I have recently been exploring Iain McGilchrist’s ground-breaking work on the divided brain (see The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World), with a view to learning more about the implications of this work for education.
This interest was sparked by hearing McGilchrist say, on a course I attended earlier this year (see Field & Field website), that there are no static and separate things, but instead there are relationships and patterns. I wrote about this at the time – see (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/there-are-no-things-there-are-patterns/). Even though the word ‘education’ does not appear in the index of McGilchrist’s remarkable book, how can the idea of ‘there are no things’ not have implications for education?
At the end of August, I received a number of comments on my blog from Gary Goldberg, with many lines of thought and threads to follow. Central amongst these was the idea that edusemiotics is relevant to an exploration of the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education.
This is an area completely new to me and having started to explore it, I find there is an extensive body of scholarly work associated with it. It will take me a while to get to grips with this and I do not intend to try and cover it here. Instead, I will share my initial understanding of what is edusemiotics and how it might relate to McGilchrist’s work. I will also mention Stephen Downes’ work on connectivism, since this is a new learning theory which seems pertinent here.
Semiotics is the study of signs, such as in body language, rituals, linguistics, media and advertising. Edusemiotics is the study of signs + learning theory + education. It is a process which draws on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (semiology) and Charles Sander Peirce (semiotics) to defy Cartesian substance dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s work on signs is also significant here, but I have yet to follow this up.
Edusemiotics takes a holistic approach to education, decrying fragmentation and subject/object dualism. It posits that since we use signs to interact with the world, then it follows that signs shape our experience, and human experience is an interpretive structure mediated by signs. Everything is in relation to everything else. ‘As signs connect and become transformed in ever-changing contexts, new signs are created as part of an ongoing open-ended process of interpretation, growth and development.’ (Semetsky & Stables, 2014, p.10).
The edusemiotics argument is that if knowledge is constructed through our ongoing interaction with signs and the world, then knowledge cannot be out there waiting to be found; education must be a process of continuous inquiry; it cannot be reduced to right or wrong answers. A priori learning objectives, measurement and assessment make no sense from this perspective.
An edusemiotics approach to education therefore focuses on significance and meaning rather than ‘true facts’ and content. It is a process and is about interactions and relations ‘between students and teachers, between people and their environments, between ourselves and others, and between elements of that which is to be learned, understood through various relational perspectives’ (Deely & Semetsky, 2017).
The presence of paradox is also a distinguishing feature of edusemiotics. Iain McGilchrist has a lot to say about paradox (see p. 137-140, The Master and his Emissary). For example on p.134 of his book he writes:
‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis. .. This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge comes into being.’
Related to this is Charles Sander Peirce’s work on vagueness and intrinsic uncertainty, although McGilchrist does not reference Peirce in his book. (Again, I have only, as yet, touched on Peirce’s ideas).
The significance of paradox is related to the question of fixity. As McGilchrist says, if there are no things and everything is uncertain and changing, at what point can you say you know something; at what point can a few grains of sand be described as a heap of sand and which grain of sand makes the difference? I have written about this before (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/exploring-the-divided-brain-time-space-and-reality/). This of course relates to our understanding of the structure of reality in relation to time, but more importantly to our understanding that everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary).
Deely & Semetsky (2017, p.209) have written that:
The holistic perspective taken by edusemiotics entails several distinctive characteristics including:
- the relational ethics;
- the role of experience as exceeding its ‘private’ dimension;
- emphasis on interpretations surpassing factual ‘evidence’;
- a conception of language understood broadly in terms of dynamic structures related to the regimes of signs exceeding linguistic representations; embodied cognition;
- and the importance of self-formation as a lifelong process, thus having implications for education throughout the lifespan, inclusive of children and adults.
It is clear even from this brief introduction to edusemiotics, that whilst it does not explicitly inform McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, it does share some similar thinking, principally in the idea that ‘knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing’. Interestingly these are the words that Stephen Downes uses to explain connectivism (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653).
It also shares the right hemisphere’s ‘take’ on the nature of knowledge, that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘other’, not fixed or certain; it depends on ‘betweenness’ and the coming together of wholes. ‘Knowledge and perception and therefore experience, exist only in the relations ‘between’ things, i.e. in the knowledge of distinction and the experience of difference.’ (p. 94-97, The Master and his Emissary).
But from what I have read so far (admittedly little), edusemiotics neither goes as far as connectivism, which rejects cognitivist and constructivist theories of learning as being grounded in language and logic (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653), nor as far as McGilchrist who emphasises language as being rooted in the body (p.118).
In a representational system, you have a thing, a physical symbol, that stands in a one-to-one relationship with something: a bit of knowledge, an ‘understanding’, something that is learned, etc. In representational theories, we talk about the creation (‘making’ or ‘building’) and transferring of these bits of knowledge. This is understood as a process that parallels (or in unsophisticated theories, is) the creation and transferring of symbolic entities.
As Richard Parmentier writes: … representation lies at the heart of the sign processes
But Downes also writes:
Connectivism is not a representational theory. It does not postulate the existence of physical symbols standing in a representational relationship to bits of knowledge or understandings. Indeed, it denies that there are bits of knowledge or understanding, much less that they can be created, represented or transferred.
So edusemiotics, whilst sharing some of the pedagogical aspirations of connectivism, differs quite significantly in philosophy.
And McGilchrist writes of the left hemisphere as the hemisphere of representation, in which signs are substituted for experience (p.70). Whilst edusemiotics is discussed in terms of embodied cognition, I wonder about the tension between a discipline which studies signs, which are designed ‘to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of language as far as possible from the trammels of the body and of the physical world [they describe] (p.119 The Master and his Emissary), and a holistic, embodied approach to education.
It seems to me that edusemiotics shares some of the characteristics of connectivism and some of McGilchrist’s philosophical ideas, but the differences between edusemiotics and Downes’ and McGilchrist’s work are significant enough to ultimately affect philosophical and pedagogical approaches to education, making edusemiotics, connectivism and the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education incompatible.
- Deely, J., & Semetsky, I. (2017). Semiotics, edusemiotics and the culture of education. Educational Philosophy and Theory, 49(3), 207–219. http://doi.org/10.1080/00131857.2016.1190265
- Downes, S. (2007). What connectivism is. https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653
- Edusemiotics: Living and learning with signs – https://youtu.be/r5qwKYRkT8w
- McGilchrist, I. (2010). The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press
- Parmentier, R.J. (2015). Representation, Symbol, and Semiosis: Signs of a Scholarly Collaboration. Signs and Society, 3(1). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/full/10.1086/680470
- Semetsky, I., & Stables, A. (2014). Pedagogy and edusemiotics: Theoretical Challenges/Practical Opportunities. Sense Publishers.
Thanks to Gary Goldberg for prompting this post and to Matthias Melcher for discussion about the content.
Source of image: https://vanseodesign.com/web-design/semiotics-signifier-signified/