The Divided Brain: A four day course with Iain McGilchrist

Monday 23rd March pm

This is my final post in a series of posts I have written following a four-day course with Iain McGilchrist.  Details of the course, which will run again next year can be found on the Field & Field website.

Here are links to my previous posts:

Screen Shot 2015-03-29 at 13.36.32Source of image: RSA Animate Video

Final Thoughts

The final session with Iain McGilchrist was an open question and answer session. This last post about this fantastic course, allows me the opportunity to write about three things.

  1. Iain’s writing process. We asked him to share this with us and he kindly did, but in a previous session
  2. The possible implications of his work for education
  3. My own final thoughts

Iain McGilchrist’s writing process.

It took Iain 20 years to research and write his now acclaimed book….

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

… which has been the subject of this four day course. He told us that he finds writing a hugely difficult process. He told us that he is a very slow reader, having to regularly stop and mull over sentences or needing to read aloud. After his research and when he was ready to start writing ‘The Master and His Emissary’, he found he had writer’s block. He just couldn’t seem to get going and couldn’t understand why he was finding it so difficult. He tried various strategies, one being that he wrote all the themes/topics of the book on separate cards, laid them on the floor and tried to work out how to organise and connect them so that the links would be coherent. That approach didn’t work, but it did lead him to write a 1236 page draft outline for the book! Ultimately a good friend read the draft and helped him to shape the book. For an example of the beautiful writing this led to, I can recommend reading two paragraphs from pages 230 and 231 of his book starting at:

The feeling we have of experience happening – that even if we stop doing anything and just sit and stare, time is still passing, our bodies are changing, our senses are picking up sights and sounds, smells and tactile sensations, and so on – is an expression of the fact that life comes to us. …..

and finishing with the sentence…

Similarly there is ‘whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves’, but ‘whatever it is that exists’ only comes to be what it is as it finds out in the encounter with ourselves what it is, and we only find out and make ourselves what we are in our encounter with ‘whatever it is that exists’.

 (Iain McGilchrist, 2010, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press, p.230-231).

I have selected these two paragraphs to quote, not only for the beauty of the writing, but also because Iain told us that this was the only part of the book that he had no difficulty writing. He got up one morning and it just flowed out of him.

The Divided Brain. Implications for Education

Another question put to Iain was what were his thoughts about the implications of his work for theories of learning and pedagogies in use. He did not want to talk about theory, but instead talked about the need to trust teachers to know. We can’t have a fail/safe system, so we should make it easier to get rid of poor teachers and allow good teachers the freedom to get on with the job.

In terms of the curriculum he thinks that in the past it has been either too broad or too narrow. We should be teaching ways of thinking and being. This is what the curriculum should focus on. Students should experience a demanding curriculum (and students usually do rise to expectations), through which they learn how to think. Subjects which can be experienced and learned outside the education system should be removed from the curriculum. The focus should be on subjects that teach us how to think and ‘be’. Subjects such as philosophy, languages, music and the arts are important.

Having had a long career in teaching, all this makes sense to me.

My final thoughts

I have found the writing up of these notes in a series of blog posts, extremely helpful. The notes are almost exactly as I wrote them during the four day course. Additions have been made where I have had to go and look something up that I have not understood either because my notes were insufficient, or simply because it was new to me. But I have not added much of my own interpretation. I am not ready to do that yet. I am still processing the enormous breadth of information and ideas I was introduced to over the four days. As one of the course participants said, it is rare to have the opportunity to enter into in-depth discussion with such a knowledgeable and wise man as Iain MacGilchrist.

My concern about these notes/blog posts is that they are necessarily my selection. What was it that I did not ‘hear’, how much did I miss, how much was I simply not ready for? I would not like anyone reading these blog posts to think that they are a record of what Iain McGilchrist said. Rather they are what I think he said.

I think it would be fair to say that this is the best course I have been on for many years. For me a measure of a good course is what I come away with. While I was there I enjoyed the beautiful location in the Cotswolds, UK, the excellent accommodation and food, the warm and friendly course participants and the way in which the course leaders were open to allowing us, the participants, to determine what we wanted to discuss and how we wanted to spend our time. But I have come away with so much more, not least a very long reading list!

I have already signed up to go on the course again next year. It will run in the same location between the 19th and 22nd August 2016. See the Field & Field website – and of course it is open to anyone who can get to the UK. We had one participant from Amsterdam and Iain himself had to drive 11 hours from the Isle of Skye to be with us.

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