Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

The last two weeks of Exeter University’s FutureLearn open course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education were devoted to key changes that have taken place in the field of education over the last 20 or so years. These changes were discussed mostly in the context of the UK and Europe, but participants were encouraged to add their knowledge and perspectives from their own cultures and countries.

The 20th century in the UK saw the creation of universal education, through the growth of state funded education and the raising of the school leaving age from 12 to 16. Following the Education Act in 1944 state-funded secondary education was organised into three type of schools; grammar, technical and secondary modern. Allocation to these schools depended on children’s performance in the 11+ exam. Between 1944 and 1965 this tripartite system came to be increasingly criticised for being divisive and leading to educational inequalities. In response to these concerns in 1965 the Labour Government introduced comprehensive schools for secondary aged children, with the aim of providing an entitlement curriculum for all, without selection through financial considerations or attainment. I was at University at this time and remember having long discussions with people of my parents’ generation who were appalled that good grammar schools were being replaced by comprehensive schools. I myself, in my youth, was ‘fired up’ by the thought that comprehensive schools would ensure that any and every child would have an equal opportunity for a good education. Ultimately comprehensive schools were also discredited with comparisons being made between comprehensive and independent schools.

In the FutureLearn course this was illustrated through two YouTube videos – one of Radley College – an independent boys school, and the other of Faraday High School, a state comprehensive.

Radley College

Faraday High School

Personally, I did not think this was a fair comparison to make. My first teaching experience was in an inner city comprehensive and it was nothing like Faraday High School. Faraday High School would be a ‘bad’ school in any circumstances. Evidence from the video suggests that it had incompetent teachers and poor leadership. Nevertheless comprehensives like Faraday High School did exist such that the system failed and led to increasing concern with educational inequalities related to social class and ethnicity, which still exists today, together with additional equality and diversity concerns, such as gender and disability.

Over the past 20 to 30 years, much educational reform in the UK has focussed on a response to these equality and diversity concerns, raising research questions such as:

  • Do schools favour girls?
  • Do schools make the rich richer?
  • Does social class still matter?
  • Is the school system failing black children?

Whilst there are many research articles that deal with these questions separately, there is now increasing recognition of the importance of intersectionality, i.e. that the wide range of different inequalities intersect. For example, a student’s educational experience will not be affected by gender alone, but also by social class, ethnicity, sexuality, disability and so on.

Another question that was asked in these last two weeks of the course was:

    • Is the purpose of school reform to improve international economic competitiveness?

Surprisingly, to me, when course participants were asked this question 54% answered ‘Yes’. I myself had no hesitation in answering ‘No’. For me the first concern of education should always be the learners/students. We should ask ‘how can the system support each individual in realising his/her full potential?’ If this could be achieved then perhaps international economic competitiveness would follow or, better still, lead to educated thinking adults who would question whether international economic competitiveness should be the purpose of education. Some in the course considered my view unrealistic and utopian, since they argued that education is simply a means to an end.

So it seems that my view is not the majority view and certainly the UK’s approach to educational reform in recent years has been based on a belief in the importance of education for international economic competitiveness. Thus some recent key reforms, which are easy to recognise, have focussed on:

  • Accountability and performance management. This has led to increased testing and school inspections, performance based pay and funding, and increasing focus on management. This system rewards success and punishes failure.
  • Competition and markets – league tables, choice for parents, and the marginalisation of collaboration and collective effort. This approach to reform can already be seen to be leading to hierarchies and differences between socially advantaged and disadvantaged students. For example, some middle class parents are prepared to move house to ensure that they are in the catchment area for schools high in the league tables.
  • Increased control over schools and universities – inspections, audits, reviews and evaluations to measure educational performance, all supported by increased capacity to collect and store data. This necessarily neglects aspects of education that cannot be measured.

Most of these educational reforms are being adopted worldwide, and led to Pasi Salhlberg coining the term Global Education Reform Movement (GERM). Of this acronym-as-analogy, Fuller and Stevenson (2018) write that it:

worked perfectly to describe a phenomenon that Sahlberg identified as both spreading and destructive, behaving “like an epidemic that spreads and infects education systems through a virus” (Sahlberg, 2012, no page).

and that:

Sahlberg has identified the principal features of the GERM as increased standardisation, a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on core subjects/knowledge, the growth of high stakes accountability and the use of corporate management practices as the key features of the new orthodoxy.

In writing about how Finland views educational reform differently, Pasi Sahlberg questions whether this global education reform movement (GERM) is counter-productive.

In the UK, 30 years of these reforms has led to layer upon layer of change and a degree of complexity that could conceivably take at least another 30 years to unravel, even assuming that the ‘powers that be’ think this necessary. We now have a UK education system which has shifted to decentralisation with over 70 different types of schools, whilst at the same time increasing centralisation through the introduction of the national curriculum and increased testing. Derek Gillard (2018) in the conclusion to his report writes:

This history has focused on the long struggle to create for England’s children an education system which values them all. It has, in many ways, been a sad story.

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

Meanwhile, across the country, tens of thousands of teachers still care deeply about the well-being and prospects of their pupils, and go to work every morning determined, despite the often unhelpful interventions of politicians, to provide them with the best and most humane education they can.

References

Cohen, M. (2004) Knowledge and the gendered curriculum: the problematisation of girls’ achievement – http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/knowledge-and-the-gendered-curriculum-the-problematisation-of-girls-achieve

Courtney S. (2015) Mapping school types in England. Oxford Review of Education. 41(6):799-818. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/03054985.2015.1121141?needAccess=true

Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), corp creator. (2009) Gender and education : mythbusters : addressing gender and achievement : myths and realities https://dera.ioe.ac.uk/9095/

Equality and Human Rights Commission – https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en Is Britain Fairer? (2018) https://www.equalityhumanrights.com/en/publication-download/britain-fairer-2018

Fuller, K. and Stevenson, H. (2019) Global education reform: understanding the movement, Educational Review, 71:1, 1-4, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/00131911.2019.1532718

Gillard, D. (2018) Education in England: the history of our schools http://www.educationengland.org.uk/history/

Gillborn, D. and Mirza, H. S. (2000) Educational inequality: mapping race, class and gender – A synthesis of research evidence. Office for Standards in Education. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/319490152_EDUCATIONAL_INEQUALITY_MAPPING_RACE_CLASS_AND_GENDER_-_A_synthesis_of_research_evidence

Hall D. Grimaldi E, Gunter, H, Moller, J, Serpieri, R and Skedsmo G. (2016) Educational Reform and Modernisation in Europe: The Role of National Contexts in Mediating the New Public Management. European Educational Research Journal. 14(16):487-507. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1474904115615357

Hall D. and Gunter H. (2016) England. The Liberal State: Permanent Instability in the European Educational NPM Laboratory. In: Gunter H, Grimaldi, E, Hall D, and Serpieri, R, editors. (2016) New Public Management and the Reform of Education: European Lessons for Policy and Practice. London:Routledge. https://warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/ces/postgrads/teachfirst/1/november21/hall_and_gunter_-_the_liberal_state.pdf

Sahlberg, P. (2012). How GERM is infecting schools around the world? Retrieved from https://pasisahlberg.com/text-test/

Schleicher, A. (2018) Equity in Education. Breaking down barriers to social mobility http://www.oecd.org/education/equity-in-education-9789264073234-en.htm Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) website

The Fawcett Society https://www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/centenary-resources

The Gender and Education Association – http://www.genderandeducation.com/resources-2/

Ward, H. (2018) More male role models are needed in early years, say heads. TES https://www.tes.com/news/more-male-role-models-are-needed-early-years-say-heads

Weale, S. (2017) Sexual harassment ‘rife’ in schools but largely unreported, study says. The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/dec/12/sexual-harassment-rife-in-schools-but-largely-unreported-study-says

Women in STEM: how gender inequality could damage Scotland’s economy – https://theconversation.com/women-in-stem-how-gender-inequality-could-damage-scotlands-economy-107627

Testing Times in the Classroom: What is Education For?

If there is one thing that has come out of this second week in Exeter University’s FutureLearn MOOC –Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education –  it is that it is not easy to determine the purpose of education. Everyone has a view on this and these views appear to be culturally, contextually and experientially dependent. It has been interesting to read the perspectives of participants from different parts of the world.

Views on the purpose of education can also be time dependent. Just a quick look at what some notable philosophers, activists, artists, writers and scientists from the past and present have said confirms this, although some succeeded in making timeless statements which are as valid today as when they were said. For example, Albert Einstein’s  (1879-1955) comment that ‘Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of the mind to think’, resonated with a lot of participants.

Then we have the question of what the word ‘Education’ means and how is it different from ‘Schooling’. It’s interesting to try and clarify the similarities and differences between education and schooling.

Schools can come in for a bit of stick. For example in this video – I Sued the School System

Personally I think it’s too easy to lay the blame of a failing education system at the door of schools and teachers, whose hands are often tied by government policies. According to another video we have been shown this week, the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’.

I don’t think this video’s got it completely right either, although I’m not sure what completely right would be. Perhaps that’s what’s wrong with the video – the suggestion that they have the answer. I don’t think it’s as simple as finding one solution. But this led to an interesting discussion around some of the major philosophies of education, which were listed as:

To support this discussion we were led to a quiz on an external site which aimed to identify which philosophies we lean towards. I don’t know how reliable the quiz scores are, but I was surprised that social reconstructivism came out on top in my quiz score, whereas I would have expected it to be existentialism. What is abundantly clear is that here in the UK the national curriculum is an example of essentialism, so perhaps the problem is that we ‘simply have the wrong curriculum’, but I don’t believe there’s anything simple about it.

The question that we haven’t yet discussed is if so many of us recognise what is wrong with our education systems, why are they so difficult to change? What do we need for a paradigm shift?

Testing Times in the Classroom: Personal Educational Experiences and Influences

The first task for Week 2 of Exeter University’s Future Learn course: Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education is to reflect on our own personal educational experiences and to consider the impact of these experiences on our understanding of education. We have been asked to consider our earliest memories and what was effective, what wasn’t, and what could be changed.

I have a terrible memory and an especially poor early memory. I put this down to the trauma of having to leave India, where I was born, at the age of eight and return to a boarding school in the UK. I remember very little of my education or even life before the age of 11, when I was taken out of the boarding school and returned to live at home with my parents. Others in the course have mentioned how trauma can negatively impact on education.

But I do have memories of my schooling from after the age of eleven, and like others in the course I can remember specific teachers whose teaching had a life-long effect, notably my secondary school literature, geography and biology teachers. But if I reflect on my educational experiences there was one event that established my career trajectory, and three people who have been hugely influential in determining my educational philosophy.

The event

I went to University in the 60s, where, in the first year I studied zoology, chemistry and physiology. I don’t know how common my undergraduate experience was, but mine was not good. Most notably, not a single lecturer knew my name, or me, for my entire three years. With one exception, the event which shaped my life and career, my university education consisted of sitting in large lecture theatres, staring at the back of the lecturer who was writing on a blackboard and frantically trying to copy down everything he wrote ( I don’t remember having any female lecturers) – or – of sitting in solitary silence in the library writing essays. The exception was that in my first year the physiology lecturer ran group seminars in which we were required to research, prepare and give a presentation on a chosen topic to the rest of the group. My chosen topic was ‘pain’. This was a significant event for me because it was when I realised not only that I could teach, but also that I loved it. The rest, as they say, is history.

The people

At the time when I started my teaching career, behaviourism (think Skinner) and teaching machines were the thing. I got a high mark for a project in my teaching diploma year (following graduation) for writing a mini textbook on ecology in the form of a teaching machine, i.e. programmed learning with in-built feedback. It was a while before I began to be influenced by constructivism and social constructivism and theorists such as Dewey, Bruner, Piaget and Vygotsky. Whilst these theorists of course influenced my thinking and practice, they didn’t have such a huge effect on my thinking, my practice and educational philosophy as the following three people, all of whom I have met and in some capacity have worked with or alongside. I will try and explain why they had the impact they did.

  1. Etienne Wenger. I am an introvert and my natural tendency would be to work alone. Etienne’s work introduced me to social learning theory, the power of communities of practice and working collaboratively with others. He has also written extensively on learning and identity. It was Etienne who really brought home to me how learning is about learning who I am.
  2. Stephen Downes. Being an introvert, I am not a natural networker. Early in my career I was told I needed to improve my networking skills. Stephen’s work on the theory of connectivism was hugely influential in helping me to see that everything is connected, and that knowledge is in the network; learning is the ability to make connections and traverse the network.

Connectivism depends on certain principles which now form the basis of my philosophical and pedagogical approach to education.

Images from: https://prezi.com/owiih87ovrhc/the-ideals-and-reality-of-participating-in-a-mooc/

I have also been influenced by Stephen’s thinking that – To teach is to model and demonstrate. To learn is to practise and reflect.

  1. Iain McGilchrist. Iain has been the most recent influence on my thinking about education. By listening to Iain and following his work I have reconsidered educational issues such as depth and breadth, ways of knowing, embodied learning and truth. Perhaps one of his most significant ideas for education is that everything is in flow, always changing and that therefore we have to be able to live with uncertainty and ambiguity. Another is that knowledge comes through a relationship. Iain discusses this in terms of ‘betweenness’. To understand this we need to think about “a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy.” This approach to education would promote ‘both/and’ thinking.

Iain’s work has made me realise how important it is to learn how to think, and I have wondered why philosophy is not a stand-alone subject in the national curriculum for all ages.

I haven’t explicitly written about what was effective, what  wasn’t and what could be changed. I am hoping that this is self-explanatory in this post. This was a useful and enjoyable task to complete.

Challenges of 21st Century Education

 

This post above from Stephen Downes came into my inbox today, just as I have completed the first week of a FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom: Challenges of 21st Century Education. The three meta aspects of future learning that Stephen mentions – equity, student-centered learning and real-world learning have, to some extent, also been discussed in the first week of this course.

The course, which will run for 4 weeks and is open and free on the FutureLearn platform, is being offered by Exeter University, UK. I have enjoyed the first week, which is helping me revisit some of the long-term issues that have bedevilled education, and to consider the issues that prominent educators and educational organisations are currently discussing.

The title of the course ‘Testing Times in the Classroom’ refers, of course, both to the over-reliance on ‘testing’ in current education systems, but also to the challenges current education systems face. In this first introductory week questions that have been asked are:

  • Why does education need to change?
  • Is it really the case that education needs a complete overhaul?
  • What are the key issues facing education today?
  • What should we do with what we know? What next?
  • What key recommendations would we make to policy makers?
  • What ‘what if?’ questions should we ask?

There are about 20 people on the course, although now that it is the weekend more people are joining in and beginning to post comments, and who’s to say how many are observing. Only about half a dozen participants are visibly very active, so it’s difficult to draw any conclusions from Week 1, but I think it would be fair to say that the majority of this small number of participants share similar concerns about the future of education. In a nutshell these seem to cover issues such as:

Change in education systems has not kept up with the pace of change in the world at large. Education has been slow to adapt.

Education needs to be re-imagined. There are many changes we can make to the existing system, but we need a paradigm shift. We need a learning approach for our times.

The current state of education is, for the most part, viewed negatively and equated with an over-emphasis on testing, concerns about children/students’ health and well-being, concerns about the dominance of technology, insufficient funding, too much government bureaucracy and the lack of creativity and innovation in the curriculum.

The only positive advancements mentioned were open education, online education and the potential of AI to support certain aspects of education (this last point needs further discussion).

Near the end of this week’s activities we were asked to ‘Think of some (three) “What if …?” questions that could open up the possibilities for education to be radically different in the future.’ I found it surprisingly difficult to think of three questions that might lead to a paradigm shift. I ended up making the following post, but didn’t feel very satisfied with my response.

1. What if children designed their own curriculum? This is not so far-fetched as it might sound. The HighScope programme from way back in the 1970s required early years children to plan their own school day.
2. What if children/students self-assessed against given criteria? What might be the benefits and drawbacks of doing this?
3. What if success in learning was a measure of how a student/child thinks rather than what s/he knows?

Throughout this week I have felt that somehow the discussion has not got to the nitty gritty of the problem. Earlier this year I wrote a post ‘Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education’ My thinking hasn’t changed. To get beyond superficial (by superficial I mean ‘on the surface’) changes to the existing system, we will have to rethink education at a deeper level.

For example, it struck me this week that there were quite a few comments about preparing children/students for the world of work. Is this the purpose of education? Next week the course will focus on the purpose of education. Hopefully this will shed some light on what a paradigm shift in education might require.

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For future reference I have collated some of the resources that have been shared this week below.

Jo Earp (2017) Global Education: 21st Century Skills. Teacher

Rebecca Vukovic (2019) How will schooling change over the next 10 years. Teacher (Interview with Neil Selwyn)

Top 100 Education Blogs in 2019 for Educators and Teachers

The Education World Forum

Global Education Conversation 2019 from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Gavin Dykes from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Artificial intelligence & the future of education systems. Bernhard Schindlholzer

Kate Hodal (2018) Hundreds of millions of children in school but not learning. The Guardian

Global Survey Reveals Major Shift in Education Toward Do-It-Yourself Learning (2019) Pearson

The Divided Brain – the documentary video

Anyone who follows this blog will be aware that I follow the work of Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. This book explores how our brain interprets the world and suggests that the problems we are facing in today’s world stem from the fundamental incompatibility between the left hemisphere and right hemisphere ways of thinking and seeing the world. Iain McGilchrist’s book is long and dense, over 500 pages of small typeface. Not an easy read, but for anyone concerned about the state of the world we live in, a very necessary read.

A wonderful introduction to the book’s key ideas has been produced in the form of a film which has taken a number of years to produce, but is now available to rent for the small sum of £3.89, on Vimeo, accompanied by this text:

Once in a generation someone puts forth a seemingly audacious idea that completely changes the way we see the world around us. Dr. Iain McGilchrist might just be that person. THE DIVIDED BRAIN is a mind-altering odyssey about one man’s quest to prove a growing imbalance in our brains, and help us understand how this makes us increasingly unable to grapple with critical economic, environmental and social issues; ones that shape our very future as a species.

The film runs for 1 hour 18 mins. It is beautifully shot, following Iain McGilchrist around the world as he speaks to a number of eminent scientists and celebrities about his ideas, not all of whom agree with him. The film ends with Iain suggesting that we need a paradigm shift in how we conceive of what a human being is, what the world is and what our relationship with it is. He further suggests that love is a pure attention to the existence of the ‘Other’ and that we’re on this planet to give attention to that ‘Other’, which includes not only people, but also the natural world.

For further information about the film see the divided brain website and the information below sent to me by the film’s producer Vanessa Dylyn.

After successful screenings in London, Washington and Toronto, we are pleased to announce:

The Divided Brain is now available to stream

*outside Canada

Just click The Divided Brain thumbnail on our web store


*Canadian residents will be able to watch the broadcast premiere on the CBC’s documentary channel on September 22nd, 2019 at 9pm ET (6pm PT). It will also be re-broadcast on Sept 24 at 11am/3pm/7pm (all ET) and Sun Sept 29 at 6am/11am/4pm.

Everything Flows

In early June I travelled to the Cotswolds for a 4-day course organised by Field and Field, and featuring the work of Iain McGilchrist. Iain was the keynote speaker on each of the 4 days giving 14 one hour talks/interviews over this time. Some of these talks related to his book The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, but five of them related to material he will include in his new book (due for publication by the end of 2020), which bears the provisional title – ‘The Matter with Things’. This new book will argue against reductionism and materialism and for ‘betweenness’. Iain told us that the reductionist approach is the norm, i.e. we start by thinking about material things and then how to connect them, but he believes that it should be the other way round. We should start with connections and networks and notice the parts and things later.

The first part of the new book will focus on the question ‘What do we mean by truth?’ For the left hemisphere, the truth is ‘out there’; for the right hemisphere, truth comes into being; things are potentially ‘out there’, but only come into being with consciousness. There is a chapter on paradox in the first part of the book.

Iain believes that it is important to consider:

  • How we attend to the world
  • How we attend to perceptions
  • How our judgements are formed

We need emotional, social and cognitive intelligence to understand what is going on, and the right hemisphere is superior in all this.

The third part of the book will explore what we know about the foundations of reality – time, space, matter, consciousness, the sacred, the divine and more. These are all dominated by the left hemisphere.

The second part of this new book is devoted to what Iain sees as the four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. We need all four, but tend to focus too much on science and reason (the left hemisphere way) and not enough on intuition and imagination (the right hemisphere way). These were discussed in four separate one hour talks. I have shared my notes on these talks in previous posts. See

The fifth talk, which also relates to Iain’s new book, was ‘Everything Flows’. In this post I will share the notes I made whilst listening to the talk, but before I do, I should explain that, for this talk in particular, I have found it difficult to make sense of my notes. This could be because this was the last of Iain’s talks on the final morning of the course, by which time I was exhausted. I lead a quiet life so am not used to high levels of stimulation as experienced on this course. I lost a lot of sleep! Or it could be that the ideas are complex and counter-intuitive. Or it could have been that Iain himself is still developing his thinking in relation to the idea that everything flows. Whatever the reason, my notes are not as coherent as I would have liked. As such this post may come across as somewhat disjointed. If so, then all I can recommend is that at the end of 2020, you look out for the new book, ‘The Matter With Things’, as I will be doing.

Everything Flows (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that it was the ancient philosophers, Heraclitus in particular, who had insights about flow, but these were later lost.

Heraclitus is famously obscure, but is well known for saying that everything flows and that you cannot step into the same river twice. He believed that the cause of coming into being is the vortex (flow) and that things are in a constant state of change and flow. Thus, everything keeps returning to a flowing state, a state of homeorhesis rather than homeostasis, where the former describes a steady flow, and the latter describes a steady state.

Iain then went on to discuss the idea of everything flows in relation to a variety of contexts with which we may be more or less familiar, making the point that

‘philosophy in the West is essentially a left hemisphere process. It is verbal and analytic, requiring abstracted, decontextualized, disembodied thinking, dealing in categories, concerning itself with the nature of the general rather than the particular, and adopting a sequential, linear approach to truth, building the edifice of knowledge from the parts, brick by brick. While such characterisation is not true of most pre-Socratic philosophers, particularly Heraclitus, it is at least true of the majority of philosophers since Plato in the West until the nineteenth century…..’   (p.137 The Master and His Emissary)

Parts and wholes

We are used to the idea that the cells in our bodies are constantly dying and being replaced. So the question is, is it still your body after a number of years? Well – it depends on how you look at it. If you see your body as a made up of a number of parts (the left hemisphere view), then ‘No’, but if you see your body as a whole and more than the sum of its parts (the right hemisphere view), then ‘Yes’. People are not constituted part by part. There is continuity. This dilemma is illustrated by the Ship of Theseus Paradox. Paradox did not worry Heraclitus, but concerned later philosophers, as referred to in the quote above.

Iain then mentioned Leibniz in relation to lines, points and extension, and time. I have nothing more than this in my notes, so it has been difficult to make sense of, but the significance seems to be the belief that space and time are relational – ‘spatial and temporal relationships between objects and events are immediate and not reducible to space-time point relations, and all movement is the relational movement of bodies’. (Basil Evangelidis, 2017, p.1)

In 1714 Leibniz (1646-1716) wrote:

Some people who have misunderstood my ideas have thought ·me to have implied· that every soul has a mass or portion of matter which is its own and is assigned to it for ever, and therefore every soul has other living things that are inferior to it, destined always to be in its service. That doesn’t follow; and it isn’t true, because all bodies are in a perpetual state of flux, like rivers, with parts constantly coming into them and going out. (Leibniz, 71) https://www.earlymoderntexts.com/assets/pdfs/leibniz1714b.pdf

There is no such thing as a piece of time and there are no parts of time (see a previous post which relates to this point – Exploring the Divided Brain – Time, Space and Reality).

What is called temporal sequencing is an ambiguous concept. Such sequencing, depending on what one means by that, may be right-hemisphere-dependent or, at least where the sequence has no ‘real world’ meaning, as it would in a narrative, left-hemisphere-dependent – the understanding of narrative is a right hemisphere skill; the left hemisphere cannot follow a narrative. But sequencing, in the sense of the ordering of artificially decontextualised, unrelated, momentary events, or momentary interruptions of temporal flow – the kind of thing that is as well or better performed by the left hemisphere – is not in fact a measure of the sense of time at all. It is precisely what takes over when the sense of time breaks down. Time is essentially an undivided flow: the left hemisphere’s tendency to break it up into units and make machines to measure it may succeed in deceiving us that it is a sequence of static points, but such a sequence never approaches the nature of time, however close it gets (p.76 The Master and His Emissary).

Streams and water

William James (1842-1910) first verbalised the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, i.e. the flow of thoughts in the conscious mind.

The Dao, a Chinese word signifying ‘way’, ‘path’, ‘route’, ‘road’, is usually described in terms of elements of nature, and in particular as similar to water. Like water it is undifferentiated, endlessly self-replenishing, soft and quiet but immensely powerful, and impassively generous. Much of Taoist philosophy centers on the cyclical continuity of the natural world, and its contrast to the linear, goal-oriented actions of human beings.

Water is the basis of life and exists in phases, solid, liquid, gas. Consciousness also has phases. One phase is relatively static matter, but in another phase, everything flows, not just living things. Everything is connected and moving. Seeing this is just a matter of pace. If you interrupt flow you will see a lot of individual parts. You can see things as particulate or continuous. It depends on how you look at something.

Turbulent flow

Most fluid flows in nature are turbulent.  Richard Feynman described turbulence as the most important unsolved problem in classical physics. We don’t understand it.  It is both orderly and disorderly, on the edge of order and chaos, an unstable state in which minor adjustments have to be made all the time, just as a tightrope walker does. Flow is creative in a way that is inconceivable.

Patterns of flow

A major component of turbulent flow are vortices, which are caused by obstructions in fluids. An example is the Kármán vortex street.

(Photo by Jürgen Wagner of the Von Kármán vortex street behind a circular cylinder in air flow. The flow is made visible by means of the release of oil vapour near the cylinder.)

Vincent van Gogh painted vortices.


The Starry Night – Vincent van Gogh 1889

Leonardo da Vinci was also fascinated by vortices. The British Library in London currently has an exhibition of this work, which I was fortunate to see a couple of weeks ago.

So flow can be chaotic and fractal, with vortices within vortices, and movement in both directions. These flows are never the same but always unique.

Even the normal heartbeat is irregular, not wildly irregular, but there are variations in times of beat. But as A. N. Whitehead said rhythm needs sameness and novelty; there needs to be pattern and variance in the pattern.

 

A.N. Whitehead, 1919, An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Natural Knowledge, p.198).

 

 

 

 

 

Knowledge and flow

Knowledge arises out of flow and for a time has a form, like vortices in a stream only exist because of resistance and are not a separate element. At this point Iain made reference to Friedrich Schelling. I did not make a note as to why this reference was made, but presumably this relates to Schelling’s Philosophy of Nature, in which he put forward the idea of the unity of Nature, an ongoing process from which man has emerged as an integral part. In other words, life is not separate from matter. The ‘two are continuous with one another, different aspects of a single process.’ (Bryan Magee, 1998, p.156). We are like waves in the sea. We are not disconnected from the water. We are always connected.

All this is comprehensible to the right hemisphere. As William Blake understood, once you analyse flow, you stop the flow.

Source – https://poets.org/poem/eternity

An example of analysis of flow, which is how the left hemisphere sees flow, can be seen in the case of Jason Padgett, for whom the smoothness has gone from everything he sees as a result of brain injury. The left hemisphere can only approximate flow by putting together straight lines. This is how Padgett now sees water going down the drain in a shower or the sink.

Source: https://www.livescience.com/45326-gallery-drawings-of-a-mathematical-genius.html

Finally Iain finished this talk by referring to the double-slit experiment to illustrate that light and elementary particles can be seen as particles as well as waves.

The video of the double-slit experiment suggests that the wave trumps the particle. Everything flows. It also suggests that observation can alter what we see. This supports Iain’s argument that things take the form they do because of our consciousness. The way in which we attend to the world determines what we see.

It is not just that what we find determines the nature of attention we accord to it, but that the attention we pay to anything also determines what it is we find…. Attention is a moral act: it creates, brings aspects of things into being, but in doing so makes others recede. What a thing is depends on who is attending to it, and in what way. … Attention has consequences. (p.133 The Master and His Emissary).

We can see the world as a series of static points and scenes, a sum of an infinite series of ’pieces’, or as natural and organically evolving in which everything flows.

Reference

McGilchrist, I. (2009). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

This is the last post in this series.

This four day course will run again for the last time next year from 3rd – 6th October 2020 In the same location – Tewkesbury Park Hotel – in the Cotswolds, UK.

The Value and Limits of Imagination

On a 4-day Field & Field course I recently attended on The Divided Brain. Coming to Your Senses, Iain McGilchrist told us that there are four paths to knowledge: science, reason, intuition and imagination. He gave a one-hour talk on each of these topics. In these posts I am sharing the notes I made whilst listening to the talks. For previous posts see:

And for further posts on Iain McGilchrist’s work, see

The Value and Limits of Imagination (NB these are my notes, based on my hearing, and my interpretation. Any errors are mine)

Iain started by telling us that imagination is a bit suspect these days.

‘Inspiration is something we cannot control, towards which we have to exhibit what Wordsworth called a ‘wise passiveness’. As the nineteenth century wore on, this lack of control fitted ill with the confident spirit engendered by the Industrial Revolution, and this lack of predictability with the need, in accord with the Protestant ethic, for ‘results’ as the reward for effort. Imagination was something that could not be relied on: it was transitory, fading from the moment it revealed itself to consciousness (in Shelley’s famous phrase, ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’), recalcitrant to the will. In response to this, ‘the Imaginative’, a product of active fantasy, rather than of the receptive imagination, began to encroach on the realm of imagination itself….’ (p.381 The Master and His Emissary)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century could be seen as having involved a shift away from the capacity to understand metaphor, incarnation, the realm that bridges this world and the next, matter and spirit, towards a literalistic way of thinking – a move away from imagination, now seen as treacherous, and towards rationalism. (p.382 The Master and His Emissary)

But imagination is not something that leads us astray; it is our only hope of leading us to reality and not only for great artists. It is for each of us in our everyday experience. We should go to meet it. If we don’t we are closed in a hermetic cell. We need imagination to get out of this.

In talking about imagination, Iain referred to Schelling (1854-1775) and Coleridge (1772-1834), saying that Schelling was a very profound philosopher and that Coleridge helped to make his ideas more comprehensible. Beyond this, Iain said little about Schelling. I know nothing of Schelling and it appears from a brief internet search that he is a philosopher who would take some getting to know, but as far as I can fathom, Schelling’s main thesis was an opposition to mechanism, materialism and scientific theorising and a view that nothing in nature is completely lifeless. ‘Nature is mind in the process of becoming conscious. Mind (or the self), on the other hand, is something which in its cognitive, rational activity, creates nature.’ (Dictionary of Philosophy. Penguin. P.555). Further brief reading around this topic suggests that understanding this relationship between mind and matter requires a leap of imagination.

Coleridge drew on Schelling’s ideas to develop his theory of imagination. Coleridge distinguished between fantasy and imagination. Fantasy is about escaping reality. It recombines things that are already known to us. But imagination is bound up with reality. It looks at what is and sees it for the first time. Imagination is a process where we never quite arrive, a process where we go to meet things, where the progress towards reality is one of ascending a spiral and seeing the whole.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

William Blake’s painting of Jacob’s ladder

When ascending the spiral, reaching a higher plane also involves a ‘coming back’ and being able to see and maintain contact with what is below.

Coleridge thought human imagination had two distinct parts, the primary and the secondary. Primary imagination is, he thought, the spontaneous act of creation that is not at our beckoning or under our control. There may have been years of mental work prior to this. Secondary imagination is the conscious act of bringing a composition into being from primary imagination. In other words, as Shelley said, inspiration is already dying when composition starts, hence ‘the mind in creation is a fading coal’. Poetry, music and composition come through us.

Creativity

Iain then went on to talk about creativity, telling us that the right hemisphere of the brain is much more creative than the left hemisphere, although both hemispheres are involved in creativity. We can’t make the creative act happen. To encourage it, don’t do things.

Iain then discussed three stages of the creative process:

  • Preparation, a long process involving hard work, skills and knowledge, both conscious and unconscious
  • Incubation, an unconscious stage which is not under voluntary control and can only be impeded by conscious effort
  • Illumination, when a flash of insight flowers out of unconsciousness

In looking for this model of creativity I found it can be attributed to Graham Wallas. Maria Popova has written a useful post about this on her brainpickings site.

Iain also told us that for creativity there must be generative, permissive and translation requirements. The generative phase brings together things that normally can’t be brought together. In the permissiveness phase we have to get out of the way so that this can work for us; there is a relaxation of self-imposed constraints. Creation is always also self-creation. We make things and ourselves. The self and the Other create one another.

“A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.” Percy Bysshe Shelley

In the translation phase, the analytic mind plays a part, but it needs intuition to discover things. Criticism mustn’t happen too early. The subliminal self is superior to the conscious self. It’s interesting to consider the extent to which scientists actually use the scientific method, and how much they rely on the subliminal self, imagination and intuition.

Does the right hemisphere play a part in creativity?

Evidence of the right hemisphere’s special role in creativity comes from studying the work of renowned artists, composers and poets, before and after having a stroke. See, for example, a paper written by H. Bäzner and M.G. Hennerici – Painting after Right-Hemisphere Stroke – Case Studies of Professional Artists. In this Bäzner and Hennerici discuss the work of Otto Dix, whose paintings became flatter and more schematic following a right hemisphere stroke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This move towards static, flatter and more narrowly focussed images can also be seen in film makers following a right hemisphere stroke.

A left hemisphere stroke has the opposite effect. For example, Benjamin Britten is thought to have done his best work after a left hemisphere stroke; Stravinsky composed more after a left hemisphere stroke; Handel wrote his Messiah in just three weeks shortly after his left hemisphere stroke, and William Carlos Williams’ poetry output became prolific after his left hemisphere stroke.

Damage to the left hemisphere, or just suppressing the left hemisphere, can lead to improvement in all kinds of creativity, e.g. the 9-dot problem can be solved much quicker following a left hemisphere stroke.

The challenge is to draw four straight lines which go through the middle of all of the dots without taking the pencil off the paper

 

The Relationship between creativity and mental illness


Aristotle linked melancholy to creativity, and research has linked depression and alcoholism to creativity. Rates of creativity are abnormally high in people with mental illness or mood disorders. Studies on male and female poets have shown higher rates of mental disorders, and in her book Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, American psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison examined the relationship between bipolar disorder and artistic creativity. Comedians tend to suffer from depression. But no-one is very creative while they are ill. When they are well, the fact of having been ill makes them creative, but stress and anxiety promote the left hemisphere’s view of the world.

Unfortunately, as Iain told us at the beginning of his talk there seems to be a resistance against the notion of imagination. In briefly following this suggestion up, I found that in her paper The Odd Position of the Melancholic – The Loss of an Explanatory Model? Dr. Helena De Preester has written (p.18) that this resistance also applies to notions of melancholy and inspiration.

‘ …. the notion of melancholy is pushed to the side of a very subjective and personal discourse, and seems to have lost its all-pervading cultural and historical meaning, which was very helpful in directing discussions about (artistic) creativity, inspiration and imagination.’

‘ … the term ‘imagination’ is not very popular anymore: young artists or students in the arts often prefer to say that it all comes down to working very hard and to having the accidental (and economic) luck of becoming famous.’ …

‘creativity’ is an effect of working very hard, but it does not figure in a broader discourse on inspiration. The notions of ‘imagination’, ‘creativity’, ‘melancholy’ and ‘inspiration’ thus seem to have become vague and private notions, which rather block than deepen a discussion on the specificity of artistic creation and the position of the artist.

But Iain suggested that to be creative we need to open ourselves up to unconscious influences. This critical phase must be out of our control. We have to avoid interruptions and stress for creativity. Play and being relaxed are important. Consciousness is a stage with a spotlight. We need to get out of the glare of consciousness, out of the spotlight for creativity to flourish.