Saturday 21st March am

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

Here are links to my first two posts:

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language  

What does it mean to think? Iain McGilchrist

Iain will problematise the phrase I think: in the morning Iain will look at the embodied nature of cognition and belief, and in the afternoon at the nature of the relationship between individual and society, the one and the many. (From the course booklet)

I found this day the hardest of all four days to get a handle on, but hopefully the process of working through my notes by recording them here, and having a long walk on this beautiful Spring day, will help me to make sense of them. The talks were framed around the phrase ‘I think’ with the morning focusing on ‘Think’ and the afternoon on ‘I’.

Iain started by saying that there is no objective reality – but there is an underlying reality that is there for us to respond to. All thinking – imagining, remembering, cogitating, pondering and so on – is about making things up; all thinking is creative. Creativity is about stopping and allowing it to happen – relating to the world. Thinking can be thought of as ‘methinks’ – it seems to me – or more literally ‘it thinks to me’. So thinking is something that comes into mind. Max Scheler believed that thinking is out there, not in the brain.

There are different kinds of ways of knowing the world and thinking about it; the kind of knowledge that comes from experience (phronesis); knowledge that comes from more information (episteme); techne-knowledge that a craftsman has; and theoretical wisdom (sophia). This relates to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which Iain referred to later in this talk and which I mention in more detail below.

Almost all the thinking we do we are not aware of. Even when unconscious we are planning, reasoning, making decisions – hence the expression ‘Sleep on it’.

Thinking and believing: Belief does not mean signing up to reasons. From ‘Lief’ meaning ‘beloved’, belief is about a process, a relationship. Truth is also always about relationship; being faithful or true to one another. Trust has the same root as truth.

All thinking, believing and notions of truth are tentative and need to be tested. It is not about certainty but about bringing into becoming. These processes are always two-way. Meaning, emotion and reason are not distinct. 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, which the RH tries to appreciate. The brain seems to ‘ready itself’ for thinking before the thinking takes place. Thinking and bodily preparation for action are closely related, but abstract thought closes down action. All thinking is dependent on the body.

Understanding depends on models and metaphors. A metaphor is how we make a connection between a word and an embodied experience. We tend to see ourselves as machines, but machines can be predicted and controlled and we can’t do this with humans. For example, computers and machines will never take over the work of therapists, i.e. a machine could not take the place of the ‘listening therapist’. We are not ‘things’. We are more than the sum of our parts. The RH is the hemisphere that attends to the whole, the LH to the parts. ‘There are, then, two widely different ways of attending to the world.’ (p.43, The Master and his Emissary).

In talking about the issue of reduction versus holism Iain referred us to Addy Pross’s book ‘What is Life? in which Pross writes (p.50) ‘… – the seeking of generalizations, the recognition of patterns – is at the core of all scientific understanding’. Pattern recognition is the work of the right hemisphere.

‘The right hemisphere sees the whole, before whatever it is gets broken up into parts in our attempt to ‘know’ it. Its holistic processing of visual form is not based on summation of parts. On the other hand, the left hemisphere sees part objects.’ (p.47, The Master and his Emissary).

As an example of this we were asked if we could see the pattern in this image. Of course, once you have seen it, you cannot ‘un-see’ it.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.00.16

(See Figure 2.4. Emergence of the Gestalt. p.47 The Master and his Emissary)

The RH is also more active when looking at ambiguous figures such as in the figure below. In this image you can see either the duck or the rabbit, but you cannot see both at the same time. The RH is more tolerant of this uncertainty.

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 11.18.36

Iain went through many more examples of right and left hemisphere differences with particular reference to the images in Chapter 2 of The Master and his Emissary.

Iain then went on to refer us to Dreyfus’ work on adult skill acquisition, which is summarized in this Table, taken from their paper, p.181 (see reference list at the end of this post and for a larger view, click on the image).

Screen Shot 2015-03-26 at 09.07.22

My understanding is that Iain used this reference as another example of reduction versus holism. As beginners when learning a skill it is helpful to have some rules (see the comments section of my first post in this series, where there is reference to close reading of poetry and the fact that more structure can be helpful for novice poetry readers). But beyond Skill Level 3 (see Table 1) rules hamper the process and at Stage 5 reflection doesn’t help. We don’t want our surgeons to be referring to a rule book when making life and death decisions, choices are not always a good thing and research has shown that when we have time to review a choice, we often end up making a worse choice. Here Iain referred us to Barry Schwartz’s book – The Paradox of Choice. I interpreted this as meaning that the ‘expert’ takes an intuitive holistic view. For the novice, the skill is first seen by the RH as totally embodied. This is then broken down into individual components when thinking moves to the LH. Ultimately when the level of experience means that the skill is intuitive, there is a return to the RH.

Embodied Thinking and Emotion: Our bodies are not assemblages of parts. There is a direct link between the heart and the brain via the vagal nerve. The heart feeds back to the brain, not just pain, as in the case of chest pain associated with heart conditions, but also in relation to other conditions such as epilepsy and depression. We talk about having a ‘heavy heart’. Depression is a condition of the heart and research has shown that after heart surgery there is an increase in the instance of depression.

Thinking is thus embodied and so we should be mindful of our bodies and how we allow our thoughts to come to us. Thinking is distributed through the body, and there was reference here to the limbic system, which is primarily responsible for our emotional life; we know that emotion affects our immune system. This all relates to the embodied nature of thinking and emotion and the role of the right hemisphere, not only in emotion, but also in empathy and theory of mind. In his book The Master and his Emissary (p.57-64), Iain writes (p.59)

‘… there is evidence that in all forms of emotional perception, regardless of the type of emotion, and in most forms of expression, the right hemisphere is dominant’.

We see this in

‘… the strong universal tendency to cradle infants with their faces to the left, so that they fall within the principal domain of attention of the adult’s right hemisphere, and they are exposed to the adult’s own more emotionally expressive left hemiface.’ (p.61).

Reading this makes me stop and think about which side of my face I present when interacting with others. The RH is more willing to accept someone else’s point of view and is more able to feel someone else’s pain.

The value of slowing down, silence and stopping: This was mentioned quite a few times during the course, i.e. that for creativity, stopping doing things is more important than doing things. We started and ended this session by being reminded that we need to create the mental space for quiet receptivity and more careful attention. Creativity is not just letting things all fall out; we also need to bring critical things into play.

There was a lot more from Chapter 2 (What do the Two Hemisphere’s ‘Do’?) of the Master and his Emissary in this session, which I have not mentioned here. The message I took from this session is that we have not given enough attention to the right hemisphere’s role in thinking, it’s role in believing, feeling, emotion, embodied perception, pattern recognition and creativity, and that we should be more aware of the relationship between these and thinking.

Authors referred to during this session

Anthony Damasio (2005). Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. Penguin Books.

Hubert Dreyfus (1979). What Computers Can’t Do: The Limits of Artificial Intelligence. University of Chicago Press

Dreyfus, S. E. (2004). The Five-Stage Model of Adult Skill Acquisition. Bulletin of Science Technology & Society. 24: 117 Retrieved from: http://www.bumc.bu.edu/facdev-medicine/files/2012/03/Dreyfus-skill-level.pdf

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (1999). Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought. Basic Books.

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

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

Addy Pross (2014). What is Life? How Chemistry becomes Biology. Oxford University Press.

Max Scheler (1874-1928)

Barry Schwartz (2005). The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less (P.S.). Harper Perennial

Friday 20th March pm

This is the second in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist .

Here is a link to the first post. An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1.

An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 2. Two types of Language

 A basic grounding in the hemisphere hypothesis, including its significance for understanding the nature of language, which is often thought to be a left hemisphere tool only. (From the course booklet)

Looking at my notes I can see that I found it difficult to keep up in this session, maybe because it ran between 4.00 and 6.30 pm, at the end of a day which started at 9.00 – but here are some ideas that I captured and given their paucity, I can recommend Chapter 3 -Language, Truth and Music – of Iain McGilchrist’s book (The Master and his Emissary).

Iain started this session by reiterating that we need both the left and right hemispheres (LH and RH) – we need restraint and liberty, pleasure and adversity, hot and cold, thesis and antithesis; in this sense polarities are important. Language is not only in the LH, although language plays into the hands of the LH. Language is an embodied cry which can take us direct to experience and bring the whole world to life.

Iain quoted from Robert Graves’ poem, The Cool Web, in which Graves writes:

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.

Language protects us, but also insulates us from the reality of experience. Language is two faced. It distances us from and engages us with reality.

Iain reminded us that language is an outgrowth of music and that there are situations in life that don’t require words, which is what makes the telephone such a thin medium. Communication requires so much more than words. There is ‘talking to’ and ‘talking about’, and language is of greatest use when talking about. Language is not essential for communication and it is not essential for thought.  That thoughts don’t require words was illustrated with the story of the crow which solved an 8 stage logical problem. Here is a video of this from YouTube.

Language does help with certain kinds of thinking and communication, but obstructs others. Thoughts come before we have the language to speak them. We can see this in very young children who acquire language in an embodied way – they babble and point – always together. Speech is connected with arms and hands and gesticulation. Gesture and language are very closely connected.

Metaphor unsettles the meaning of our words. ‘It is what links language to life’. (p.115 The Master and his Emissary). Also on p.115 of The Master and his Emissary, Iain writes: ‘Metaphoric thinking is fundamental to our understanding of the world, because it is the only way in which understanding can reach outside the system of signs to life itself.’

Nietzche wrote: ‘communication is shameless; words dilute and brutalize; words depersonalize; words make the uncommon common.’ It was this last point that Iain focused on – ‘words make the uncommon common’, telling us that language tends to bring us back to the abstract, but also that careful use of language can break beyond the abstract.

Different types of attention means that we see things in a different way. We can reach out to grasp, but we can also reach out to connect to make a bond.

Screen Shot 2015-03-25 at 09.37.40

The Creation of Adam – Michelangelo

‘Both thought and its expression originate in the right hemisphere’ (p.189. The Master and his Emissary’. ‘… the richness of thought comes from the right hemisphere and is transferred across to the left hemisphere secondarily for translation into language’ (p.190). If we lose right hemisphere function then the world loses reality. This was illustrated with reference to Deglin and Kinsbourne’s work on an individual’s response to syllogisms when either LH or RH function is inhibited. This research showed that the RH remains true to experience, but the left hemisphere, ‘prioritises the system, regardless of experience: it stays within the system of signs’ (p.193. The Master and his Emissary) to the point of believing that a porcupine is a monkey because it is written on the card.

As was noted in the first session (see last blog post), the LH is a self-reflective hall of mirrors. Iain believes that we can break out of this through connecting with

  • the natural world
  • cultural truths
  • our bodies and embodiment, rather than thinking of the body as a sporting accessory
  • art
  • religion or spirituality, which is now a minority hobby when it used to be a framework for action

So – to sum up : The RH is more willing to pass information to the LH than vice-versa but the difficulty is in finding an appropriate language to represent the ‘embodied’ way in which the RH appreciates wholes. Hegel’s proposition (first suggested by Heraclitus) is that there is a unity of opposites and this is an important feature of dialectics – the co-existence of at least two conditions which are opposite to each other yet dependent on each other and presupposing of each other within a field of tension. This neatly describes the hemispheres – co-existing but continuously in tension.

Unfortunately the hemispheres can get out of balance. LH domination leads to a ‘hall of mirrors’ situation which results in less embodiment of learning and lack of awareness of ‘the other’.

This session ended with reference to a ‘loss of truth’ and the question ‘How do you get moral strength back into people who have lost it?’

Authors referred to during this session

Deglin, V. L. & Kinsbourne, M. (1996). Divergent Thinking Styles of the Hemispheres: How syllogisms are solved during transitory hemisphere suppression. Brain & Cognition, 31, 285-307

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

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power, trans. Walter Kaufmann (New York: Vintage, 1967),

William Ophuls (2012). Immoderate Greatness: Why Civilizations Fail. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.

William Ophuls (2013). Plato’s Revenge. Politics in the Age of Ecology. MIT Press

For the past four days I have been attending a 4 day course run by Field & Field, in a beautiful location near Broadway in the Cotswolds. The focus of the course was Iain McGilchrist’s work on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, which he explores in his book The Master and his Emissary. At the end of this course, I wrote on my feedback form:

It was a great privilege to be able to spend time over four days listening and talking to Iain McGilchrist whose breadth of knowledge of science, history, literature, art, poetry and music is so impressive. It is rare to attend a course where the latest in scientific research, in this case into the functioning of the left and right hemispheres of the brain, is integrated so effortlessly with the words of William Wordsworth and the art of Claude Lorrain and much more. The course provided in depth information about the work of left and right brain hemispheres, whilst also allowing us time and space to reflect deeply on our views of the world and the implications of left hemisphere dominance for our humanity, health, happiness and well being.

Over the next few posts I hope to capture some of the ideas that we discussed over the four days and my reaction to them. So here is the first post following the first session.

Friday 20th March am: An Introduction to the Divided Brain – Part 1 by Iain McGilchrist

A basic grounding in the hemisphere hypothesis, including its significance for understanding the nature of language, which is often thought to be a left hemisphere tool only. (From the course booklet)

The day started with seeing the solar eclipse which looked, in terms of shape, pretty much like this image below although we just saw it through a gap in the clouds and my view was of grey cloudy skies, a grey moon and a white sun.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 10.21.24Iain McGilchrist started his talk by telling us that we were about to enter a cloud of unknowing where everything we knew would be eclipsed by what it means to come into being. This was said a bit ‘tongue in cheek’ but was meaningful nevertheless.

He started by telling us a little about his background, his education in philosophy, English literature, medicine and psychotherapy, his interest in history, music, art and poetry, his work in a London hospital, his life on Skye, his writing. Iain talks fast and like his book the content of his talk is densely packed. I noticed that some of the 23 delegates in the room took no notes at all. I wondered what they would remember. For myself I tried to take down the points that seemed salient to me, but only captured a fraction of what he said. I have already reserved a place on next year’s course. Perhaps I will capture a little more next time round.

Here are the notes I took in this first session. Reading back through them I can see how meaningful they are to me, but for the reader will probably appear arbitrary since they are out of context (great stress was laid on the importance of context, in this course), and also reflect a personal selection and interpretation. These notes are not what Iain said, but what I thought he said.

A recurring theme through the four days was that the sum is greater than the parts. The experience of listening to a piece of music, such as Wagner, is much more than knowing which instruments are being used to play which notes in which combination. When a musician performs a piece of music, he is no longer thinking about individual notes. When an actor is performing we are no longer conscious (if he is good at what he does) of the actor, but are convinced by the character that is being portrayed.

There is nothing that goes on in us that is not embodied. Language defies us. Once you make the implicit explicit, it loses meaning. (This caused me to reflect on the value of close reading poetry, which is a central activity in some poetry courses, e.g. ModPo) It is not just the words, but the ‘way’ in which things are said that gives meaning. The tone of voice, irony, metaphor and humour all come from the right hemisphere (RH). The mind-body relationship was also a recurring theme through the four days.

Another recurring theme was the idea of inhibiting things as being enormously creative. The business of living is one of losing brain neurons. We have more brain neurons at birth than ever thereafter and life is a process of ‘sculpting’ the brain. The process of sculpture as one in which we need to lose material to reveal the creation, creates a strong image for me. There is also something important about keeping things apart. There are incompatibles in the brain which need to be kept apart. This function is served by the corpus callosum, the main band of neural tissue that connects the two hemispheres at their base, but also inhibits connections and stops the hemispheres from interfering with each other (see p.17/18 in the Master and His Emissary), but the corpus callosum is getting smaller with evolution and it is worth considering the possible implications of this.

The session then moved on to consider how the two hemispheres do things in different ways, with the left hemisphere (LH) being the hemisphere of doing and the RH being the hemisphere of being. The details of these different ways of viewing the world can be found in Iain’s book (2010) and I have blogged about them before. In this session the LH was discussed as being manipulative, seeing things as decontextualised, inanimate, abstract, the hemisphere of narrowing down to certainty, stasis and the familiar. The RH was discussed in terms of understanding, seeing things in context, open to possibility, being animate, in flow, unique, new and embodied. But the LH and RH need to work together to achieve a balance. They can be represented by this Yin Yang image. There is not an absolute dichotomy between the LH and RH, even though they are anatomically and genetically different.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 11.53.30

The RH and LH have different views of the world. We change the world according to how we attend to it. We filter out and create. We never just ‘see’; we ‘see something’. We have to make judgments to make a choice, which means that we blot some things out. We see according to our frame of reference and we get information according to what we are expecting to find. This means that we can become stuck in the hall of mirrors of the left hemisphere. A hall of mirrors was an important image for this course and was related to a left hemisphere world as being one that looks much like schizophrenia. Schizophrenics often have no RH function or RH failure and the link between madness and modernism has been written about by Louis Sass.

Authors referred to during this session

Iain McGilchrist (1982) Against Criticism. Faber & Faber

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

Oliver Sacks (1973) Awakenings. Vintage Books.

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Vilayanur S. Ramachandran – who refers to the RH as the Devil’s Advocate

February arrived in light and went out in shade. We had gloriously crisp cold sunny days for the first half of February in North West England and wet, windy, stormy weather for the second half. It’s ironic that this should also reflect the light and shade around my working life and research practice.

At the beginning of February our first research paper about learner experiences in the Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum MOOC (Rhizo14) which took place at this time last year, was published.

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

In the spirit of openness, and because we were grateful to all those who participated in the research, we published this in an open journal, Open Praxis, and then on publication sought feedback in various locations, such as Facebook, Twitter, on our blogs and Google+. This has been both a light and shade experience, reflecting the light and shade experiences that we reported on in our research.

I’m not sure why light and shade have been perceived by some to be oppositional to each other. My perspective is that they need each other to be able to see each other more clearly. We learn from both. But the paper seems, for some readers, to have further polarized discussion about the learning experience in Rhizo14, making the light and shade even more obvious and oppositional than it was before. An emerging light for me is that some of the issues that were raised by the paper are being discussed, which is surely a better outcome than the paper being ignored.

Other aspects of shade dotted through the month have been continuing concerns about the effects of ageing, not on me personally, but on those around me. I now find myself sending 80th birthday cards more than I have ever done in the past. With respect to dementia, I have learned this month that many people with dementia become grazers in their eating habits and that the best way to deal with this is to leave small bowls of chopped fruit, vegetables, nuts, chocolate and so on around the house. This piece of information has been comforting.

Two highlights this month have again been around art exhibitions. The first was seeing a film about David Hockney, his life and work which prompted me to think about his recommendation that we try and see the wider picture.  February has been all about trying to see the wider picture and reading Iain McGilchrist who writes that there are two ways of being in the world: in one (the way of the right hemisphere) we ‘experience’ the world, in the other (the way of the left hemisphere) we experience our experience, that is a re-presented version. The right hemisphere sees the whole. The left hemisphere sees the detail. What is new must first be present in the right hemisphere before it can come into focus in the left hemisphere (the new versus the known). The left hemisphere then returns the known to the right hemisphere for further experience. These are not McGilchrist’s words, but my understanding of his words. It seems to me that they might have something to say about experience, interpretation and practice in research. I am still thinking about this.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 14.44.43

The other highlight on the last day of February was a visit to Liverpool to see a fantastic production of Educating Rita at the Liverpool Playhouse, a play that asks us to consider what we understand by ‘education’ and shows us the light and shade that can occur in the process of education. What could be a more fitting play for me to see this month? :-)

Tate Liverpool

And this was followed by a visit to Liverpool’s Tate Gallery and the free Constellations Exhibition on the first floor, which explored connections between major contemporary works of art. There was a lot here that resonated with my learning this month, so I’ll finish off this post with a few images and observations, thoughts that struck me as I walked round, whilst still thinking about the meaning of education and the light and shade of the learning experience.

IMG_0426Robert Adams. Space with a Spiral 1950. (Steel Wire and Wood)

‘The spiral enables the incorporation of space into an art work as an       architectural element, bringing the surrounding space into an active relation with the physical volume of the sculpture.’

My attention was drawn to this sculpture and the role of space in its construction because of the discussion about our research paper (mentioned above), where the question was raised as to whether a participant who was not active and did not contribute openly in the course had the right to fill in the survey and feedback on the course. This sculpture reminds me of the value of not ignoring the invisible and not assuming that it does not have a role to play. In this sculpture the nodes and connecting wires are as much dependent on the space for their definition as the space is on them.

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Henri Matisse 1919. The Inattentive Reader. (Oil on canvas)

I have sometimes wondered in the past month and in reading the comments that have been made about our published paper (mentioned above), at some of the interpretations. Alternative perspectives are welcome and differences of interpretation are inevitable. As with any published writing, benefit from these alternative perspectives and interpretations can only come from close attention to the ideas presented in the text and a dispassionate attempt to discuss and understand them. What exactly did the authors say? Emotional responses might be inevitable, but might also be a distraction from focused attention, as for Matisse’s ‘Inattentive Reader’.


Mary Martin 1966. Inversion. (Aluminium, oil paint and wood)

Of this work Mary Martin wrote: ‘Establishment of the surface is a primary move, since the parting from and clinging to a surface is the essence of the relief. Then that space which lies between the surface and the highest point becomes a sphere of play, or conflict, between opposites, representing the desire to break away and the inability to leave the norm.’

In her work she recognizes the tensions and conflict that can arise when trying to interpret and/or break away from norms. For me it is interesting how this work fragments the reflected images, emphasizing that everything can be seen from multiple perspectives and as multiples.

Finally this photograph caught my attention.


Claude Cahun. I Extend My Arms. 1931 or 1932. (Photograph, black and white, on paper)

‘I extend my arms shows a dramatically gesturing pair of arms apparently emerging from inside a stone monolith of similar dimensions to a human body. Cahun’s photograph is a staged self-portrait in which her face and torso are replaced by inanimate stone, shielding her identity from the viewer.’

My reflections this month on light and shade have reinforced for me that our identities can be fragile and learners in ‘the open’ are vulnerable. The extended arms in this photo show a willingness to reach out, but the stone shield also suggests to me that we might need to protect our identities from open space. Open environments are spaces of both light and shade.

 Update: 06-03-15

In a comment on this post Simon Ensor has posted a link to a post he has made on his blog to which he has given the title – In a tangle. This made me think of another sculpture that I saw and thought about on my visit to the Liverpool Tate. Here is a photo of the sculpture with the artist’s name and details of the work.


Leon Ferrari (1963)

Tower of Babel

Steel, copper wire, bronze, tin and lead

Following the recent publication of our paper Frances Bell and I are grateful to the number of people who have taken the time to send us some feedback, on Twitter, in the Rhizo14 Facebook group and on Frances’ blog. 

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

Easy access for all to a recent paper is one of the benefits of publishing in the open and we have Open Praxis to thank not only for providing an open platform, but also for their quick turn around time (see previous blog post ), so that the paper was published before our thinking has moved on.

The most spontaneous and fun feedback session we have had so far was on Twitter, when Laura Gogia decided to tweet whilst she was reading the paper. I am still smiling at the memory and at the time I laughed out loud, as well as finding the discussion interesting and helpful.

But the point I would like to pick up here is in response to a comment made by Keith Hamon on Frances’ blog. Keith focussed on a reference we made in the article to Marshall’s work on ethics in MOOCs.

Marshall, S. (2014). Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35(2), 250–262.

I should say here that our paper was about learner experiences in the Rhzio14 MOOC. An emergent outcome of our research was that ethics is an area worthy of more attention in MOOCs, particularly MOOCs which take a very experimental approach to pedagogy. But ethics was only one emergent issue. In our next two papers we will pick up on others. A paper about the rhizome metaphor has been submitted and we are working on a paper about community formation in MOOCs.

But to return to Keith’s comment – ‘New structures demand new ethics’. On reading this, I immediately wondered whether this is true, so I had a bit of a hunt round to see what else has been written about this. I explained to Keith, on Frances’ blog that I cannot claim to be an expert about ethics – in the sense that I have limited experience of reading/writing about it. I have been reading Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and his Emissary and on p.429, he points out that expertise is actually what makes an expert and comes from the Latin word ‘expertus’, meaning ‘one who is experienced’.

On my search I found that, as you might expect, one of the professions (apart from philosophy) that has thought a lot about ethics is medicine. I wouldn’t be surprised by an alignment of some sort between medical ethics and educational ethics, since both professions are concerned with the care of people.

In a 2004 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, KC Calman wrote about evolutionary ethics and questioned whether values can change. Here is the Abstract for the article:

The hypothesis that values change and evolve is examined by this paper. The discussion is based on a series of examples where, over a period of a few decades, new ethical issues have arisen and values have changed. From this analysis it is suggested that there are a series of core values around which most people would agree. These are unlikely to change over long time periods. There are then a series of secondary or derived values around which there is much more controversy and within which differences of view occur. Such changes need to be documented if we are to understand the process involved in the evolution of differences in ethical views

Calman, K.C. (2004). Teaching and Learning Ethics. Evolutionary ethics: can values change. J Med Ethics: 30:366–370. doi: 10.1136/jme.2002.003582. Retrieved from: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1733900/pdf/v030p00366.pdf

A similar perspective, i.e. that whilst values might change leading to new ethical issues, some core principles remain unchanged, has been reported more recently on The New Ethics of Journalism blog.

In this article the core principles are thought to be truth, independence and minimizing harm, which are similar to Calman’s list in his article on p. 369: where he wrote that core values which have not altered in medicine are:

  • doing no harm (non-maleficence);
  • a wish to do good (beneficence);
  • the desire to be fair (justice),
  • and a respect for the individual (autonomy).

The ‘‘Golden Rule’’, ‘‘Do unto others as they would do to you’’, ‘‘Love thy neighbour’’ or even the ‘‘My mother principle’’ (if it was your mother what would you do?) express in a different ways some of these sentiments.

ethics sign

Source of image

I did not come across these articles before we wrote our paper, but the core values listed in both journalism and medicine articles are very similar to the list sent us by one of our interview respondents, who we quoted on p.9 of our paper:

  • Do no harm
  • The expectation is that interactions will be mutually respectful
  • Provide and allow space for reflection
  • Ad hominem attacks should not be permitted as a method of discussion
  • There should be a duty of care or necessarily emotional labour on the part of those calling together/convening/organizing/providing these amorphous spaces
  • All cMOOC participants have a duty of care and nurture and responsibility toward others or for themselves, mitigating the need or desire to externalize (blame) their learning and experience on others.

So do new structures demand new ethics? Certainly we need to be vigilant in keeping our understanding of educational change and educational values up to date and with that, as in the journalism article, consider whether there are new ethical issues. But my brief hunt around the literature, and my own gut feeling, suggests that there are core principles such as ‘Do no harm’ which will never change and can always be an expectation.

As Iain McGilchrist writes on p.443 of his book The Master and his Emissary:

We can’t remake our values at will. …. Societies may dispute what is to be considered good, but they cannot do away with the concept. What is more the concept is remarkably stable over time. Exactly what is to be considered good may shift around the edges, but the core remains unchanged.

Update 23-02-15: Pat Thomson has just written a post about ethics in research in which there is a line which exactly says what I have been struggling to say

Ethics seems to me to be to be about a sensibility, a way of being in the world as a researcher.

For me this would apply not just to researchers. These are the words I was trying to find when talking about core principles.

So far this year, I have been fortunate to have two journal articles published. It is always exciting after months of work to finally see papers in print. The first paper to come out in January was

Williams, R., Gumtau, S. & Mackness, J. (2015).  Synesthesia: from cross-modal to modality-free learning and knowledge.  Leonardo Journal 

The second came out this month

Mackness, J. & Bell, F. (2015). Rhizo14: A Rhizomatic Learning cMOOC in Sunlight and in Shade. Open Praxis. 7(1), p. 25-38

The history behind the publication of these two papers couldn’t be more different. Read on and then decide which history you would prefer. Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 18.08.52 The Leonardo paper which I worked on with Roy Williams and Simone Gumtau is published in Leonardo Journal. This was quite a coup for us; on the ranking of visual arts journals released by Google Scholar it came in fourth. If I worked for a University, like Simone does, this would be important not just for me, but also for the University’s Research Excellence Framework’s (REF) ranking . Looking back in my folders and files, this is the history I find:

Jan 2012 Started work on the Synesthesia article
March 2012 First draft of the paper was completed
End of July 2012 Submitted to Leonardo Journal
Nov 2012 Received comprehensive reviewers comments
Jan 2013 Resubmitted and paper accepted for publication in Jan 2014
Jan 2015 Paper published

Following acceptance it seemed to take for ever to get permission for the images we wanted to include and meet the image quality requirements of Leonardo Journal. Roy did a huge amount of work on this. Ultimately the paper was not published until Jan 2015. The quality of the publication in terms of the work of the publishers in preparing this paper is very high. It looks great Leonardo is a closed journal with very strict copyright regulations. We cannot share the paper (for example on Research Gate) for another 6 months. Despite this we have had quite a few requests for this paper.

 Time from start to finish = 3 years 

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 18.10.30 The Open Praxis paper was published on Feb 14th this month. The history of this paper is as follows:

Feb 2014 Frances Bell and I started discussing the ethical framework and possible approaches for the research
March to Sept 2014 Collection and analysis of data
July 2014 Presentation about research in progress to ALTMOOCSIG at UCL 
Sept/Oct 2014 Literature review and writing
10th Nov 2014 Submitted
13th Jan 2015 Accepted with no required changes. Feedback from reviewers. Made some minor edits
14th Feb 2015 Published

The process was very smooth with great attention to detail by the Editor and a good looking publication as an outcome. All communication with the Editor was courteous and helpful. In addition Open Praxis is an open journal and there were no issues with our coloured Table. We have been able to blog and tweet about this publication and are already receiving positive feedback.

Total time from start to finish = 1 year

Update: Just as I finish writing this post, Open Praxis tweets a brief report on Open Praxis figures and data (2013-2014) which is very interesting and reports an increasing impact as a journal.

Screen Shot 2015-02-12 at 18.32.00 Source of image

I have been following David Hockney’s work since the 1960s and this week I saw a film which wonderfully captured his work and life and brought back so many memories for me; the sort of memories that people usually associate with music. This Guardian article provides good coverage of the contents of the film and this video clip provides a flavour of the film

In such a rich life, there is much that I could comment on, but anyone who knows Hockney’s work, will know that in addition to drawing and painting he is also interested in the role of technology in his work, using the ipad for drawing, and photography and film for seeing the world differently.

Near the end of the documentary film that I went to see this week, they showed his film work in which he has simultaneously used 9 cameras to film the changing seasons of a Yorkshire landscape.

I first saw this at his exhibition at the Royal Academy in 2012. What struck me in the documentary film I have seen this week, was that Hockney said that historically paintings have sought to take our eyes inwards, into the painting, using perspective and the well known vanishing point. But in this film he suggested that perhaps, rather than looking inwards, we should be looking more broadly and outwards, to the sides, above and below, as he does with the 9 cameras.

This seemed to me to resonate with Iain McGilchrist’s work on trying to understand the relationship between the left and right hemispheres of the brain – in his book the The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.

The two hemispheres have different ways of attending to the world and produce different realities (p.176). The right hemisphere is the hemisphere of broad vigilant attention, of seeing the whole picture; the left hemisphere is the hemisphere of focused attention, just seeing what it expects to see (p.163).

It struck me in watching the film that throughout his work Hockney has been trying to make us see differently; in other words, to make more use of our right brains.

I wonder what that means for writing,


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