Challenges of 21st century education: Past and present reforms

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

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

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

Radley College

Faraday High School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and that:

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

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

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

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

But he ends on a more optimistic note, writing:

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

References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing Times in the Classroom: What is Education For?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testing Times in the Classroom: Personal Educational Experiences and Influences

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

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

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

The event

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

The people

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Challenges of 21st Century Education

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_____________________________________________________________

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

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

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

Top 100 Education Blogs in 2019 for Educators and Teachers

The Education World Forum

Global Education Conversation 2019 from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Gavin Dykes from Education World Forum on Vimeo.

Artificial intelligence & the future of education systems. Bernhard Schindlholzer

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

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

Truth in Education

To help us prepare for the Rebel Wisdom Summit on May 12th , in London, participants have been sent links to a number of videos which feature the keynote speakers, Iain McGilchrist, Bret Weinstein, Heather Heying and Jordan Greenhall (see my last blog post for links to the videos). I have been particularly interested in the videos in which Heather Heying appears. Heying is an evolutionary biologist who, having been forced, in 2017, to leave her tenured position at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, together with her husband Bret Weinstein, now describes herself as a Professor in Exile.

Although I was not aware of Heather Heying’s story before watching the Rebel Wisdom videos, the idea that free speech is being curtailed in the name of political correctness and social justice, is not new to me. Mariana Funes and I discussed this in relation to the work of Jonathan Haidt in our 2018 paper When Inclusion Excludes: a counter narrative of open online education.  I have some personal experience of the negative consequences of ‘going against the grain’, so I was interested in what Heather Heying had to say in the video in which she and Bret Weinstein discuss ‘Having a Real Conversation” with David Fuller, a founder of Rebel Wisdom. According to some news reports, Bret Weinstein asked students for a ‘dialectic‘, a ‘real conversation’, rather than a ‘debate’ about the issues that led to his leaving Evergreen State College with his wife Heather Heying, but this did not transpire.

A lot of what Heying and Weinstein say in the ‘real conversation’ video is not new to me. My experience is that good teachers know that they have to ‘set the stage’ when starting a new course or a new term with school children, and that it is worth spending some time at the beginning of the course or term mutually agreeing how the class will work. Good teachers also respect their students and know that they must ensure that everyone has a voice and that alternative perspectives are respected. I am not an evolutionary biologist, so I cannot say whether the potential for conflict in evolutionary biology classes and similar subjects is greater than in, say, something like physics or mathematics, but I suspect that it may be, especially in America where there are schools teaching creationism.

At about six minutes into the video, Heather talks about freeing students from the yoke of authority and learning to think for themselves. At this point she also says, If we’re trying to figure out what is true, science is the best tool we have,  and If we find that we can’t do science on what you’ve said, what can we do to what you’ve said to make it falsifiable. The longer we can’t falsify it, the more likely it is that it is true. So she takes a scientific approach to truth.

I specifically noticed this because I have just finished reading Julian Baggini’s book, A short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. On the back cover of this book is written:

How did we find ourselves in a  “post-truth” world of “alternative facts”? And can we get out of it? A Short History of Truth sets out to answer these questions by looking at the complex history of truth. Renowned and respected philosopher Julian Baggini has identified ten types of supposed truth, and explains how easily each can become the midwife of falsehood’.

Baggini discusses empirical, authoritative and reasoned truths, the idea that truth should be grounded in evidence, that truths can be known and that reason can lead to truth. All these seem to be the kinds of truths that Heather Heying focuses on as the basis for real conversations with her students.

But there are also, according the Baggini, eternal truths, esoteric truths, creative truths, relative truths, powerful truths,  moral truths and holistic truth. These seem to emphasise different aspects to how we recognise truth than the empirical truth focussed on by Heying. This made me wonder whether the idea that there can be many types of truth was discussed by her students and how this idea might influence the outcome of a ‘real conversation’.

According to Iain McGilchrist we cannot go to science for truth. As I wrote in a previous blog post he believes that

Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Given that both Heather Heying and Iain McGilchrist will be speaking at the Rebel Wisdom Summit, I will be very interested to see whether the question of truth comes up, and if it does the extent to which they agree or differ on the meaning of truth.

And I wonder what they would both think of Baggini’s simple rubric to help us nurture truth. This is how Baggini ends his book in a discussion of future truths. (p.107)

  • Spiritual ‘truths’ should not compete with secular ones but should be seen as belonging to a different species.
  • We should think for ourselves, not by ourselves.
  • We should be sceptical not cynical.
  • Reason demands modesty not certainty.
  • To become smarter, we must understand the ways we are dumb.
  • Truths need to be created as well as found.
  • Alternative perspectives should be sought not as alternative truths but as enrichers of truth.
  • Power doesn’t speak the truth; truth must speak to power.
  • For a better morality we need better knowledge.
  • Truth needs to be understood holistically.

References

Baggini, J. (2017). A Short History of Truth. Consolations for a Post-Truth World. Quercus.

Funes, M. & Mackness, J. (2018): When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638 When Inclusion Excludes MF:JM 280218

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

Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying, “Having a Real Conversation”: https://youtu.be/ZBkF-xJh6tU

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.

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.