Left and Right Hemisphere Approaches to education

Having returned from the Field & Field conference on Exploring the Divided Brain with Iain McGilchrist, which took place in the Cotswolds, UK, between 2nd and 5th August 2021, I have spent some time reflecting on the workshop I ran, which was billed as follows:

Paradigm shift in education? What can we learn from Iain McGilchrist?

Many educators are concerned with the increasing instrumentalism of our education systems, where students are thought of as future economic assets. There are also concerns about the almost exclusive focus on a ‘back-to-basics’, essentialist approach in our schools. Some are happy with the existing system, others call for more progressive, existentialist approaches, and/or the greater integration of values such as integrity, diversity, inclusivity, and compassion. Iain McGilchrist has said that our current thinking is increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere’s narrowly focussed way of attending to the world. He believes that nothing short of a paradigm shift will bring about the change needed to counter this dominance. 

In this session we will discuss some of the key themes that run through The Master and His Emissary, themes such as two ways of knowing, flow, embodiment, depth and breadth. Could these themes be used to bring about a paradigm shift in education, i.e., a shift towards the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world? In this workshop, we will explore if and how this could happen.

As always (this is the fifth Field & Field conference I have attended) I found the conference completely exhausting and overwhelming in the content that I now need to process. Knowing this I asked for my workshop to run on the very first day, when I thought I would be more likely to be alert! This has both positive and negative consequences. The positive is that I and others do have more energy at the beginning of the conference (this was important because what I asked participants to do was not easy), the negative is that participants haven’t had the chance to listen to Iain’s lectures and so bring that knowledge to bear on the task.

Overall, I think the workshop went as well as could be expected, given the limited time we had (about an hour and a quarter) and the working space I was allocated, which was called the Piano Lounge. This was effectively the hotel lobby, so we had to compete with a lot of background noise, although the hotel did finally turn off the canned music on request. I assume I was given this space because I had said I would not be using technology (no PowerPoint presentation, just pencil, paper and talk) and there were other workshops using technology. The space wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t come anywhere near my worst experience of an allocated teaching space. Years ago, I was once timetabled to teach one group split into two small rooms at opposite ends of a long corridor. I reckon if you can pull that off you can run a session in any space 🙂

I did wonder what participants would make of the workshop. I knew it would be a challenge. As mentioned in my previous post on this topic, I hoped that we would be able to discuss whether it is possible to apply some of the themes that run though Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (themes relating to a right hemisphere approach to the world), to education.

But first we looked at a scenario (arias-school-experience-200721)  of what a 15 year old girl’s school experience might be like in 2030, if we continue to promote the left hemisphere dominated approach to education that many countries seem to be advocating. I named the girl Aria. To create this scenario, I adapted some work done by Neil Selwyn and colleagues (Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Selena Nemorin & Carlo Perrotta (2019): What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction, Learning, Media and Technology).

The question I asked the group was whether this scenario is realistic. If so how, if not, why not? The general consensus was that it is a recognisable scenario, although maybe not all the facts included in the scenario are found in one school, but rather across different schools. Selwyn et al. include five different vignettes in their paper. I used one because of time constraints,  but my workshop participants agreed that this scenario depicts a left hemisphere approach to education.

The reason for starting with this scenario was that I felt that if participants were to have any chance of reimagining an education experience that aligns more with the right hemisphere in the given time, they might need a story/narrative to help. We could imagine a real child’s experience rather than an abstract concept.

At this point I asked participants to consider what Aria’s school experience might be like if it was based on the themes,

  • Two kinds of knowing
  • Flow and betweenness
  • The ‘Other’
  • Depth and Breadth
  • Embodiment
  • Creativity
  • Qualification

All these themes reflect characteristics of the right hemisphere’s approach to the world. My idea was that participants would work in twos, threes, or fours, to discuss one of the themes and answer the question ‘What would Aria’s school experience be like if it was based on the theme you are working on?’ For each theme I gave participants some text taken from the Master and His Emissary, so that they could focus on what Iain McGilchrist has written about them. No group was given ‘Two Kinds of Knowing’, as I felt that in any discussion of education, no matter what the theme, the left hemisphere’s role should always be remembered. Although we were focussing on the right hemisphere’s way of working, my view is that we should not ignore or demonise the left hemisphere. Instead, we should aim to try and restore some balance.

This is the handout I provided on the themes (the-master-and-his-emissary-key-themes-150821). I wanted the focus to be on lessons from The Master and His Emissary, rather than on educational psychology and philosophy more broadly, although it is possible to see many parallels between some educational philosophers’ work and McGilchrist’s work.

Prior to the event, I tried to answer the question for each of the themes myself, to see whether it was achievable in the time and how hard a task I was setting. A result of this was that, against my better judgement, I decided to provide a worked example ( on the theme of imagination), as a sort of prop (advance organiser), to help people get going. This is the example of how I approached the task – see the-master-and-his-emissary-imagination-120821-1

I was well aware that there are many possible ways to approach this task and of the disadvantages of providing a worked example. I was also aware of the irony of retreating to this left hemisphere approach, but I didn’t want anyone to be defeated by the task and ultimately most participants ignored this example. Only one group produced something similar. Another group decided that a better theme, which would incorporate all these themes, would be health. In fact, each group interpreted the task differently as you would expect.

So, was the workshop a success? One participant told me it was hard. Another how much she had enjoyed it. Another that his group dynamic didn’t work for him. I wonder whether that related to left and right hemisphere approaches. For me, the ideal would have been a longer workshop in a quiet space, or a series of workshops with time to dig deep into this. Nevertheless, there was loads of discussion between the 16 participants, so much so that we ran over by 10 minutes and everyone was fully engaged and fully on task for the entire workshop. If they also went away with new thoughts and questions, for me that counts as a success.

What did intrigue me though is how difficult it is to suppress the left hemisphere. I asked participants to try and think completely outside the box, and not to consider the constraints that would be imposed by the current education system if a more right hemisphere approach was proposed, but it really is difficult to escape the left hemisphere.

Any thoughts on any of this by any readers of this post, would be most welcome.

Source of image: https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

8 thoughts on “Left and Right Hemisphere Approaches to education

  1. richardbategmxcom October 12, 2021 / 10:41 pm

    Are you taking this too intensely?

    Sent using the mobile mail app

  2. Lisa M Lane October 13, 2021 / 1:01 am

    “Nevertheless, there was loads of discussion between the 16 participants, so much so that we ran over by 10 minutes and everyone was fully engaged and fully on task for the entire workshop.” <– SUCCESS

    I can't imagine having to put up with lobby noise while trying to do this. It requires careful thinking.

    Not sure what Richardbategmxcom means, above, but you are analyzing it exactly as I (or any teacher) would. I found it enlightening, and yes, there is irony in what you had to do. It's just like when I have very little time, the tendency is to lecture. Real thinking, interaction, and sharing takes time, and quiet space.

  3. Bruno Annetta October 14, 2021 / 6:38 am

    Thanks for the summary! My take on this is as follows: A right hemisphere approach to education would integrate both left and right hemisphere methods I.e. collaboration and integration. The challenge is identifying the best method for the task at hand. When new ideas, intention and vision are needed the right hem must be allowed to play and when a plan is to be enacted, then the left hemisphere logistics and workshop is needed. One would be moving back and forth from left to right hem constantly so as to allow the ‘thing’ we create to evolve.

  4. jennymackness October 14, 2021 / 11:44 am

    @ Richard Bate – Hello Rick. Your comment made me laugh. I didn’t feel particularly intense when writing this post, but I was still feeling very tired after the conference, which was exhausting. Maybe that was it, more than intensity 🙂

  5. jennymackness October 14, 2021 / 11:48 am

    Lisa – thanks for your comment. I think you hit the nail on the head with this sentence – “Real thinking, interaction, and sharing takes time, and quiet space”. Maybe that’s why I felt slightly dissatisfied with the workshop (not what the participants did, but what I did). I also think that a curriculum that was designed from a more right hemisphere perspective would have to have more quiet space built into it.

  6. jennymackness October 14, 2021 / 11:54 am

    Thanks Bruno. I think you are absolutely right when you that “A right hemisphere approach to education would integrate both left and right hemisphere methods I.e. collaboration and integration. Iain McGilchrist says, i.e. that the right hemisphere can incorporate the working of the left hemisphere, but that the left hemisphere cannot incorporate the right hemisphere. It can only see from its own perspective. I think we acknowledged this in the workshop by recognising that there are two ways of knowing and we need them both.

    But we also agreed that the left hemisphere dominates and somehow we need to be able to suppress the left hemisphere to see just what the right hemisphere can offer. As I mentioned in the post, this is surprisingly difficult. But ultimately we need them to be in balance, with the right hemisphere as the Master and the left hemisphere as the Emissary.

  7. jennymackness October 18, 2021 / 10:13 am

    I am posting this comment on behalf of Roy Williams, who sent it to me on email in response to the handout, linked to in this post, which refers to two kinds of knowing:


    The left hemisphere’s knowing: the known or familiar, the re-presented, fixed and certain, concerned with non-living, man-made objects, and repeatable findings. Context is irrelevant.

    The right hemisphere’s knowing: the new, concerned with the living, and uniquely personal. Always changing, embodied, intuitive, open to metaphor, uncertainty, ambiguity, paradox, alternative perspectives.

    From: The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain, McGilchrist.


    Roy’s comment:

    It strikes me that (Western) society has been dominated by left hemisphere epistemology for far too long, and we are urgently required to shift to a much more right hemisphere epistemology ASAP …

    So …

    One of the fundamental challenges in human communities is how communities are formed. The way communities are formed, quite naturally, determines the ways those communities operate, the way they treat members of the community, the way they treat the environment around them, and the way they ‘make their living’ – in the broadest sense of that term.

    In other words, the way communities are formed, the basis, the mechanism of forming communities, their foundation, is not a trivial matter. It affects everything.

    Conversely, living alone, choosing to live ‘outside’ communities is, in principle, a dead end.

    So we have to commit ourselves to a particular mechanism, a particular value system, a particular social praxis, a particular notion of agency, in order to ‘make a living’.

    For some time, two dominant modes of forming communities have fought for larger and larger, and eventually global, dominance: one based on individual rights, the other based on personal responsibility.

    The model based on ‘individual rights’ (which can justifiably be called the ‘Western’ model – and that is not a complement), has delivered enough competitive power and unequal wealth to convince many people that it is the best (or even the only) game in town. Until now …

    It works like this: agency and power are ascribed to ‘individuals’, who are entitled to ‘self-evident’ rights, which they can exercise in their ‘individual’ actions. The logical extrapolation of this social praxis is a value system which is atomised and fractured into ‘autonomous’ agents, who can accumulate unlimited ‘individual’ wealth or power, and are celebrated – they become “celebrities”- at the apogee of this value system.

    They have, in principle, no connection to (let alone responsibility for) anyone else. They are entirely independent of context; the perfect ‘commodities’. They live in Margaret Thatcher’s nightmare world in which “there is no such thing as society”(locally or globally). The mechanism for the production of the ‘individual’ (as a commodity) is exactly the same as the mechanism for the production of the more general social construct, commodities: – stripping out historical and social context, and – as far as possible – subjectivity too.

    This is a process which results in a society in which people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing. Anything that happens beyond the boundaries of the rights-based individual is seen as an irrelevant (economic and ecological) externality, or even just as unavoidable collateral damage.

    The business of such a ‘Western’ community is seen as highly, or even totally ‘objective’.

    On the other hand, communities can be produced by a process in which personal responsibility (rather than individual rights) is core. In this case agency is not confined to mythical ‘individuals’ who apparently have sole and autonomous agency and responsibility for all that they do. Agency and responsibility is, instead, shared between specific people (acting as subjects within specific communities) and their historical and social contexts.

    Community, in this case, is not competitive but rather collaborative, and is based on shared values, goods and services, and is not confined to ‘prices’ in the market place, even though it is likely to be fully aware of market value systems too. In this model, everybody is considered to have responsibilities for both themselves and other people in their community – (and ultimately the global community). There are no externalities, and any collateral damage is a tragedy. It is at its core ecologically based.

    The difference between a system based on (universal) individual rights and one based on (universal) personal responsibility – in which rights are earned
    – and can be withdrawn – is not to be found in the use of money, but in the practice, the all encompassing practice of commoditisation – the abstraction from social and historical context.

    Shifting from individual rights to personal responsibility is difficult, particularly in societies in which so much social (and legal) practice and ‘value’ is embedded in individual rights (from the UN Declaration of Human Rights onwards).

    It is possible to repurpose, upcycle, and eventually even transform many of the instruments of the financial marketplace to serve the public good more, and the so-called ‘free’ market place less, and rebuild community- based values – hopefully before the ‘externalities’ of the consequences of what Robin Cook (then UK Secretary of State) referred to in his resignation speech in Parliament as ‘feral capitalism’ (or unbridled commoditisation), delivers the apocalypse of run-away global warming.

  8. jennymackness October 18, 2021 / 10:25 am

    A big thank you Roy, for such an interesting comment. I am always fascinated by how McGilchrist’s thinking and work can resonate on so many levels, with so many different people in such diverse contexts.

    What you say, makes sense to me. The notion of community has cropped up on a few McGilchrist courses/conferences that I have attended, often with the idea that living in smaller communities, which would probably foster personal responsibility, would/could lead to happier, healthier lives and a healthier planet. Often cited in relation to this is Dunbar’s number and I am now reminded of Howard Rheingold’s work on co-operation literacy, which I think must also be relevant.

    The move from a model based on individual rights to one based on personal responsibility, would seem to me to require a paradigm shift. One of the things that has come out of this year’s McGilchrist conference for me is to puzzle over how paradigm shifts come about, especially when we now live in a world that is globally interconnected. It all seems like such an enormous uphill task.

    Thank you Roy.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s