as one of the best and most stimulating MOOCs I have enrolled in. Having had this experience and looking back through Chapter 4 of the book – Housing the MOOC – I find I have 10 different notes in the margins stating that ‘I don’t agree’ or words to that effect. Whilst, when participating in the MOOC, I was aware that the Kelly Writer’s House (the physical space and place from which the ModPo MOOC was filmed) was inaccessible to me in terms of location, not for one minute did I experience this as exclusion. In fact it had the exact opposite effect. I thought that creating such a unique and ‘real’ but virtual sense of place greatly increased my involvement in and positive experience of the course. It was one of the elements of the MOOC that impressed me.

This means of course that in Jeremy Knox’s terms I must be invested in the humanist subject in relation to education. On thinking about this I realise that that is exactly what I am. I believe that first and foremost learning is a human endeavour, one that relates to issues of identity (Wenger, 1998) and a transformation of ‘being’ (Barnett, 2007; Freire, 1970). Currently I am learning ‘to be’ a researcher. This is turning out to be a very long on-going protracted process. I network, collaborate and engage with a wide range of people and technologies and am at least somewhat aware of the effects of algorithms; I know I am not an island. I am influenced by whatever is in my environment, just as whatever is in my environment is influenced by me.

But for me, learning is ultimately about me. I am unique, not in an arrogant sense, but because my experience of learning, the community, the environment, the technology is unique to me. It can be similar to someone else’s experience but not exactly the same. I think this is what Stephen Downes recognises in his work on personal learning networks and in his talk The MOOC of One.

There are paradoxes in the delivery of MOOCs which I think Jeremy Knox has been successful in uncovering. His book is a thought-provoking critique of humanist assumptions surrounding the design and delivery of MOOCs, which I think are well worth engaging with. His concerns related to homogenisation, the tyranny of participation and the influence of social media algorithms on social interaction and learning in MOOCs are very similar to my own.

If you are interested in MOOCs then I can recommend reading this book.

References

Barnett, R. (2007). A will to learn: Being a student in an age of uncertainty. Open University Press.

Bell, F., Mackness, J. & Funes, M. (2016). Participant association and emergent curriculum in a MOOC: Can the community be the curriculum? Research in Learning Technology.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course. Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Routledge

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Tschofen, C. & Mackness, J. (2011) Connectivism and Dimensions of Individual Experience. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning.

Wenger E. (1998) Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.

22nd August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (pm)

This is the last post in a series of posts in which I have shared the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world

Day 4 (am). Creativity, paradox and negation

The final session was a group question and answer session. Where appropriate I have included Iain’s answers in previous posts. In this post I am going to try and identify my own outstanding questions, or comment on ideas that I have not written about in previous posts.

the-fish-hotel-43031

Location of the course: The Fish Hotel, Broadway, The Cotswolds

Final reflections

Once again I found this a wonderful course – worth every penny. The location is beautiful, the accommodation and food really good, the participants wonderfully diverse, interesting and friendly, and Iain McGilchrist never fails to engage my attention. Last year for my evaluation of the course I wrote:

It was a great privilege to be able to spend time over four days listening and talking to Iain McGilchrist whose breadth of knowledge of science, history, literature, art, poetry and music is so impressive. It is rare to attend a course where the latest in scientific research, in this case into the functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is integrated so effortlessly with the words of William Wordsworth and the art of Claude Lorrain and much more. The course provided in depth information about the work of left and right brain hemispheres, whilst also allowing us time and space to reflect deeply on our views of the world and the implications of left hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, happiness and well being.

I haven’t changed my mind. It was well worth attending this course for the second time. Some of the content was familiar, so I was able to ‘sit back’ a bit and think more about what it means for me, rather than simply what was said.

Some ‘messages’ stand out.

I was struck by the number of times Iain mentioned ‘mindfulness’ as being a practice of open attention (not waiting for but waiting ‘on’) and worthy of spending time on. I don’t remember mindfulness being mentioned in this way last year, but maybe I wasn’t listening properly.

Listening seemed much more important to me this year than last year. I am very aware of the limits of what I know. In this state it seems even more important to listen, observe and reflect. Once again I was reminded that although I am not uncomfortable in a large group, for discussion I like a very small group, ideally made up of people who all value listening. I was struck by how skilled the professional coaches in our participant group were at this.

Ideas of complexity, uncertainty, multiplicity and learning to live with paradoxes, struck a strong chord with me. I wondered what Iain McGilchrist thinks of Deleuze and Guattari (two French Philosophers). I have never heard him mention them, so I suspect there is no meeting of minds there, although they both write about multiplicity. If this is the case, I would be interested to know why.

Similarly, Iain did not mention systems thinking which seems relevant to me.  I wonder if this is because, as we were told, any form of model or framework will necessarily direct the attention in a particular way and so we have to consider what using a given model might prevent us from seeing.

But of course there’s a limit to what can be covered. The Master and his Emissary is amazing in its breadth and depth, but as Iain told us, when he started to write what he thought would be his next book, ‘The Porcupine is a Monkey’ , he found that he wanted to explore many of the ideas in the Master and his Emissary in more depth, so ended up writing a different book! That was both interesting and disappointing to hear. I am really keen to know more about his thoughts on education, which I think is going to be covered in The Porcupine is a Monkey if and when it gets written. I hope this also includes reference to learning theories and education research, which as yet I haven’t heard Iain mention, but maybe I have missed it.

As is often the case, it is the informal discussions that can be so interesting. I have already mentioned in one of the posts in this series a discussion about conceptual art which I found very thought provoking. We also had a discussion about whether writing should be easily accessible. Iain wants his book to reach a wider audience, which it is beginning to do. I believe it has sold 80, 000 copies. He is aware that to reach a wider audience he may have to present it in more accessible formats, but will this mean losing the richness that the detail of the book provides? He talked about how hard writing the Master and his Emissary had been (I wrote about this last year) and how impenetrable some philosophers’ writings are. I asked him whether this is because they themselves do not truly understand the ideas they are trying to communicate. His answer was ‘No’, the obscurity of the writing is deliberate. These philosophers believe that we should have to work hard to access and understand difficult ideas. This makes me think again about what we should expect from learning in the 21st century.

Finally, Iain left us with a request. He asked us to see if we could think of examples of paradoxical outcomes of left hemisphere thinking and if we can, then email them to him. His email address is on his brand new website .

Some references

Peter Checkland. Soft Systems Methodology 

Deleuze, Gilles, Guaattari, F. A Thousand Plateaus (1987). University of Minnesota Press. doi:10.1017/CCO9780511753657.008

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

22nd August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 4 (am)

This is the seventh in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

Day 3 (pm). Trying to be sane in an insane world

 

Negative capability (Creativity and the role that paradox and negation inevitably play in it)

We discussed the power of ‘No’ on last year’s course and looking back at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to write a coherent post. Looking at this year’s notes I can see that I am going to have the same problem. I am going to try and resolve this problem by saying ‘No’ to a lot of the detail of what Iain said and just stick with the key messages. Hopefully we will be able to refer to his forthcoming books for the detail.

Iain started this session by reminding us of the inhibitory effects of the hemispheres. If one hemisphere is damaged it promotes something in the other. In particular the frontal lobes achieve what they achieve through inhibition (p.91-92, The Master and his Emissary). The brain is a hugely complicated feedback system. ‘It’s not that we have free will, but that we have free won’t’. Saying ‘No’ may be the origin of what comes into being. Saying ‘No’ comes before saying ‘Yes’. Negation is a creative act. Division is part of creation. All is one and all is not one and out of this conjunction comes everything.

As in last year’s course, Iain referenced the Kabbalah to discuss the role of negation and division in creation. In the Kabbalah creation myth there are three phases.

  1. The first creative act is withdrawal, to make a space in which there can be anything, i.e. to attend to the right hemisphere.
  2. The second phase is the shattering of the vessels. Ten vessels of light created in the first phase cannot contain the force of life within them and shatter. This relates to the unpacking, unfolding and fragmenting role of the left hemisphere.
  3. The third phase is repair, when the pieces are gathered and things come into being, which relates to reconstitution by the right hemisphere.

This myth serves to illustrate how something comes from nothing and how ‘no’ thing is not the complete absence of anything; it has a positive force.

The act of creation is to remove what is obscuring the life force, to clear things away, to uncover, to ‘dis’ cover, to find ‘something that was there, but required liberation into being’ (p.230, The Master and his Emissary), just as a sculptor allows a statue to come into being by clearing away the stone.

MichelangeloAwakeningSlave

Source of image. Michelangelo – unfinished sculpture.

Negation is often an opening up. Even the most negative thing in life can have a positive effect. Iain only mentioned his personal experience of depression in passing in this year’s course, but this short video covers his thoughts about the pursuit of happiness and the potential positive effects of negative experience.

Not doing things is important, just as not saying things is important. Speech is silver, but silence is golden. We lose ourselves to find ourselves. The more we know the less we know, but not knowing can be more fruitful than knowing, although not knowing is not the same as ignorance.

We need both precision and vagueness, restriction and openness. Sometimes restriction is freedom. Boundaries are important in life. They should be robust but not completely impermeable, not too close but not too far. Everything in life is better with boundaries. The best things that exist are always on/off. We need both asymmetry and symmetry. We need both hemispheres, but we only see through particular frameworks and we don’t find what we were not expecting to see.

It is very hard to become aware of what you are not aware. We draw on the natural world as a model but we increasingly see the natural world from the left hemisphere’s perspective. All models are wrong, but some are more wrong than others.

Personal reflection

I have been reflecting on what saying ‘No’ means to me. If I lived in the city it could mean saying ‘No’ to the bright lights and moving to the country, but I am fortunate that I live in beautiful South Lakeland (Cumbria, UK) and am surrounded by nature in all its glory. Alternatively even living here it could mean disconnecting from all things technological (and more) as Susan Maushart did when she became concerned at how much of her children’s lives were governed by technological devices. Lots of these sorts of experiments are reported in the press, but very few are life-long changes.

For me saying ‘No’ is much more about clearing a space to allow for emergent learning, whatever that might be.

Recently I attended a course at Lancaster University about the materiality of nothing. I now realise how closely related Iain McGilchrist’s ideas are to the ideas discussed at the Lancaster seminar, but its interesting that conceptual art was used to illustrate the materiality of nothing. (See for example the post I wrote at that time – Letting go of control to create something our of nothing ).

What has been wonderful about this course is how I have been able to make many connections with my research and wider work, connections that are not immediately obvious, but are becoming more apparent as I learn more about Iain McGilchrist’s ideas.

Authors/people referred to during the session

B. Alan Wallace (2004). The Taboo of Subjectivity: Towards a New Science of Consciousness.

Barbara Arrowsmith-Young (2013). The Woman Who Changed Her Brain: How I Left My Learning Disability Behind and Other Stories of Cognitive Transformation.

Jakob Böhme. Notable ideas: The mystical being of the deity as the Ungrund (“unground”) or the ground without a ground.

Lewis Carroll (1872). Through the Looking Glass

John Kay (2010). Obliquity: Why our goals are best achieved indirectly. Profile Books

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Philip McCosker. Cambridge Theologian

Nassim Nicholas Taleb (2013). Antifragile: Things that Gain from Disorder.

Brad Warner (2013). There is no God and he is always with you. New World Library

William Wordsworth (1770 – 1850) Tintern Abbey

21st August 2016 pm – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (pm)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

Day 3 (am). Where can we go for truth?

 

Trying to be sane in an insane world (What can we do about the mess we are in? Answers on the back of a postcard please.)

This question was also asked on the course last year at the same stage in the course. This is the post I wrote then – 28-03-2015: Trying to be sane in and insane world.

Iain started this year’s session by reading David Whyte’s beautiful poem – The Winter of Listening. Despite that it was a summer day, it was easy for us to see the relevance of this poem not just to the topic, ‘Trying to be sane in an insane world’, but also to previous sessions in the course.

Winterof listening

The Winter of Listening
by David Whyte

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.

Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

Iain told us that he is a ‘hopeful pessimist’ and it was worth holding on to this as it turned out to be a ‘dark’ session, one that could easily leave you depressed.

For Iain, we have built a sick society, a WEIRD world (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic), where we are living a lie, where competition is more important than co-operation, and where we are seeing less and less of the world and are becoming more like machines. We are obsessed with making better machines rather than better people. We are not happier than when we were materially less well off. There are many kinds of truth and many points of view and there is strength in pluralism, but we are controlled and manipulated by the uniformity promoted by business, advertising and the like. Technology is not neutral. It is highly invasive and there is already evidence that shows that the impact of technology on children is a loss of intimacy and imagination. Teachers have noticed that children can no longer sustain attention, they lack empathy and have difficulties reading the human face, all consequences of left hemisphere dominance.

Iain has anecdotal evidence and has referenced research findings to support this pessimistic view of our Western society. Thinking further about this part of his session I have some sympathy with his view of technology, but technology is a broad brush term and maybe we need to be more specific. I would also like to see a bit more evidence for the observation about happiness and I would be interested to read the research on children being less imaginative and empathic these days.

Iain believes that invisible dogmas are even more dangerous than visible dogmas. Having and controlling has got us in this mess and now life is full of paradoxes. For example

  • In wanting a paperless technological environment we use more and more paper
  • In trying to improve education through dictating the curriculum we discourage free thinking
  • The overuse of antibiotics results in bacteria that we can’t control
  • In trying to protect our children we make them risk averse
  • In striving for equality we create inequality

As an aside, my current reading is Jeremy Knox’s book – Posthumanism and the Massive Open Online Course, in which he seems to agree with this last point. Knox believes that massive online courses are promoting a new form of colonialism and new forms of exclusion. I both agree and disagree. I think its people who exclude, not courses or technology, but that’s not to deny that exclusion can happen.

Iain gave us many more examples of these paradoxes.

Through his research and his book The Master and his Emissary, Iain suggests that we are approaching another dark age, when the balance between left hemisphere and right hemisphere is lost and the left hemisphere dominates. This has happened before (as written about in the second part of his book), but he thinks this time, because of our technological advances, we have too much power over nature.

So what should we do? Iain’s view is that we need a call to arms to effect cultural change; change from both the bottom up and the top down, change of the hearts and minds of people. But the left hemisphere has a stranglehold on the means of communication of the right hemisphere (p.374, The Master and his Emissary). It is hard to articulate the right hemisphere’s point of view.

Iain thinks we need to be more modest in our material demands (see William Ophuls’ books in the reference list); we need to know each other better, to be the change we want to see in others, and instead of fighting the existing paradigm, create a new one which renders the old one obsolete. Most of all we need to start with the education of our children. The future lies in our children. At this point Iain (by his own admission) went off on a passionate rant about what schools should be doing. Here are some of the things he said:

  • Introduce mindfulness as a spiritual exercise into the curriculum. Children should practise mindfulness every day.
  • Use cognitive behavioural therapy in schools to help children detect biases in their thinking. There should be at least one session a year.
  • Teach children to think critically, learning to see both sides of every question
  • Teach conflict resolution
  • Re-introduce learning by heart (e.g. poetry) and the mastering of skills
  • Promote embodied learning
  • Schools should be challenging but give children the freedom to think
  • Remove from the curriculum topics/subjects that the children can easily learn out of the classroom

Personal reflection

If we agree that the left hemisphere has become dominant, and Iain presents plenty of evidence to support this view, then I appreciate the difficulty of making the case for the right hemisphere’s view of the world through the left hemisphere. Iain quotes a lovely passage from I. Berlin on p.374 of the Master and his Emissary that seems to perfectly sum up the difficulty.

I wish to convey something immaterial and I have to use material means for it. I have to convey something which is inexpressible and I have to use expression. I have to convey, perhaps, something unconscious and I have to use conscious means. I know in advance that I shall not succeed, and therefore all I can do is to get nearer and nearer in some asymptotic approach; I do my best ….

I am in broad agreement with Iain’s arguments, but I wonder whether in having to fight the case for the right hemisphere, we sometimes give the left hemisphere an unfairly rough deal. Iain was at pains to point out that we definitely need the left hemisphere’s view of the world. We would not, as a civilization, have achieved much of what we have achieved without the left hemisphere. But it seemed on the course that a lot of our society’s problems were being placed squarely at the door of technological advance. On the one hand the problem is obvious; it can seem as though life isn’t real if we don’t record it (see my post on The One and the Many); we take photos of our meals in restaurants, we tweet the minutiae of our lives and so on. On the other hand advances in technology have made an enormous difference for the better to so many people’s lives. For example, children on the autism spectrum with right hemisphere damage can communicate through robots, and people across the world can gather in global networks and communities of practice to effect change through the affordances that technology can offer for networked cooperation and collaboration. So it is not all bad.

Like some of the other course participants, I don’t think we can go backwards. I agree that we may need to be more modest in our demands, but I don’t think it will work to ask people to go backwards. We need to feel that we are growing and progressing. As one participant said, we cannot un-know what we already know. So I do agree that perhaps the only way forward will be to render the existing paradigm obsolete and offer something with more hope, something that makes sense and that we will not be able to refuse.

In listening to Iain over this four day course and in writing these posts, it might seem that it was four days of doom and gloom. It was easy ‘hear’ and understand this message, and I know I wasn’t the only person to find this session depressing, but I didn’t find the course as a whole depressing. ‘Challenging’ and ‘stimulating’ are the words that come to mind.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Nicholas Carr (2011).  The Shallows: How the internet is changing the way we think, read, remember

Sue Gerhardt (2004). Why love matters: How affection shapes a baby’s brain.

Susan Greenfield (2015). Mind Change. How digital technologies are leaving their mark on our brains

See also this Guardian article

Nancy Kline (2002). Time to think. Listening to ignite the human mind.

Knox, J. (2016). Posthumanism and the MOOC: Contaminating the Subject of Global Education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Susan Maushart (2010) The Winter of our Disconnect: How one family pulled the plug and lived to tell/text/tweet the tale 

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press

Sherry Turkle (2015) Reclaiming Conversation. The power of talk in a digital age.

21st August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (am)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

 

Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:

Tagore

Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos

20th August 2016 pm – A 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 2 (pm)

This is the fourth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my first previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

 

The One and the Many (Thoughts about the puzzle of unity versus multiplicity and what the brain can tell us about it).

Some see the universe as an unchanging unity, i.e. ‘the One’, but how would this account for the multiplicity of objects in the universe that are constantly changing. How do we recognise sameness, stability and constancy across objects that change? What is the one unifying aspect behind the universe and everything? How is there unity with diversity?

Everything is connected. All is one, but also all is many, but not in an additive way. Heraclitus used the lyre and the bow to show that although they have a connection, this connection, through a tension of opposites, results in something completely different. Hegel believed that all things we encounter are an equilibrium of opposing tendencies from which something new emerges.

‘All things come out of the one, and the one out of all things.’ (Heraclitus, 500 BC)

171-The+Elephant

In relation to the hemispheres of the brain, there are two kinds of parts. Both the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere see parts, but they see and aggregate them differently. The left hemisphere sees fragments, non-unique referents, which it classifies into abstract categories. The right hemisphere sees uniqueness and individuality. It can distinguish specific examples within a category, ‘individuals of all kinds, places as well as faces’ (p.51 The Master and his Emissary).

‘…it is precisely its capacity for holistic processing that enables the right hemisphere to recognise individuals. Individuals are, after all, Gestalt wholes: that face, that voice, that gait, that sheer ‘quiddity’ of the person or thing, defying analysis into parts.’

The right hemisphere focuses on ‘this ness’, wholeness, quiddity, appreciation of things just as they are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins did in his poem ‘As Kingfishers Catch Fire’.

Kingfisher's catch fire

Source of image

 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame; 

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells 

Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 

Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 

Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 

Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 

Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came. 

 

I say móre: the just man justices; 

Keeps grace: thát keeps all his goings graces; 

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is — 

Chríst — for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his 

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

 

‘…. creativity depends on the union of things that are also maintained separately’ (p.42, The Master and his Emissary’).

The problem is that in today’s world we are losing sight of ‘the One’ that can’t be grasped, pinned down, easily articulated. We live in a world where everything is recorded. There seems to be a common feeling that if it isn’t recorded it didn’t happen, it isn’t real and that we must record reality or it doesn’t exist. But a recording is a representation. It is the work of the left hemisphere. So recordings, representations, replicas are becoming reality whilst embodied experience of uniqueness and ‘the One’ is being downgraded. The story of Lieutenant Kijé was mentioned here as an illustration of how someone can cease to exist through a failing in recording (see further information in the list of references at the end of this post).

Every single experience we have alters our brain, so if we live most of our lives in a 2D world (e.g. online) we will lose the experience of uniqueness (the right brain’s view of the whole); we will only do what the machine does (Dreyfus – What computers can’t do).

The question of the One and the Many also relates to the self and whether we have no self, one self or many selves, or all these. Evidence from research into babies suggests that they experience the same things as their mothers, having a self that is both separate and not separate. Babies learn to hear their mother’s voice in the womb, and if read a story whilst in the womb, will respond to this story after birth.

Our selves are diffuse and shared by others; others help to make us who we are (see The Self Beyond Itself by Heidi Ravven). The South African greeting ‘Ubuntu’ is relevant here.

According to Michael Onyebuchi Eze, the core of Ubuntu can best be summarised as follows:

“ ‘A person is a person through other people’ strikes an affirmation of one’s humanity through recognition of an ‘other’ in his or her uniqueness and difference. It is a demand for a creative intersubjective formation in which the ‘other’ becomes a mirror (but only a mirror) for my subjectivity. This idealism suggests to us that humanity is not embedded in my person solely as an individual; my humanity is co-substantively bestowed upon the other and me. Humanity is a quality we owe to each other. We create each other and need to sustain this otherness creation. And if we belong to each other, we participate in our creations: we are because you are, and since you are, definitely I am. The ‘I am’ is not a rigid subject, but a dynamic self-constitution dependent on this otherness creation of relation and distance”. 

And for Iain McGilchrist this relates to love. ‘Love is a pure attention to the existence of another’.

The self is a product of both hemispheres. The intrinsically, empathically inseparable from the world self and continuous sense of self is dependent on the right hemisphere. The objectified self, the self as an expression of will depends on the left hemisphere (p.87, The Master and his Emissary).

Personal reflection

There is something in this idea of the One and the Many that relates to my own work in networked online learning – some parallels that I sense are there but I am not yet able to fully articulate. Much of the demise of society was laid at the door of technology in this course, which was a bit hard to take for those of us whose work, which we consider to meaningful and worthwhile, makes extensive use of technology; although, to be fair, Iain made a point of telling us that he uses technology extensively too, but not Twitter. Twitter is an anathema to him

It seems to me that when learning in global online networks we are experiencing the one and the many. We are aware of ourselves as individuals in the network and of many other individuals in the network, but we also know that it is impossible to see the whole network. But is the whole network greater than the sum of the parts I wonder?

Iain talked about the relationship between the right hemisphere’s view of the world and uncertainty. In this digital age, an overload of fast changing information and uncertainty are ever present problems. We know that we have to live, learn and work in complex environments that we will never fully understand and will never be predictable. We know we have to self-organise and that to make our networks effective we have to be open and generous in sharing our work and learning. In my work this is what it means to live with complexity.

I can see a parallel here with the ‘chaotic, super abundant universe filled with a multiplicity of differential being’ that Iain talked about as the right hemisphere’s view of the world. But I can also see the paradox that in my work and research I have been exploring complexity as it relates to global open online networking afforded by technology.

On reflection, it would have been interesting to discuss the ways in which technology can (if it can), rather than can’t, promote right hemisphere thinking.

Authors/people referred to during the session

Matthew Crawford (2015). The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction Bergson 

Henri Bergson (1912). Bergson Introduction to metaphysics

Hubert Dreyfus (1972). What computers can’t do.

The Dunning-Kruger effect – The more you know the less you think you know

William James (1909). A Pluralistic Universe

Anthony King (2013). The Blunders of our Governments

Heidi Ravven (2013). The Self Beyond Itself: An Alternative History of Ethics, the New Brain Sciences, and the Myth of Free Will. The New Press.