The Meaning of Depth and Breadth in Education

Sea port with the Embarkation of the Queen of Sheba, by Claude Lorrain (1648)

This image is used by Iain McGilchrist in his discussion of depth. On Plate 7 in his book, The Master and His Emissary, he writes: Here light, colour and texture of the stone surfaces all emphasise the depth of perspective in both time and space, drawing us into felt relationship with the world.

Depth is another theme from Iain McGilchrist’s book that I am currently exploring. McGilchrist doesn’t write about this in relation to education. Rather, in his book, The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he examines the ways in which the two hemispheres of the brain attend to the world, both attending to everything, but each attending differently. Through extensive research and presentation of evidence he makes the case that we live in a world increasingly dominated by a left hemisphere perspective. In relation to the topic of ‘depth’, this is the hemisphere that views the world as a two-dimensional representation from the perspective of a spectator, whereas it is the right hemisphere that has a three-dimensional perspective and appreciates depth. For McGilchrist depth is related to perception and a world that has depth involves seeing beyond the plane of vision (p.300).

McGilchrist also believes that it is the right hemisphere that underwrites ‘breadth and flexibility, whereas ‘the left hemisphere brings to bear focussed attention’ (p.27). Here, McGilchrist is referring to the breadth and flexibility of attention, rather than of the curriculum.

What does this mean and why might it be significant for education?

Breadth

McGilchrist relates breadth to types of attention; the neuropsychological literature has distinguished five types of attention: vigilance, sustained attention, alertness, focussed attention and divided attention. McGilchrist writes: ‘The right hemisphere is responsible for every type of attention except focussed attention’ (p.39) i.e. a broad, flexible and global attention.  What might it mean to think of breadth in education, not in terms of curriculum coverage, but in terms of flexibly using different types of attention to open ourselves up to understanding the world? McGilchrist has said that how we choose to attend to the world determines what we see. From this it follows that a broad, flexible and global attention is required for a broad perspective.

Depth

McGilchrist, like Merleau-Ponty, believes that ‘Depth is the necessary condition for embodied existence’ (p.149). For McGilchrist depth is related to the importance of context, and an understanding of spatial depth is essential to knowing how we stand in relation to others. He writes:

Depth is the sense of a something lying beyond. Another way of thinking of this would be more generally in terms of the ultimate importance of context. Context is that ‘something’ (in reality nothing less than a world) in which whatever is seen inheres, and in which its being lies, and in references to which alone it can be understood, lying both beyond and around it. (p.181).

For McGilchrist (p.183):

Depth, as opposed to distance from a surface, never implies detachment. Depth brings us into a relationship, whatever the distance involved, with the other, and allows us to ‘feel across’ the intervening space.

Breadth and depth in education

Whilst educators may be familiar with the idea that depth refers deeper thinking and to digging deeper into a subject with the aim of gaining deeper knowledge, we may not be so familiar with the idea that ‘A sense of depth is intrinsic to seeing things in context’ (p.300).

More commonly, in education, depth in learning is often counterpoised with breadth. How to balance depth and breadth of learning and the curriculum has long been a concern of teachers and curriculum designers. To what extent should students cover a broad range of subjects as opposed to covering fewer subjects in depth, and which subjects merit being studied in depth? At what point in a student’s education should specialisation be introduced? As one blogger has put it, ‘The exact mix between coverage and depth is elusive…’ and these questions continue to be difficult to answer, particularly in the current age when specialisation may be regarded as counter-productive given the changing job market and uncertainty about the future of work. In Times Higher Education (March 7, 2019) Anna McKie asks: In a rapidly changing world, is a broader approach to the university curriculum needed to develop the critical thinking and creativity increasingly sought after by employers. It is not hard to find similar reports pushing for more diversity in the curriculum. For example a recent article questions whether the Bachelor’s degree is fit for purpose in the twenty-first century and concludes that there is a need for universities to ‘shift their models to accommodate the lifelong learning needs of students for whom breadth of knowledge, rather than just depth, is key to a successful future.’

McGilchrist has been quoted by Richard Lagemaat on Twitter as saying:

“Our educational system …. has become specialised in such a way that it is now quite possible to become a scientist with only the most rudimentary acquaintance with the history of cultures and ideas. This is regrettable, but it is a fact.”

But when McGilchrist writes about depth he is not thinking of depth solely in relation to specialisation or how this should be balanced with breadth, and he is not thinking about breadth solely in terms of curriculum diversity and coverage.  Rather, he is thinking about how we attend to the world and he is concerned that in a world that is increasingly viewed from a left-hemisphere perspective, we fail to see things in context.

McGilchrist’s belief is that everything is interconnected; everything is in relation to everything else. ‘One must never lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (p.154), i.e. we must not lose sight of the whole. But the thrust of McGilchrist’s book is that, if the left-hemisphere’s view is now the dominant view of the world (and there is plenty of evidence in his book to support this claim), this is exactly what we are losing sight of. We are losing the ability to see beyond and around the object of our attention, to see it in its full context. We are increasingly seeing it in two dimensions or even in one plane as a schematic, abstract, geometric representation of the visual world, with a lack of realistic detail. This loss of a sense of depth alienates us from the world.

We need to see through the eye, through the image, past the surface: there is a fatal tendency for the eye to replace the depth of reality – a depth which implies the vitality, the corporeality and the empathic resonance of the world – with a planar re-presentation, that is a picture. In doing so, the sublime becomes merely the picturesque. (p.373)

Depth is related to the profound.

Do McGilchrist’s ideas about breadth and depth have implications for education? They seem to offer the possibility of a different perspective on the meaning of breadth and depth. There will always need to be choices made about which subjects should be included in the curriculum, and whether and when students need to specialise in specific subjects. But perhaps thinking about breadth in terms of flexibility (i.e. flexibility of attention) instead of coverage, and thinking about depth in relation to the need for an appreciation of context offers an alternative perspective. Breadth and depth do not need to be opposed or even thought of in terms of balance. They are both integral to counteracting a view of the world which is dominated by the left-hemisphere’s perspective, a world which we see from the perspective of a spectator as a two-dimensional representation.  Instead more focus on breadth and depth, as understood in McGilchrist’s terms, would encourage a view of the world as a connected whole, where everything is seen in context and there would be increased insight into the nature of complexity.

We now live in an age where we are told that 4-year old children need to learn about relationships so that they can grow up healthier and happier; that screen addicted children spend just 16 minutes a day playing outside; and that 75% of UK kids spend less time outdoors than prison inmates. Whether or not these reports are accurate, they do reflect, to some degree, McGilchrist’s concerns that we need more experience of the lived world, viewing it from a broad, global perspective and experiencing it in context in three dimensions through first-hand experience, rather than through a two-dimensional screen. McGilchrist’s explanation of the meaning of breadth and depth offers an alternative perspective which could bring new insight into these issues.

Reference

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

What is the point of it all?

I subscribe to Aeon digital magazine – an online magazine of ideas, philosophy and culture. A recent video bearing the title ‘An ageing philosopher returns to the essential question: ‘What is the point of it all?’ caught my attention. The ageing philosopher in question is Herbert Fingarette, who died at the end of last year, at the age of 97.

This is the link to the video: https://aeon.co/videos/an-ageing-philosopher-returns-to-the-essential-question-what-is-the-point-of-it-all  (18 mins)

In this film, recorded in the last months of his life, Herbert Fingarette reflects on his life and what it means to be 97, to outlive a deeply loved wife by seven years, to know that what you can now do (after a long and successful career as a professor of philosophy and author) is increasingly limited, and to accept that death is near.

For me this is a moving film, sad and concerning, but also uplifting.

It was sad to see how very much he still missed his wife, being moved to tears on listening to music that they had both enjoyed together. I was struck by his description of her as ‘absent present’. ‘Her absence has been a presence’.

It was also sad to hear him talk about being afraid of death. In 1999 he published a book, Death. Philosophical Soundings, in which he wrote that it is not rational to be afraid of death and that there is no good reason to fear death. But now he doesn’t believe this. He is now (at the time of filming) afraid of death and doesn’t know why.

For me it was concerning to see what I perceived to be the utilitarian nature of care in old age, and I realised that I hope that when my turn comes I will be cared for by someone who loves me, rather than by someone for whom care is a job, however good they are at that job.

But it was uplifting to see a 97 year old still interested in life, reading with the support of his computer, listening to music, drawing in pencil and pastels, and still moving about his house unaided and surrounded by his own possessions. And most importantly, still learning. All his life until now, at the age of 97, he has not appreciated the beauty of the trees in his back garden. Now he says, ‘Seeing the trees is a transcendent experience’. At the age of 97 this is a new experience, which connects him to life.

It’s not surprising that so near the end of his life he is still asking ‘What is the point of it all?’ This is the preoccupation of many philosophers. His conclusion was that there is no point. It’s a foolish question. But by his own acknowledgement he had a happy life and more importantly he had experienced what it means to love and be loved. Perhaps that is the point.

The Meaning of ‘Flow’ in Education

Anyone who follows this blog will know that I am interested in the work of Iain McGilchrist and what we can learn from his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Currently I am thinking about what implications some of the central themes of this book might have for education. The theme I have been exploring is ‘flow’.

When educators talk about ‘flow’ in education, they are more likely to be thinking of the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced ‘me-high-cheek-sent-me-high’) rather than Iain McGilchrist. Csikszentmihalyi’s work has been influential in encouraging teachers to consider questions of motivation and how to fully engage their students in learning. His theory of flow, ‘the holistic sensation that people have when they act with total involvement’ (Beard, 2014) or ‘being in the zone’, dates back to 1975, when he noticed that artists could be completely immersed in their work for hours and hours, losing sense of time passing, and completely focussing on process rather than outcome. They ‘go with the flow’. He wondered why then did schools treat children as if they were rats in a maze, ignoring the importance of process and focussing instead on outcome and reward.

Csikszentmihalyi has described eight characteristics of flow:

  1. Complete concentration on the task
  2. Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback
  3. Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down of time)
  4. The experience is intrinsically rewarding
  5. Effortlessness and ease
  6. There is a balance between challenge and skills
  7. Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination
  8. There is a feeling of control over the task

These characteristics describe the process needed to experience ‘flow’ in Csikszentmihali’s terms. Being in a state of ‘flow’ is thought to deepen learning or at the very least make learning more enjoyable.

Csikszentmihalyi is known to have related his work to education, whereas McGilchrist relates his work more broadly to living in and attending to the world, which, although not specific to education, certainly has implications for education. In his book The Master and his Emissary, McGilchrist provides substantial evidence for two ways of attending to the world;  the way of the left hemisphere of the brain and the way of the right hemisphere. I have written a number of posts about this in the past and am not going to repeat it here. A good introduction to those new to McGilchrist’s work is this video  and this short book, which summarises his key ideas – Ways of Attending: How our Divided Brain Constructs the World.

For Iain McGilchrist, ‘flow’ isn’t something experienced only when certain conditions are met. Rather he considers that all things are in flow all the time, including ourselves. He often uses the mountain behind his house to illustrate this, saying that if we could slow things down sufficiently we would be able to see the mountain flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

We are always growing and are therefore always in a state of change and self-repair, and always in a state of flow. We are never the same from one moment to the next, neither is anything else. As Heraclitus is purported to have said, we can never step into the same river twice.

McGilchrist suggests that seeing the world as in a state of flow, is to understand it as ‘live, complex, embodied’, a ‘world of individual, always unique beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected’ (p.30). This perspective avoids fragmentation of knowledge, something that Csikszentmihalyi also believes is necessary to experience flow. But if everything is always in flow and always changing, how can anything ever be known?

The answer, according to McGilchrist, is that ‘We have to find a way of fixing [experience] as it flies, stepping back from the immediacy of experience, stepping outside the flow’ (p.30).  The evidence that we do this in education is all around us. However, there is a danger in doing this if it results in an obsession with ‘fixing’ such that our experience is fragmented, and knowledge is always broken down into measurable ‘bits’ which can be tested, the assumption being that we can then tick that ‘bit’ off as known. Stepping ‘outside the flow of experience’ gives us a view of the world that is ‘explicit, abstracted, compartmentalised, fragmented [and] static (though its ‘bits’ can be re-set in motion, like a machine)…’ (p.93). Such a world is easier to manipulate and control, and makes us feel more powerful.

According to McGilchrist, the problem is that, whilst we need to ‘step back from the immediacy of experience’ to know anything, we tend to get ‘stuck’ in this view of the world which prioritises ‘clarity; detached, narrowly focussed attention; the knowledge of things as built up from the parts; sequential analytic logic as the path to knowledge; and […] detail over the bigger picture’ (p.177). As such we lose sight of the whole.

For McGilchrist experiencing ‘flow’ means experiencing the whole and understanding:

  • Empathy and intersubjectivity as the ground of consciousness
  • The importance of an open, patient attention to the world, as opposed to a wilful, grasping attention
  • The implicit or hidden nature of truth
  • The emphasis on process rather than stasis,
  • The journey being more important that the arrival
  • The primacy of perception
  • The importance of the body in constituting reality
  • And emphasis on uniqueness
  • The objectifying nature of vision
  • The irreducibility of all value to utility
  • Creativity as an unveiling (no-saying) process rather than a wilfully constructive process.
  • The challenge for educators is how to reconcile the need to fix and test within a flow mindset.

McGilchrist has always stressed the importance of ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to the ‘either/or’ thinking, which seems to dominate much of our work in education. He tells us that for strength and stability, and to avoid fragmentation and disintegration, we need to be able to hold opposing ideas in dynamic equilibrium, an idea that seems particularly relevant to current times. He illustrates what he means by this with an image of the taut string of a bow or lyre (p. 270):

The taut string, its two ends pulling apart under opposing forces, that for bow or lyre is what gives its vital strength or virtue, is the perfect expression of a dynamic, rather than static, equilibrium. This holding of movement within stasis, of opposites in reconciliation, is also imaged in Heraclitus’ most famous saying, that ‘all things flow’. Stability in the experiential world is always stability provided by a form through which things continue to flow’.  

An education system which focused more on ‘both/and’ thinking and seeing the world as being in continuous ‘flow’, would need what McGilchrist has called ‘a change of heart’. Amongst other considerations, there would need to be less fragmentation and measurement, a greater focus on process, connection and context, an appreciation of depth, a tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty and a view of the world as embodied rather than conceptual. From this perspective knowing would be seen as an emergent process, rather than fixed. Is such a paradigm shift achievable, or have we already stepped so far out of the flow of experience that we have lost sight of the importance of also viewing the world from a perspective of ‘flow’?

References

Beard, K.S. (2014). Theoretically Speaking: An Interview with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on Flow Theory Development and Its Usefulness in Addressing Contemporary Challenges in Education. Educ Psychol Rev. 27, 353-364

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

Carrot Cake

I don’t remember when I first tasted carrot cake, but I have known for a while that it is my favourite type of cake. It still surprises me that I like carrot cake so much. Carrots are not an especially preferred vegetable, although I do eat them in a variety of ways.

When I was eight years old I was sent to boarding school, a bit of a traumatic experience for any young child. One of the better memories of this four year experience was that each and every child in the school was given a small allotment plot in which we could grow whatever we wished. Amongst other things I grew carrots. Even if you are not keen on eating carrots, they are beautiful plants to watch grow. They have such lovely feathery foliage, magical for children, and even more magical when you pull them up to find a crop of carrots underneath, a crop that you can actually eat. Although I’m not a big fan of boarding schools for young children, looking back, I think it was very enlightened of the school to encourage children to tend gardens and grow their own crops.

But back to carrot cake. At eight years old I didn’t know there was such a thing as carrot cake. I was brought up on Victoria sponges and the like. Carrot cake only came into my life when I took up cycling about eight years ago. A frequent, local, flat, 20 mile ride involves a half way stop at a café which, up to today, I thought sold the best carrot cake ever, particularly delicious with cappuccino ten miles into a bike ride.

I have many a time told the café owners this, but after today will not be able to do so again, because today some friends came for lunch and brought with them really the best carrot cake ever. Evidently the recipe was a BBC Good Food one. My friend told me, ‘I’ll tell you that this is the recipe, even though I know you will never bake one.

Recipe: https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/recipes/3229/yummy-scrummy-carrot-cake

From now on I will associate carrot cake with a really enjoyable lunch with good friends, but also with the query in my head about whether my friend knows me better than I know myself. Yes, it’s true that I haven’t baked a cake since our children grew up and ‘fled the nest’. I decided I had had enough of baking, but also just two of us simply cannot eat a whole cake these days, even over a few days. But will I really never bake another cake? And what is it that my friend knows about me that I don’t know about myself? It’s always intriguing to consider how others perceive you.

Who would have thought that carrot cake could lead to these memories. I have to put this down to the fact that the cake in itself was an especially memorable experience, invoked by the senses, which triggered off more memories, which in turn were invoked by the senses. I think even Descartes would have had to trust his senses that this was an absolutely delicious cake.

What did Socrates ever do for us?

‘What did the Greeks ever do for us?’ was the question discussed in a U3A philosophy group I joined last week, which turned out to be a very enjoyable way to spend an hour and a half – not really long enough to get to grips with the question, or even to get to the question at all, but certainly long enough to provoke some thinking, particularly about Socrates.

In preparation for this we were asked to read ‘Apology’ by Plato and translated by Benjamin Jowett . Apology is Plato’s account of Socrates’ self-defence against the charges of not recognizing the gods of the state and corrupting the youth of Athens. Plato of course was one of Socrates’ greatest admirers – a student of Socrates. And Aristotle was a ‘student’ of Plato. There was so much discussion around the Apology that there was little time to discuss Plato and Aristotle, apart from a brief discussion about Raphael’s fresco, The School of Athens, which can be seen in the Vatican museums. We were asked to consider what the fresco tells us about Plato and Aristotle’s philosophies.

There is so much information ‘out there’ about these three giants of philosophy, so many websites, so many articles, so many books, all of which are easy to find, that there is no need to repeat it all here and we only needed brief reference to it in our session.  Instead we focussed on these questions related to our reading of The Apology.

  1. What are the charges brought against Socrates?
  2. Why does Socrates think that the Athenians would be harming themselves rather than harming Socrates if they put him to death? What service has he provided the city of Athens by philosophizing there?
  3. Do you think Socrates is wise to disregard the possibility that he may die if he does not please the court?
  4. Why does Socrates think that ‘an unexamined life is not worth living’?

For me the most interesting question was Q3, because when reading The Apology I found myself increasingly irritated by what I perceived to be Socrates’ arrogance. On the one hand he claims ‘the truth is that I have no knowledge’ and ‘I have no wisdom, small or great’, but that doesn’t stop him from claiming that the oracle at Delphi told him that there is no wiser man than he. Then he decided to test the oracle’s words by trying to find a man wiser than himself, but in discussion with various citizens considered to be the wisest in Athens, he decided they were not wiser than him and told them so, and then was surprised that they hated him. This he justified with the following words (according to Plato’s record):

Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him.

In this vein Socrates went to politicians, poets and artisans and found himself to be superior to them all for the same reason. At this point I found myself questioning his wisdom. And at this point too I began to wonder at his complete lack of self-doubt and his unshakeable belief in his own virtue and worth. ‘I shall never alter my ways, not even if I have to die many times’. So convinced was he of his own worth that he told his accusers that if they killed him they would injure themselves more than they would injure him.

For if you kill me you will not easily find another like me, who, if I may use such a ludicrous figure of speech, am a sort of gadfly, given to the state by God; and the state is like a great and noble steed who is tardy in his motions owing to his very size, and requires to be stirred into life.

Of course we have to remember that we only have Plato’s word that these statements actually came from Socrates. Socrates himself never wrote anything down. And we also have to try and think about the events in the context and culture of the time, for example the significance of the oracle’s statements.

Nevertheless, Socrates’ self-defence does raise the question of whether or not it is ‘wise’ to choose to die for your beliefs. For Socrates the difficulty was not in avoiding death but avoiding unrighteousness. He simply could not have lived with himself, had he not stuck to his principles. As such he could be said to have written his own death sentence.

Men of Athens, I honor and love you; but I shall obey God rather than you, and while I have life and strength I shall never cease from the practice and teaching of philosophy, exhorting anyone whom I meet after my manner, and convincing him, saying: O my friend, why do you who are a citizen of the great and mighty and wise city of Athens, care so much about laying up the greatest amount of money and honor and reputation, and so little about wisdom and truth and the greatest improvement of the soul, which you never regard or heed at all? Are you ashamed of this?

But maybe by signing his own death sentence Socrates scored the most important goal of his career and ensured that he would go down in history as the founder of moral philosophy, who established the method of trying to get at truth through persistent open questioning.

(With thanks to Lisa Lane for sending me this video, which made me laugh)

As Bryan Magee writes in his book (p.23): The Story of Philosophy. A Concise Introduction to the World’s Greatest Thinkers and Their Ideas,

It is doubtful whether any philosopher has had more influence than Socrates. He was the first to teach the priority of personal integrity in terms of a person’s duty to himself, and not to the gods, or the law, or any other authorities. This has had incalculable influence down the ages. Not only was he willing to die at the hands of the law rather than give up saying what he believed to be right, he actually chose to do so, when he could have escaped had he wished. It is a priority that has been reasserted by some of the greatest minds since – minds not necessarily under his influence. Jesus said: “What will a man gain by winning the whole world, at the cost of his true self?” And Shakespeare said: “This above all: to thine own self be true.”

It’s interesting to consider whether Socrates needed to die to be remembered for his philosophy and method. The consensus at the U3A group seemed to be that he did.

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.

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?