Tinkering with the system won’t help reinvent the purpose of education

In OLDaily this week, Stephen Downes, in a comment on a post by Sasha Thackaberry, makes what to me is an astute point – that the future of education is not the same thing as the future of colleges. This was the trap that the webinar hosted by Bryan Alexander, with invited speaker Cathy Davidson, fell into this week. The event was advertised as ‘reinventing education’, but for me (and I can’t find a recording of the webinar to check my perception and understanding), the discussion was more about how and what changes could be made to the existing education system (in this case the American education system).

Having followed Stephen’s e-learning 3.0 MOOC at the end of last year, I know that he has done a considerable amount of ‘out of the box’ thinking about the future of education, and has recently made at least two, that I know of, presentations about this. See:

This thinking is very much influenced by his knowledge of advancing technologies and how these might be used to ‘reinvent education’ but it is not only influenced by technology. For the e-learning 3.0 MOOC these are the questions that we discussed:I regard myself to be adequately proficient with technology, but I don’t have the skills, as things stand at the moment, to keep up with Stephen.  However, I am always interested in thinking about and discussing how our current education systems could be improved, and what we might need to do to change them. I am also particularly interested in the underlying concepts, systems and ethics, i.e. the philosophical perspective through which we view education. It seems to me essential that this should underpin any discussion around ‘reinventing education’.

Other ‘out of the box’ thinkers

Recently I find myself drawn to the thoughts of three well-known thinkers – two current and one from times past; Iain McGilchrist, Sir Ken Robinson, and Étienne de La Boétie (best friend of Michel de Montaigne).

Iain McGilchrist (in a nutshell) believes that our view of the world is dominated by the left hemisphere of the brain and that to save our civilisation from potential collapse we need more balance between the left and right hemisphere’s views of the world. I know this sounds melodramatic, but you would need to read his book The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, where he makes a very good case, backed up by loads of evidence, to find support for this claim. Later on this year, on a course offered by Field & Field here in the UK, I will be running a discussion group/workshop where I hope participants will share ideas about the possible implications of Iain’s work for rethinking education.

For those who are not familiar with the book, here is a Table* (click on it to enlarge) which briefly summarises some of the differences in the ways in which, according to McGilchrist, the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere view the world. The right hemisphere’s view of the world is presented in purple font; the left hemisphere’s view of the world in blue font. These statements have been culled from many hours of reading McGilchrist’s books and watching video presentations and interviews.

*I am aware that this Table is (necessarily) an over-simplistic, reductive representation of McGilchrist’s ideas. It cannot possibly reflect the depth of thinking presented in The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. It is simply an introduction to some of McGilchrist’s ideas, which might provoke a fresh perspective on whether and how we need to ‘reinvent’ education.

In relation to McGilchrist’s work, my current questions are: Do we recognise our current education system in any of this? Do we need to change our thinking about education to achieve more balance between the left and right hemisphere perspectives?

Linked to McGilchrist’s ideas (and I will qualify this below, because it would be easy to get the wrong end of the stick), another ‘out of the box thinker, for me, is Sir Ken Robinson. Like many people, I first became aware of Sir Ken Robinson in 2006, when he recorded a TED Talk which has become the most viewed of all time ( 56,007,105 views at this time). The title of this talk was ‘Do schools kill creativity?’ and the thrust of the talk was that in our education system, we educate children out of creativity.

More recently in December of last year the question of whether schools kill creativity was revisited when Sir Ken Robinson was interviewed by Chris Anderson under the title ‘Sir Ken Robinson (still) wants an education revolution’. In this podcast the same question is being discussed more than ten years later and it seems that little progress has been made in ‘reinventing education’, at least in terms of creativity.

Just as McGilchrist is at pains to stress that both hemispheres of the brain do everything, but they do them differently, for example, they are both involved in creativity but differently, so Sir Ken Robinson says that we should not conflate creativity with the arts. The arts are not only important because of creativity; through the arts we can express deep issues of cultural value, the fabric of our relationship with other people, and connections with the world around us. Creativity is a function of intelligence not specific to a particular field and the arts can make a major contribution to this, but the arts are being pushed down in favour of subjects that are dominated by utility and their usefulness for getting a job. We are now locked into a factory-like efficiency model of education, dominated by testing and normative, competitive assessment.

In 2006 Robinson told us that education was a big political issue being driven by economics. He said that most governments had adopted education systems which promote:

  • Conformity (but people are not uniform; diversity is the hallmark of human existence)
  • Compliance (such that standardised testing is a multibillion-dollar business)
  • Competition (pitting teachers, schools and children against each other to rack up credit for limited resources)

I am recently retired, so a bit out of the loop, but from my perspective not a lot has changed between 2006 and 2019, in the sense that education has not been ‘reinvented’ – notably there hasn’t been, at government and policy-making level, a change in philosophy. McGilchrist believes that our current approach, where left hemisphere thinking dominates, has significant negative implications for education;  see The Divided Brain: Implications for Education,  a post that I wrote in 2014 after hearing McGilchrist speak for the first time. Robinson believes that although some schools are pushing back against the dominant culture there is a lot more room for innovation in schools than people believe, that we can break institutional habits, and we can make innovations within the system.

But can we? What would this take? Would students and teachers be willing to risk ‘bucking the system’ to embrace an alternative, non-utilitarian philosophy of education?

I am currently reading Sarah Bakewell’s wonderful book about Michel de Montaigne – How to Live. A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer.  In this she discusses the close relationship/friendship between Montaigne and Étienne de La Boétie and, in relation to this, refers to Boétie’s treatise ‘On Voluntary Servitude’. On p.94 she writes:

‘The subject of ‘Voluntary Servitude’ is the ease with which, throughout history, tyrants have dominated the masses, even though their power would evaporate instantly if those masses withdrew their support. There is no need for a revolution: the people need only stop co-operating ….’

Reading this immediately reminded me of the introduction in 2002 of the Key Stage 2 SATs (compulsory national Standard Assessment Tests) here in the UK – the testing of 11- year olds and the start of league tables pitting school against school. Key Stage 1 SATs (tests for 7-year olds) were introduced before Key Stage 2 SATs, so these teachers of 7-year old children had already been through the process. Therefore, by the time the Key Stage 2 SATs were introduced, schools and teachers had a very good idea of their likely impact, and Key Stage 2 teachers complained bitterly. I remember thinking at the time, if all the Key Stage 2 teachers in the country downed tools and refused to deliver the SATs, then there would have been nothing the government could do, but as Sarah Bakewell points out this type of collaborative, non-violent resistance rarely happens.

The power to change

Perhaps reinventing education will have to happen from the ground up, in individual classrooms/courses and institution by institution, rather than nationally. But how will this happen when the teachers and education leaders that we now have in place are themselves a product of an education system which has not: valued creativity as discussed by Sir Ken Robinson; a right hemisphere perspective on the world, as explained by Iain McGilchrist; or a rethinking of concepts, systems and ethics needed to take a new philosophical approach to education as envisaged by Stephen Downes?

This was the type of question that I had hoped would be discussed in the ‘reinventing education’ webinar that I attended earlier this week. It goes beyond tinkering – it’s more of a paradigm shift, or as McGilchrist says, it requires ‘a change of heart’. This is how McGilchrist sums it up:

… we focus on practical issues and expect practical solutions, but I think nothing less than a change of the way we conceive what a human being is, what the planet earth is, and how we relate to that planet, is going to help us. It’s no good putting in place a few actions that might be a fix for the time being. We need to have a completely radically different view of what we’re doing here.

Attending to the invisible ‘Other’

Attention is how we relate to the world and what we attend to determines what we see. At this stage in my life I am interested in how I can ensure that what I choose to attend to doesn’t blinker me to the possible implications of attending too closely to a given idea. The balance between focussing and keeping a broad perspective often seems elusive.

I’m not sure how this can be achieved, other than to be aware that there is probably always an alternative perspective and there may be things I am missing. But recently the focus of my attention means that I am noticing that a number of authors seem interested in similar ways of thinking.

Most recently my attention has been drawn to a podcast (via Mariana Funes) in which Chris Richardson interviewed Ulises Mejias, author of Off the Network.  I am already familiar with Mejias’ work having cited him in a paper co-authored and published with Mariana early last year.

In the podcast Mejias tells us that he and his co-author Nick Couldry have written a new book, soon to be published, in which they reflect on how the conversation has shifted since he wrote ‘Off the Network’. At that time, pre-Snowden and Cambridge Analytica, few people were interested in critical studies of the internet. Now there are many articles being published that are critical of the network. Mejias likes the direction things are going but still has some concerns. Whilst noting that attention has shifted from believing that companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon can do no wrong, to thinking that they need tighter controls and regulation, he doesn’t believe that this can be done by throwing more technological innovation and more algorithms (which are becoming increasingly complex) at the problem.

In their new book Mejias and Couldry consider ways in which to unmap the network and un-think these technological determinisms. They question what happens when networks no longer promote agency but instead become templates for organising and structuring society. Mejias believes that a lot of our social biases are being mediated through our social devices and that we don’t even think about this. We carry smart phones and pay our internet bills, but what goes on behind the scenes is opaque and invisible.

It is this idea of what is invisible that interests me. What are the implications of what is invisible for how we live and learn? What are the implications of not being able to see the whole picture? Mejias’ argument is that in this digital age if you are not in the network, you are invisible, you are ‘Other’. This he calls ‘nodocentrism’ – a way of thinking that becomes so dominant that it erases all other ways of thinking, ‘the rendering illegible of everything that is not a node’ (p.10 Off the Network). The network can only see nodes and only recognise other nodes.

Mejias suggests shifting our focus to the spaces between the nodes and between the lines in a network. This space is important. It is not empty, and it can influence the network, although in this interview Mejias didn’t explain how. Does the invisible actually connect the nodes in some way? This reminds me of questions and discussions about the influence of observers (called ‘lurkers’ by some) on the web. What might the influence of the invisible be?

Iain McGilchrist also writes about the spaces between, but in a different context. Mejias’ concern is with nodocentrism and that the invisible ‘Other’ is not ignored but acknowledged. McGilchrist’s concern is with the meaning of our lives and that we underestimate that we are not atomistic. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom he says: ‘There is no way in which I exist independently of all of you and all of the planet and of all of the people who came before me, and indeed in a strange way I am part of something that is to come. That is all not in me or in them or in some sort of gaps between us but is in the betweenness’.

For McGilchrist the spaces between are critical for meaning. He uses two examples to explain this. The first – an electric current. He says: An electric current is manifest between two poles, a positive pole and a negative pole; it’s not in the positive pole, it’s not in the negative pole, it’s not even in the positive pole plus the negative pole, nor is it in the space between the two poles, because that space is nothing. It’s in the whole betweenness of the two poles and what that brings about at a wholly different level.

McGilchrist’ second example is music. In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says: ‘Music is all betweenness. Take a note A flat, what does it mean? Absolutely nothing. Take another one, a B. It means absolutely nothing. Put 30 000 of these things together and you’ve got Bach’s B minor mass – which means a hell of a lot. So, what happened there? It’s not in the notes so it must be in the spaces between the notes, but the spaces between the notes in a melody are just silence, the spaces between notes in harmony are just silence, the spaces between the beat of the rhythm are not there, so if you put a lot of things that mean nothing together, a lot of spaces that mean nothing together, you find something that means more than anything you can experience in the world. How does that happen? The answer is betweenness.’

So, for McGilchrist and for Mejias, the spaces between, whilst invisible, are redolent with meaning and highly significant to our understanding and knowledge, just as the empty space in atoms, which makes up 99.9% of their structure is significant to our understanding of matter.

Both Mejias and McGilchrist believe in the importance of being willing and able to recognise the invisible ‘Other’ – that the invisible ‘Other’ makes a significant contribution to our lives, knowledge and understanding; without an understanding of the ‘Other’ we cannot see the whole.

McGilchrist believes an understanding of the ‘Other’ to be essential for an understanding of ourselves. In his book ‘The Master and his Emissary’ he writes:

…. the self originates in the interaction with ‘the Other’, not as an entity in atomistic isolation: ‘The sense of self emerges from the activity of the brain in interaction with other selves’ (p.88).

…. An affective relationship with ‘the Other’ over distances of time and space provides the wherewithal to understand ourselves as part of a three-dimensional world – not just three-dimensional in the spatial sense, but with temporal and emotional depth, too …. (p.365)

Mejias’ understanding of the ‘Other’ and feeling invisible comes from his personal experience of being an immigrant. He has said:

‘That experience of being in this country as an immigrant, both inside and outside, having to adopt certain ways of thinking and having to erase other ways of thinking, other parts of me that cannot be rendered in this new context, I think that’s where this idea [of nodocentrism] came from.’

Mejias believes that there are things we can do politically to address this; choices are important; research will have to become more open. It’s something we need to do for ourselves.

McGilchrist believes that we need to access the world beyond words. The world ‘beyond’ ourselves (p.399, The Master and his Emissary). In the Rebel Wisdom interview, he says he thinks we can actually change things, but we each have to take it upon ourselves to be part of the change.

The strong message from both these authors seems to be the need to recognise that we may not be seeing the whole picture, either on or off line and that we should be open to the ‘Other’.

It may be that I am making links between these two authors where they don’t exist, or which don’t resonate with readers of this blog post. Perhaps the focus of my attention is such that I have failed to see the whole picture, which would be ironic. It is difficult to access a world beyond words.

But sometimes words do resonate. To end this post, here is a quote which I saw at the Kochi Biennale (Fort Kochi, Kerala, India) earlier this week, which serendipitously also references the ‘Other’, but in another context.

Virtual hyper-connectivity has paradoxically alienated us from the warm solidarities of community; that place of embrace where we can enjoy our intelligence and beauty with others, where we can ‘love’; a place where we don’t need the ‘other’ as an enemy to feel connected.

Imagine those pushed to the margins of dominant narratives speaking: not as victims, but as futurisms’ cunning and sentient sentinels. And before speaking, listening to the stone and the flowers; to older women and wise men; to the queer community; to critical voices in the mainstream; to the whispers and warnings of nature.

Anita Dube. Curatorial Note. Kochi Biennale 2019

E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine

This post is a response to a challenge set, as a result of Task 2, by Frank Polster, a fellow course participant on Stephen Downes’ MOOC, E-Learning 3.0.

Here is my challenge to all the E-Learning 3.0 cohort and a task associated with course module E-Learning 1 and 2 Conversation with George Siemens. Please comment on what fields, skills, talents, and education that you think are unique domains of humans like Stephen’s “kindness and compassion” and the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

I have given this post the Title, E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine, because that is how I have interpreted this challenge.

My response to the challenge is based on what I have learned from reading the work of Iain McGilchrist,  author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of The Western World. McGilchrist’s writing focusses on the differences between the ways in which the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain view and attend to the world. For example, the left hemisphere’s view of the body is as a machine. The right hemisphere’s view of the body is as a living whole in nature.

I have heard MGilchrist talk about the difference between living things and machines and have written about this before – see my post Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age where I listed the differences he discussed. I will copy them here for ease of reference. According to McGilchrist these are the things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

But what is it that makes human beings unique and different to machines? My response to this (again informed by McGilchrist) is that a human being is able to relate to something ‘Other’ than itself that exist apart from us, beyond ourselves and may be ‘new’ or to some degree ‘unknown’. (A machine can only relate to what is already known.)

Priests, teachers, doctors, and similar professions do this as part of their jobs, through care, empathy, trust, altruism, kindness and compassion. They are able to put themselves in the position of the ‘Other’ and experience their experience. Human beings can experience not only their own pain, but also the pain of others. Human beings can love. We can also see all this in family relationships.

Other characteristics unique to humans are the ability to recognise and experience beauty, awe and wonder, in art, music, dance and nature, and to value wisdom, intuition, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty, flexibility, the implicit and the spiritual. Human beings experience emotions such as humour, fear, anger, anxiety and sadness, and affective states such as hope and optimism; they have a sense of self, an understanding of the uniqueness of the individual, and search for meaning and truth in life. They do this through embodied engagement with the world, not detached abstract contemplation of it or separation from it. Human beings can imagine, wonder and dream.

An education which values the uniquely human is one that focusses on learning the meaning of ‘Other’, recognising the value of living things, nature and the unknown, learning how to think in an embodied way, and acknowledging that thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing……… All thinking is dependent on the body. (From my blog post The Divided Brain – What does it mean to think?)

The second part of Frank’s challenge is – comment on the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

‘Ghost in the machine’ is not an idea I am very familiar with, but what I have read seems to imply that it questions whether there is a ghost in your machine making it work and whether you can put a ‘non-physical mind’ into a physical machine.

This of course relates to Descartes’ argument that mind and body can function separately. My understanding is that this idea of body/mind dualism has long been discredited, so I’m wondering if it is worth taking the idea of ‘ghost in the machine’ seriously, although there are scientists working on trying to understand what’s unique about humans and to replicate this in robots.

If Frank is asking what human-like skills could be adopted by a machine, then I would say only those skills that can be programmed by a human being, and that there are unique qualities of humans, as discussed above, that are immeasurable and cannot be programmed. A machine, if programmed correctly, can perform many of the tasks a human can do, but it cannot do or be programmed for the important, immeasurable tasks and qualities that are so essential for a meaningful life.

And if I am wrong and machines will ultimately be able to replicate humans, then, as I think Frank is asking, what checks should be put in place in a machine to ensure that the machine always has access to an alternative perspective. If we value what is unique about humans, then machines should be programmed to ensure that human beings are never prevented from experiencing the ‘Other’, or thinking and feeling in an embodied way.

Source of image here.

Update 11-11-18

Frank Polster has replied to this post on his blog. See http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/a-response-to-jennys-e-learning-3-0-the-human-versus-the-machine/ 

See also Laura Ritchie’s response to Frank’s task and the conversation there – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/11/10/what_makes_us_human/#comment-57854 

And see Matthias Melcher’s post which informs this discussion – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/ 

Understanding ‘Betweenness’ – seeing beyond the parts

In a previous post, I began to explore and share my understanding of what Iain McGilchrist has written about and means by ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

I thought that maybe a ‘both/and’ view of the world, rather than ‘either/or’ might explain it, but this explanation feels over-simplistic and unsatisfactory. It seems to miss the depth that McGilchrist is exploring. Whilst more ‘both/and’ thinking might serve, at least in part, to  counter ‘either/or’ thinking, it wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Gary Goldberg in commenting on my last post about ‘betweenness’, has written that he considers the issue of betweenness to be ‘ effectively addressed …. in the architectonic philosophical system of Charles Sanders Peirce…… the issue is a tolerance for ‘vagueness’ when one considers the universe as fundamentally relational and context-dependent.’

Martina Emke wrote ‘Betweenness’ is related to the concepts of ‘rhizome’ and ‘becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). ‘Betweenness’ is a counter-narrative to the idea of identity, a constant process of transitioning that pertains to humans and non-humans.

And Matthias Melcher in a private communication emphasised the similarities between the idea of ‘betweenness’ and connectivism. For example, in his article ‘An Introduction to Connective Knowledge’, Stephen Downes has written ‘Connective knowledge requires an interaction. More to the point, connective knowledge is knowledge of the connection.’

But McGilchrist’s idea of ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world, goes, I think, beyond all these three quests at seeking understanding of how we learn to understand and live with the uncertainty,  ambiguities and complexities of the world we live in. It even goes beyond language.

Any one thing can be understood only in terms of another thing, and ultimately that must come down to a something that is experienced, outside the system of signs (i.e. by the body). The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience.’ (p. 118. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

If this is the case – then how can we talk about ‘betweenness’ so that we can share an understanding of it and so that it can be applied as a way of learning and being? How can the idea of betweenness be made explicit without losing its meaning. This would mean ‘seeing’ the relationships between concepts as a whole, and avoiding separating concepts from experience? It would mean recognising ‘knowing’ as a reciprocal, reverberative process, a back and forth, reflecting the way in which neurones behave, which is not linear, sequential, unidirectional. As McGilchrist writes, p.194,

It seems that this reciprocity, this betweenness, goes to the core of our being. Further than even this, there is fascinating evidence that betweenness and reciprocity exist at the level of cell structure and function within the single neurone, even at the molecular level, as the brain comes to understand something and lay down memory traces.’

I suspect that any attempt to fully articulate and define what ‘betweenness’ might mean is going to fail, if only because, if it is embedded in experience, then it will necessarily be personal to each and every one of us. The nearest anyone I know has come to presenting a holistic view of ‘betweenness’ as expressed by McGilchrist is Matthias Melcher with this map, which he sent me in a personal communication and has given me permission to share in this blog post. (Clicking on the image will enlarge it).

To fully appreciate the power of this map in articulating the idea of ‘betweenness’, you will need to engage with the interactive version, which you can quickly see via this link – http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.htm

The interactive map allows you to click on a node (as seen in the example below where the node ‘reciprocation’ has been clicked on, to reveal text from p.194 of Iain McGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

This view of ‘betweenness’, a view resonant of the right hemisphere’s holistic approach (the view that McGilchrist has suggested is being lost in favour of the left hemipshere’s fragmented abstracted view of our world, in which we see things as parts rather than a whole), has been arrived at by reading through The Master and his Emissary’ to find everything that McGcilchrist has said about ‘betweenness’. There is no one section or chapter addressing this point. (It would be rather ironic if there were.) ‘Betweenness’ is a theme that runs through the book. Having collected all the ‘parts’, Matthias, using his Think Tool, has been able to look for relationships between the parts and create this ‘whole’. Someone else, of course, would have created a different set of connections, a different whole, but there would probably be enough similarity to come to some common understanding.

Is there then, some value to thinking not in terms of either/or, nor even in terms of ‘both/and’, but in terms of maps of relations? Would this be a better way to understand ‘betweenness’?

Further information about Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool

It may be that on viewing the map that you can see different or additional connections that you would like to make. If you would like to edit the map you can download Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool from his website – http://condensr.de/  and then upload his file, which is accessible via this link  http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.xml by dragging and dropping it into the tool.

Many thanks to Matthias Melcher for creating this map which helped me better understand ‘betweenness’ and for sharing his open website and the file links.

‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

At the beginning of this year my colleague Mariana Funes and I published a paper in which we argued for ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to ‘either/or’. We did this in the context of open, online education environments, which we suggested can be both inclusive and exclusive. This was our abstract:

Open education aspires to democratize education, promote inclusion and effect change through social justice. These aspirations are difficult to realise in open, online environments, which enable multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. This paper proposes a counter-narrative that surfaces certain operational norms of the internet and foregrounds their exclusionary nature. We offer an illustrative inventory of some social media interactional patterns to examine communication used in open online education communities. This examination leads us to conclude that language online is subject to a dialectical tension that both includes and excludes. We conclude that a different language is needed in open online educational environments; one that embraces exclusionary structures and strategic ambiguity, as well as the aspirations to further democratise education via digital means.

Mariana Funes & Jenny Mackness (2018) When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, 43:2, 119 138, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638

(See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/when-inclusion-excludes/)

In the paper, we examine online communication patterns in open education environments and find them to be subject to dialectical tensions. We quote Gibbs et al. (2013, 106) as saying that “dialectical tensions have been found to be productive in enabling the accomplishment of multiple goals since they enable organizational members to creatively attend to both poles of the opposition by transforming or transcending it and embracing both alternatives as ‘both-and’ options (Putnam & Boys 2006)”.

Whilst the idea of ‘both/and’ thinking is not new, it does seem particularly relevant in this post-truth age of intolerance for ambiguity and alternative perspectives, where ‘either/or’ thinking seems to dominate. Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, considers this to be one of the results of the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere view of the world in our current civilisation. On p.137 of his book he writes:

‘If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries.’

By contrast a right-hemisphere view of the world is one which embraces, complexity, uncertainty, and  ambiguity.  (For an introduction, but necessarily over-simplistic description of the differences between right and left hemisphere views of the world, according to McGilchrist, see this blog post. Better still watch this video.)

‘Both/and’ thinking requires accepting that opposite poles might actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent as suggested by Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, and embracing paradox as depicted by Escher in his Drawing Hands lithograph.

Escher’s lithograph is one that Iain McGilchrist often uses to discuss the paradox of linear analysis. He writes: (p.134, The Master and his Emissary). ‘The paradox applies to 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 itself comes into being.’

If it is difficult to determine how we know something, it’s interesting to consider how, when and why ‘either/or’ thinking would be appropriate.

Implicit in McGilchrist’s writing is the suggestion that ‘both/and’ thinking is characteristic of a view of the world in which opposite poles (where subjective and objective appear as fundamentally asymmetrical, separate ways of being), are held in suspension; a world where there is ‘betweenness’.

It is this idea of ‘betweenness’ that intrigues me. What does it mean? How can we recognise it? In talking about ‘betweenness’, McGilchrist seems to go beyond the complementarity of separate poles, to thinking 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, where knowledge comes through a relationship. From this perspective ‘belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’ (p.170, The Master and his Emissary).

Betweenness does not deny our distinctness as individuals. ‘Betweenness is being able to share in the character of the Other and feel separateness from it’ (p.363, The Master and his Emissary). My interpretation is that a world view that acknowledges ‘betweenness’ enables a ‘both/and’ sort of arrangement. For me, McGilchrist best describes ‘betweenness’ when writing about music.

‘Music consists entirely of relations, ‘betweenness’. The notes mean nothing in themselves: the tensions between the notes, and between notes and the silence with which they live in reciprocal indebtedness, are everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm each lie in the gaps, and yet the betweenness is only what it is because of the notes themselves. Actually the music is not just in the gaps any more than it is just in the notes: it is in the whole that the notes and the silence make together. Each note becomes transformed by the context in which it lies. What we mean by music is not just any agglomeration of notes, but one in which the whole created is powerful enough to make each note live in a new way, a way that it had never done before.’ (p.72, The Master and his Emissary).

It’s important to stress that I am not suggesting that there is never any need for ‘either/or’ thinking, nor that a right hemisphere view of the world, which seems to embrace a ‘both/and’ approach, is the only view. As McGilchrist stresses ‘Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and … both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other.’ (p.6, The Master and his Emissary).

We need  ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’ thinking, but these are currently out of balance. We seem to live in a world dominated by ‘either/or’ thinking. The question is how to promote more ‘both/and’ thinking and how to acknowledge ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.

Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism


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).

Downes writes:

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.

References

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/