Open University Innovating Pedagogy Report, 2019

Ferguson, R., Coughlan, T., Egelandsdal, K., Gaved, M., Herodotou, C., Hillaire, G., Jones, D., Jowers, I., Kukulska-Hulme, A., McAndrew, P., Misiejuk, K., Ness, I. J., Rienties, B., Scanlon, E., Sharples, M., W., & B., Weller, M. and Whitelock, D. (2019). Innovating Pedagogy 2019: Open University Innovation Report 7. Retrieved from https://iet.open.ac.uk/file/innovating-pedagogy-2019.pdf

Stephen Downes recently posted a link to this report on Innovating Pedagogy on OLDaily, together with this comment.

The introduction to this guide (45 page PDF) predisposes me to like it, though as I went through the ten pedagogical models presented (ranging from ‘playful learning’ to ‘learning with robots’ to ‘making thinking visible’) I found myself imagining about how these would be introduced and presented and instantiated (and a whole MOOC curriculum opened up in my mind, yet another project I’d love to undertake but just can’t). ‘ Place-based learning’, for example, speaks to me: I can easily imagine taking some students into a place, whatever it is, and asking them what they can infer from their surroundings. It’s just these sorts of activities that create the perspective and breadth of vision needed to do things like develop the sort of ethical sense I allude to in the next post. Good guide, with useful resources listed at the end of each section.

I agree with Stephen’s last two sentences. The report makes for interesting reading and suggests 10 innovations that the authors think have the potential to provoke major shifts in educational practice.

In the Introduction the authors group these into:

  • Pedagogies which have a long history, have proved to be powerful and engaging, and are now being developed further.
  • Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.
  • Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.
  • Pedagogies that respond to changes in society.

Pedagogies which have a long history

Playful learning to focus on motivation and process as opposed to memorisation and testing. The report states that: There are concerns that an emphasis on memorising and testing in education leaves no space for active exploration or playful learning. At the same time, playful learning doesn’t fit well in many current education systems. And that is the problem. Playful learning takes time. The whole system would need to be changed to allow for this time, as evidenced by the example included of a low tech, high play school in California. 

Learning through wonder – sparking curiosity, investigation and discovery. This is not new, but it is so important and so obvious that you have to ‘wonder’ why it has been lost. I’m not sure that wonder can be taught, but if teachers are aware of its significance in learning then their teaching will reflect this. The report claims that this is innovative as follows:

Philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato saw wonder as a spur for learning, when we confront our familiar conceptions and explore strange new idea……The innovative practice here is a curriculum design that builds upon and extends the heritage of wonder, encompassing virtual trips to wondrous places, digital cabinets of curiosities, and student-led object lessons.

Many philosophers have emphasised the importance of wonder, from Descartes (‘wonder [is] the first of all the passions’) to Wittgenstein (‘Man has to awaken to wonder – develop a sense of wonder at the very existence of the world’). And Einstein once said:

‘The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle’ (Einstein, 1940, p. 5). (Source: McGilchrist, I., 2010, The Master and his Emissary, p.491).

For wonder to be an innovative pedagogy in today’s schools, the school would need to adopt this as its principal mission, as in Rudolf Steiner schools. From the report p.24):

The educational philosopher Rudolph Steiner saw children’s early years as a period to stimulate their imagination though wonder at the beauty of nature, the elegance of numbers, the design of artworks, and the telling of a suspenseful story. He saw his Waldorf School as a place to foster a spirit of wonder that combines thinking, feeling, and doing.

But wonder is surely not confined to early years schooling.

Place-based learning. Location is a trigger for learning. As the report says: Place-based learning isn’t new, but mobile technologies have opened up new possibilities in this area. The report describes how a multi-disciplinary approach can be taken to learning when using location as a trigger for learning, i.e. the location can be used to apply learning from different subjects, for example, from history to mathematics. This reminds me of topic-based learning, which used to be the way children were taught in UK primary schools, pre-National Curriculum.

Pedagogies that are strongly linked to new technologies.

Learning with robots to free teachers’ time so that they can focus on more human tasks. This seems bizarre to me. My personal view is that teachers need less administrative tasks, i.e. we need to do away with the excessive focus on administrative tasks rather than replace them with robots.

Drone based learning – enabling and enriching exploration of physical spaces, so that students can visit inaccessible landscapes. The report claims that drone-based learning can extend what can be achieved in fieldwork, which seems fairly obvious. I’m not sure that this can be claimed as innovative pedagogy though – rather it’s good use of an advancing technology.

Pedagogies that provide ways of addressing challenges.

Action learning in teams – finding solutions to apply in daily life through problem solving and raising questions, with a focus on collaboration. Again, this is necessary but not new.

Virtual studios. Hubs of activity where learners develop creative processes. The focus is on developing creative processes. Linear ways of thinking are challenged, and uncertainty is embraced through practice. Time previously spent developing traditional skills of sketching and making is now spent on developing literacy with digital tools.

Virtual studios are all about online exchange of ideas, rapid feedback from tutors and peers, checks on progress against learning outcomes, and collaboration. They provide tools for recording, reflecting, and archiving. The aim is to support learning through inquiry and dialogue. Virtual studios enable students and tutors to work together even if they are in different places and working at different times.

As reported in the document, virtual studios follow similar principles to DS106, a digital storytelling MOOC/course, which started in 2013 , so it’s difficult to think of this as innovative, but maybe it is innovative for schools.

Making thinking visible – opening windows into student learning. Digital tools offer a wide range of opportunities for students to construct and express their understanding, alone or in collaboration with others. Again, this doesn’t feel particularly innovative and seems to relate to reflective learning.

Roots of empathy – social and emotional learning. Roots of Empathy is an award-winning classroom programme designed to teach children empathy so they can interact with others healthily and constructively. The intentions of the programme are to foster empathy and emotional literacy, reduce bullying, aggression and violence, and promote prosocial behaviour.

I think it’s a sign of times that this is considered as an innovative pedagogy. There is some evidence that children spend so much time on their machines (phones, ipads etc.) that they are losing the ability to read faces, and so are less able to empathise. – e.g. see  https://www.cdmc.ucla.edu/digital-media-is-making-young-people-lose-the-ability-to-read-emotions/ 

Pedagogies that respond to changes in society

Decolonising learning – changing perspectives and opening up opportunities. The report says that we need a view of the world that is not white, male and European. We need a curriculum that explores multiple perspectives and promotes the ability to cope with change. Of course, but what will be removed from the current curriculum to allow space for this?

Decolonising Learning opens up the most exciting, and the most unsettling, possibilities. This is a pedagogy that could produce radical changes in education, leading to learning that not only supports and develops communities but is also strongly rooted within them p.7

The authors have explained what they mean by ‘innovative pedagogies’.  We mean novel or changing theories and practices of teaching, learning, and assessment for the modern, technology-enabled world. p.6

Whilst the report provides a valuable perspective on what might be needed in education to counter approaches which focus on learning as ‘something to be consumed, … a set of facts and skills that must be transferred from experts to learners’, I don’t see any of these ideas as being novel or innovative. I do not doubt that they are needed, but if, as the report admits, some of them have been around a long time, I have to wonder what has prevented them from being adopted more widely.

It seems to me that if we value these pedagogies, which for the most part I do, then the innovative approach would be to challenge the constraints that prevent them from being adopted, which I would see as an overloaded curriculum and excessive surveillance and measurement of teachers’ and students’/pupils’ performance. As it stands I would expect many teachers to feel that these are just more innovations which they should add to their already over-crowded teaching workload.

I can’t see that any major shifts in educational practice will occur unless the underlying constraints and approaches are tackled first. The Open University has published an Innovating Pedagogy Report each year since 2012.  It would be interesting to know what the impact of these reports is. How many teachers adopt these pedagogies? Is there any evidence of a shift in understanding of what constitutes quality teaching and learning?

Listening to and Learning from the ‘Other’

For a few months now I have been struggling to understand the idea of the ‘Other’, i.e. the capitalised Other. Why is it that so many people write about it and make such a big thing of it?

Having read around it a bit – not a lot, because, from my perspective, it’s hard to find anyone who writes about it with any clarity – I am beginning to wonder if, after all, it is a very simple idea. Basically each and every person who is not me is ‘Other’, which seems obvious, so what is the issue?

As I see it, and from my reading about the French/Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), in whose work a dominant theme was the ‘Other’, there are three significant issues which make the ‘Other’ worthy of being capitalised.

  1. No man is an island, as John Donne said.

We live in relationship with all things and all people. In an interview with Rebel Wisdom Iain McGilchrist 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’.

This is a significant idea because it means not only that we live in relation to all other people, but that our self cannot come into being without the ‘Other’, or as Gary Goldberg wrote in a comment on a previous post (‘Attending to the Invisible Other’),  ‘Being for the Other precedes Being for oneself’. Our identity depends on being in relation to the ‘Other’.

  1. This raises the second issue, that of responsibility for the ‘Other’.

Levinas was concerned with what it means to understand the world on the basis of the ‘Other’. He stressed that we must recognise our responsibility for others, but this responsibility can strain our sense of self, because if I always see myself in relation to others, then I cannot be separate from others.  This has been interpreted by one author as follows:

‘Whenever I see the face of another person, the fact that this is another human being and that I have a responsibility for them is instantly communicated. I can turn away from this responsibility, but I cannot escape it. This is why reason arises out of the face-to-face relationships we have with other people. It is because we are faced by the needs of other human beings that we must offer justifications for our actions. Even if you do not give your change to a beggar, you find yourself having to justify your choice.’ (DK Philosophy book)

And Young (1995) writes:

I am always and always have been in relation to the Other – meaning the other person. The presence of the Other calls me to service and responsibility. The Other brings myself into being, through my separation from the Other.

The face of the Other, makes it clear that ‘I am not everything – that everything does not belong to me and that my consciousness does not encompass everything’.  Everything also belongs to the Other.

We might ignore, but cannot escape our responsibility for the ‘Other’. But what does this mean in practice? I have just spent a month in India, where it was hard not to recognise the ‘Other’ and consider what my responsibility for the ‘Other’ is. Should I, or should I not give money to this family of beggars I saw on the streets? Would that fulfil my responsibility to them? And why do we tend to focus on ‘Others’ who are extremely different to us, when our immediate neighbour is also ‘Other’? How do I prioritise my responsibility? Should I prioritise responsibility? And what forms should my responsibility take? These are the sorts of questions that consideration of Levinas’ idea of responsibility for the ‘Other’ have raised for me.

  1. This leads to the third issue. How can the ‘Other’ enter into ‘my’ world without simply being reduced to that world?

I interpret this to mean, how do I see myself in relation to others as opposed to over and above others, and how do I maintain and respect difference?

On thinking about this, I realise that we probably try and dominate the ‘Other’, in the sense of hoping for a degree of sameness, more than we think we do. If you have children, think of the number of times you might have wished that your child will be like you, at least in your values. Or if we find ourselves in a different culture, how often do we look for and value ‘sameness’, for example, being able to laugh at the same things? How comfortable do we really feel with difference? How easy do we find it to fully embrace and respect difference, without trying to mould it into sameness?

Another common denial of the ‘Other’s’ difference is when we limit the ‘Other’ to a category, e.g. race, gender, age etc. In this sense the ‘Other’ is dominated and controlled by the same, which is what Levinas was warning against.

I have found myself wondering why Levinas’ thinking about the ‘Other’ and ‘Otherness’ continues to hold people’s attention.  I have come to the conclusion that it is not so much whether or not we recognise that the ‘Other’ exists. In fact I can’t see how anyone could be unaware of the ‘Other’. Every person is a unique individual, different to every other person, so every human encounter is with the ‘Other’. It’s more about how we respond to the ‘Other’. Do we try and dominate the ‘Other’? Do we accept responsibility for the ‘Other’? Do we try to listen and learn from the ‘Other’?

Levinas invites us to listen to the voice of the ‘Other’. This, he believes, is our moral and ethical responsibility.

Bibliography

Michael Barnes  Introduction to Levinas, https://youtu.be/RaPNYQ_qdII

Beavers, A. (1990). Introducing Levinas to undergraduate philosophers. Colloquy Paper, Undergraduate Philosophy Association, 1–8.

Buddeberg, E. (2018). Thinking the other, thinking otherwise: Levinas’ conception of responsibility binnen de muren van een verpleegtehuis voor ouderen. Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, 43(2), 146–155.

Kader Düşgün, C. (2017). The Self and the Other in the Philosophy of Levinas. Mediterranean Journal of Humanities, 7(2), 243–250.

Nooteboom, B., Levinas, E., Levinas, F., & Bellow, S. (2012). Levinas, 1–8.

The Dorling Kindersley Philosophy Book

Walicki, M. (1996). Levinas for the Beginners, 1–9.

Young, B. (1995). An Introduction to Levinas.

 

Visiting Kolkata with a Wheelchair User

Visiting Kolkata with a wheelchair user is a challenge and certainly not for the faint-hearted. Hand-pulled rickshaws are being phased out, but there is little sign that facilities for wheelchair users are being phased in. I think it would be fair to say that Kolkata is the most inaccessible city for a wheelchair user that we have ever visited. We were there three days and in all that time of being out and about for eight hours each day, I didn’t see one other person in a wheelchair. Given the difficulties of getting about this is not surprising.

If you are a wheelchair user, and are thinking of visiting Kolkata, then here are some of the experiences we had that might inform your visit.

First, a little background so that you can compare your condition with ours. It is not me, the author of this blog post, who uses the wheelchair, but my husband, so I am writing from the perspective of the carer of a wheelchair user. I can’t imagine a wheelchair user travelling to Kolkata without a carer, although I do know that there are some extremely intrepid young wheelchair users who travel the world alone. We are not in that category.

My husband is in his 70s,  a quadriplegic, partially paralysed from a spinal chord injury. We are fortunate that he can still stand and, with support, bear his own weight, but he cannot walk. So he is permanently in a wheelchair and is not a user who, for example, needs a wheelchair at an airport because of the walking distance required. He simply cannot live or get about at all without a wheelchair.

We arrived in Kolkata from Kerala, travelling with Indigo airlines. Some airlines, in this case both Indigo and Etihad in Kolkata, don’t have a lot of experience with wheelchair users  (or at least not with wheelchair users who cannot walk and cannot get out of their chair without being lifted). And they have no experience of more active wheelchair users who travel with a bicycle attachment, as we did. Not surprisingly the lithium dry cell battery for this attachment caused great concern, despite the fact that we have a certificate showing that it is safe to travel with. And we also learned that the airport staff, whilst extremely polite and kind, do not know how to lift someone who is paralysed. It is essential to speak up and say exactly how it should be done, or demonstrate, or do it yourself. Everything at the airports therefore takes longer than expected, however much information you have provided before-hand. So be sure to allow time for this.

 
At Kolkata Airport

We had, of course, booked our hotel prior to travelling, making specific requests for a disabled friendly building, bedroom and bathroom. We arrived to find that there was a flight of steps into the hotel and a very steep ramp, too steep for me to push even this very light wheelchair user up and scarily steep for going down, but a group of the hotel staff did this very willingly. We also found, on arrival, that we had been allocated a room with the shower over a bath. We asked for a room change and finally were given a room with a walk in shower. However, when it came to it, and after we had unpacked, we found that the door to the bathroom was not wide enough for a wheelchair to pass through. We were told that all the doors in the hotel were the same width. We also met this problem in restaurants, when we asked for access to a bathroom. But it is amazing how with a bit of imagination it is possible to find ways round these sorts of problems and make things work. Sometimes we surprise even ourselves with our ingenuity.

For the three days we were in Kolkata, we had booked a car and a guide. The guide was wonderfully informative and the driver turned out to be an absolute gem. The car we used was a Toyota Innova, and the seats were too high for my husband to be able to get in. This meant that the driver and I between us had to lift him in and out several times a day. The guide wasn’t strong enough to do this. I always worry that willing, but inexperienced helpers, are going to end up pulling a muscle or damaging their backs. But the driver and I had this off to a fine art by the end of the three days. You might ask why we didn’t have a smaller car, where the seats would have been lower. The answer is that we needed a car big enough to take our wheelchair which doesn’t fold. A good driver is also essential because of the traffic. Kolkata is so crowded with traffic and people that suitable parking, to enable a wheelchair user to get into and out of the car safely, is very difficult to find. Our driver was a master at making this work, holding up traffic if necessary.

Although we were driven around Kolkata, we obviously had to get out to visit the sites. Most places were, in one way or another, inaccessible to a wheelchair user, but, as we have found elsewhere around the world, people are usually very willing to help, and, in a crowded city like Kolkata, it is fairly easy to find four strong people to lift the wheelchair and occupant up (or down) a few steps. Despite this most of the sites were inaccessible for a wheelchair user. There were often too many steps, so we either gave the site a miss, or my ever patient husband waited outside while I had a quick look inside. Leaving a vulnerable person alone on a pavement in a crowded city is not ideal, so I never lingered.

Outside the Indian Coffee House

These are the sites we visited, or rather, I visited; many of them my husband viewed from the outside. At least it was warm and didn’t rain while we were in Kolkata, so waiting outside was not as uncomfortable as it might have been.

Site Accessible Notes
Dalhousie Square, now known as Benoy-Badal-Dinesh Bagh (B.B.D. Bagh) Yes No traffic on a Sunday morning so easy to wheel round.
St John’s Church Yes Accessible via a ramp.
Job Charnock’s Mausoleum Not inside Can only be seen from the outside.
Rabindranath Tagore’s house No Flight of steps to enter.
The Flower Market

 

No. Flight of steps to enter, but flower sellers can be seen along the pavements outside the market.
The Indian Museum Only in part Access difficult and very crowded. Steps into the Bharhut Gallery to see the famous railings, but the public helped to lift. No access to the first floor galleries for us, because our wheelchair was too wide to go down the corridor to the lift.
Walk along the Hooghly river starting at the Princep Ghat Monument Yes Good path once over the railway line.

 

Birla Mandir Hindu Temple No Long flight of steps to enter.
Mother House Yes One step to enter and a further step inside. The Sisters were very helpful. No access to Mother Teresa’s room which is up a flight of steps
Jain Temple Access to the grounds only No access to the temple. Flight of steps.
The Book Market Yes, but very difficult Pavements very crowded and uneven.
Indian Coffee House No Flight of steps.
South Park Cemetery Yes Some surfaces were difficult to wheel over.
St Paul’s Cathedral Yes Access round the back via a very steep ramp. Ask inside for the back door to be unlocked.
Kalighat Temple No Steps to enter. The surrounding area is very crowded. The number of people make it an unpleasant, if interesting, experience for a wheelchair user.
Victoria Memorial Yes Loose stones on the walk up to the memorial building makes wheeling very difficult. Entrance is via a ramp round the back, but at the top of the ramp is a flight of steps. Public needed to help lift. Very crowded inside.

A site that we didn’t have time to visit, but probably would have been accessible, is the Botanical Gardens. We were sorry to miss them.

So not only were many of the sites inaccessible, but the experience of the three days for my husband was of being bundled in and out of a car and up and down steps like a piece of baggage.  I asked him if, as a wheelchair user, it was worth visiting Kolkata. His response was that most things can be made to work, so it depends on what your motive is.

For us the motive was that Kolkata is where I was born and I wanted to see it once more, having not been there for 65 years. We both found that this was motive enough to make the visit interesting and worthwhile, but it will definitely be a one off.

Would I, as the carer of a wheelchair user, recommend Kolkata as a place for a person in a wheelchair to visit? The answer to this question would have to be ‘No’. Kolkata simply does not cater for people in wheelchairs and I think it will be a long time before this becomes a priority. It has too many other issues and problems to address.

But, as we have shown, with enough help, with a positive mental attitude, and under the right conditions, it can be done. These conditions, from our perspective, are that:

  • You can afford to stay in the best hotel possible, have a car permanently at your disposal, and have at least two people helping you.
  • You are small and light, and use a small and light wheelchair, ideally a folding wheelchair. The crowds of people, the steps everywhere, and the amount of lifting needed, make this very necessary.
  • You are not afraid to ask people for help. The people of Kolkata give their help very willingly.
  • You are scrupulous about keeping clean, particularly your hands, so wear gloves and use plenty of hand wipes or antiseptic gel.
  • You are careful where you eat. We relied on our guide to choose suitable restaurants and decide on the menu.
  • You have a patient, tolerant disposition and a sense of humour.
  • You have a motive for visiting Kolkata beyond tourism.

I took photos at all the sites we visited. You can see them here – Kolkata, 2019

I have also written posts about visiting Venice and Rome with a wheelchair user.

Revisiting Calcutta (now Kolkata) after 65 years

I was born in Calcutta in 1946 and lived there until I was eight years old, when my father decided that we must leave. India was no longer a comfortable place for the British – at least, in hindsight, I think that was what he thought. I was too young at the time to appreciate the problem. Leaving India was no easy decision. My mother cried for months after returning to the UK. My father who had been financial director of a well-known Calcutta firm, Shaw Wallace,  had to start again in the UK as a junior accountant, making tea for his seniors.

I do not remember a lot about my early childhood in India. I put this down to the trauma that the whole family suffered on our return to the UK. We were all grieving for India, and I, at the age of eight, was packed off to boarding school. I don’t think my mother could have coped any other way.

At the beginning of this week, 65 years later, I was in Calcutta again, only this time I was calling it Kolkata. (Many of India’s city names that I grew up with have been changed). I was only there three days, and on this occasion that was just the right amount of time – time enough to see many of the key tourist sites (see my Flickr album),  time enough to get a feel for the city of my birth, and time enough to listen for the ‘voices in the ground’. I learned this wonderful and so apt expression, which describes the sense of ‘deja vu’ experienced, or that history is speaking to you, from a blog post recently written by Lisa Lane.

It would be fair to say that I was fascinated, excited, stunned and appalled by Kolkata all at the same time and in equal measure. The first thing that hit me was the seeming chaos everywhere (although we didn’t visit new Kolkata, which we were told is calmer, cleaner and quite different to the old Kolkata that we were seeing). The difference from the tranquil Kerala backwaters we had just left, could not have been more stark.

When we asked our travel guide how he copes daily with the chaos, his reply was that since he was born and brought up in Kolkata he is ‘habituated’. The noise is incessant, with constant blaring of vehicle horns, despite the sign ‘No horns’ on taxis. The traffic is nose to tail all the time, with apparently no driving rules. It’s every man for himself. You cannot move for people, not only on the streets, but in all public places. I cannot see how Kolkata will ever surmount the problems which are obviously associated with being over-populated. But most troubling was the dirt. A clean place felt like a sanctum. The shame is that in old Kolkata all the original buildings with their wonderful balconies and shutters still exist, and could look amazing if they were cleaned up. We were told by our excellent guide, Manab, that this won’t happen because the owners have to pay higher taxes if the housing they are living in looks ‘smart’. Evidently these homes which look so grimy on the outside, are quite different on the inside, well maintained and cared for.

Manab also told us that the Kolkata we see today is not the same Kolkata that was home to my parents, my brother and myself in the 1930s, 40s and 50s. In those days the population was much smaller and the streets and buildings were cleaner, he said. The problem started with partition and a massive increase in population for which Kolkata was not prepared and is still not prepared; immigrants are still arriving from Bangladesh, to sleep under tarpaulins and use standpipes for washing, along all the streets of old Kolkata. For me, this was a sight that could not be ignored. I wondered if I would become ‘habituated’ to this if I lived in Kolkata.

Despite all this, Kolkata is not a miserable place. Incredibly it seems to work, with people going about their daily business seemingly impervious to the chaotic hurly-burly around them. For Manab, an educated, well-read, knowledgeable and travelled man (a retired electrical engineer), Kolkata is truly a ‘City of Joy’. He had read Dominique Lapierre’s book of the same name, which he said he enjoyed, but thought it over-emphasised the problem of poverty in Kolkata. I found it hard to understand this perspective. Poverty on the streets of Kolkata seemed to me to be overwhelmingly in your face everywhere. But Manab also said, when we visited the Kalighat Temple to the goddess Kali, ‘All life is here’. With this I could and did agree, and it was this that made Kolkata such a rich and colourful experience. It was so alive – teeming with life.

My parents are no longer alive. I wish I had talked to them more about their 15 years in Kolkata. I wonder if they ever visited the Kalighat Temple. I somehow doubt it. I once asked my mother why she didn’t know more about Indian cookery. The answer of course was that she didn’t have to cook. I suspect that my parents, for the most part, lived in a British community bubble. I got an inkling of what that must have been like when we visited the Tollygunge Club, where my parents were members – an oasis of calm compared to the streets we had driven through to reach it. I can remember having weekly riding lessons there at 6.00 am before school, and also spending Christmas Days there.

In those days the Club was exclusively British, but Anil Mukerji, the current President of the Club, who kindly gave up an hour of his time to show us round, made it plain that there is no longer a place for anything exclusively British in India.

For the most part the impression I got is that the people of Kolkata are immensely proud of their city with its incredible buildings such as the Cathedral and Victoria Memorial, which they fully acknowledge are their inheritance from the time of British rule. As Anil Mukerji said, good and bad has been done on both sides and now the UK and India are friends. Whether or not this is true, it is the people of India that stand out for me. They are so wonderfully generous of spirit, so wonderfully tolerant, patient and kind.

So did I hear ‘the voices in the ground’ in Kolkata? I certainly walked a small way in the footsteps of my parents, even finding the address on my birth certificate, 10 Palace Court, Kyd Street, where I must have lived on first entering this world. I felt excited and happy to be in Kolkata again after so many years. Despite not recognising a single thing, it felt familiar.

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

New Year’s Eve in Kerala, 2018

On this last day of 2018 I have spent some time, here in Kerala, under blue skies and in beautiful surroundings, reading an interview that Jonathan Rowson conducted with Iain McGilchrist in 2013.

Rowson, J. McGilchrist, I. (2013). Divided Brain, Divided World: Why the best part of us struggles to be head, (February), 1–100. Retrieved from https://www.thersa.org/globalassets/pdfs/blogs/rsa-divided-brain-divided-world.pdf

It struck me that the article has many messages for how I might wish to progress into 2019.  Here are some quotes that seem apposite to the time of year and maybe more broadly.

McGilchrist says:

“… we are caught in vicious circles. Many things seem crucial for a good life only because of the very mess we have got into. We have less and less time, so we need to rely more and more on gadgets and machines to shore up our lives – an aspect of the pressure under which we live, the lack of leisure. We need expensive foreign holidays when we want to relax, because we have made the places we live in so alien, so limiting and so sad.”

Since I am on an expensive foreign holiday, a month in India, it’s not surprising that this passage caught my attention. Of course it’s possible to criticise McGilchrist’s use of ‘we’, question who ‘we’ refers to and feel uncomfortable with the generalisation, but nevertheless, for me, there is some truth in this. I don’t find my home in the UK alien, limiting or sad, but I do feel more relaxed here in Kerala than I have for years, so it’s interesting to reflect on why this is and what could be changed at home to replicate this feeling.

McGilchrist goes on to say:

“… for many people their family is what gives life most of its meaning. It is these sort of things – the experience of love, of the spiritual realm, of a sense of closeness to nature, of music, art and the rituals and ceremonies that form an essential part of our sense of ourselves individually and as a society, that bring meaning in their wake. And there is barely one of these that is not under attack in some form as a result of the way we live now.”

These sentences also strike me as having truth in them – words to hold on to through next year.

McGilchrist then suggests that

“We must step back to see the bigger picture. Living headlong we skim over the surface of the world rather than allowing ourselves to enter into its depth. At the same time, as it might seem paradoxically, our view is too ‘close up’: always in a hurry, we are narrowly focussed on a few salient things and miss the broader picture. We need to find a more natural, a slower, more meditative, tempo. That way too we see more.”

“It’s in any case a good discipline to keep an open mind, not to think one knows it all, and to respect and to some extent feel in awe of what is greater than ourselves. By the same token, it’s a disastrous belief that we understand everything and have it all under control.”

The final sentence I selected to share in this post is

“… we must all, from the ground up be involved with and committed to resolving these problems – not just a government on its own, and not just isolated groups of individuals without government support.”

All these quotes resonate with me on one level or another and seem worth thinking about as 2019 is almost upon us. As I write this, it’s 8.30 pm here in Kerala and sitting here on the veranda of our homestay, the homes across the water are competing for which one can play their celebration music the loudest. But this small coastal community here in Kerala, when it is not New Year’s Eve, is a great example of a place with a more natural, a slower, more meditative, tempo.

Wishing anyone who reads this a happy and fulfilling 2019.

A-Z of my year – 2018

I first wrote a post like this in 2016.  I didn’t write one last year. Here is one for this year. It has seemed more difficult this year than in 2016, but perhaps that’s just my memory, or perhaps it’s because I am in Kerala, away from home and access to some of my resources.

 

A – A better year than 2017. Announcing one family wedding for 2019 and one family engagement

BBettyBaymaas Homestay

CCotswolds. Cycling. Caring

DDurham with Lisa

EE-Learning 3.0Existentialism. Ethics. Epistemology

F – Fifty. This year’s number.

GGolden wedding. Garden. Good friends

HHexham. House improvements. Hot summer

IInclusion paper published.  India

J – John, my future son-in-law

KKerala. Kitchen renovation

L Lanzarote. Lisa’s visit 

MMcGilchristManchester

N No Things. This year’s most intriguing idea.

O – Offers made on two houses, but we are not moving yet

P – Philosophy. Physiotherapy

Q – Questioning the meaning of life and death

RRome. Retirement?

SSedberghScampston Walled Garden. Speke Hall 

TThe Trossachs. Tennis Elbow

U –  Uncertainty

VVatican City 

W –  Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Watering the garden this summer. Weight-training

X –  eXtravagant holidays for a special year

YYork

Z – zzz – time to end this year and this post.