Left and Right Hemisphere Approaches to education

Having returned from the Field & Field conference on Exploring the Divided Brain with Iain McGilchrist, which took place in the Cotswolds, UK, between 2nd and 5th August 2021, I have spent some time reflecting on the workshop I ran, which was billed as follows:

Paradigm shift in education? What can we learn from Iain McGilchrist?

Many educators are concerned with the increasing instrumentalism of our education systems, where students are thought of as future economic assets. There are also concerns about the almost exclusive focus on a ‘back-to-basics’, essentialist approach in our schools. Some are happy with the existing system, others call for more progressive, existentialist approaches, and/or the greater integration of values such as integrity, diversity, inclusivity, and compassion. Iain McGilchrist has said that our current thinking is increasingly dominated by the left hemisphere’s narrowly focussed way of attending to the world. He believes that nothing short of a paradigm shift will bring about the change needed to counter this dominance. 

In this session we will discuss some of the key themes that run through The Master and His Emissary, themes such as two ways of knowing, flow, embodiment, depth and breadth. Could these themes be used to bring about a paradigm shift in education, i.e., a shift towards the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world? In this workshop, we will explore if and how this could happen.

As always (this is the fifth Field & Field conference I have attended) I found the conference completely exhausting and overwhelming in the content that I now need to process. Knowing this I asked for my workshop to run on the very first day, when I thought I would be more likely to be alert! This has both positive and negative consequences. The positive is that I and others do have more energy at the beginning of the conference (this was important because what I asked participants to do was not easy), the negative is that participants haven’t had the chance to listen to Iain’s lectures and so bring that knowledge to bear on the task.

Overall, I think the workshop went as well as could be expected, given the limited time we had (about an hour and a quarter) and the working space I was allocated, which was called the Piano Lounge. This was effectively the hotel lobby, so we had to compete with a lot of background noise, although the hotel did finally turn off the canned music on request. I assume I was given this space because I had said I would not be using technology (no PowerPoint presentation, just pencil, paper and talk) and there were other workshops using technology. The space wasn’t ideal, but it didn’t come anywhere near my worst experience of an allocated teaching space. Years ago, I was once timetabled to teach one group split into two small rooms at opposite ends of a long corridor. I reckon if you can pull that off you can run a session in any space 🙂

I did wonder what participants would make of the workshop. I knew it would be a challenge. As mentioned in my previous post on this topic, I hoped that we would be able to discuss whether it is possible to apply some of the themes that run though Iain McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary (themes relating to a right hemisphere approach to the world), to education.

But first we looked at a scenario (arias-school-experience-200721)  of what a 15 year old girl’s school experience might be like in 2030, if we continue to promote the left hemisphere dominated approach to education that many countries seem to be advocating. I named the girl Aria. To create this scenario, I adapted some work done by Neil Selwyn and colleagues (Neil Selwyn, Luci Pangrazio, Selena Nemorin & Carlo Perrotta (2019): What might the school of 2030 be like? An exercise in social science fiction, Learning, Media and Technology).

The question I asked the group was whether this scenario is realistic. If so how, if not, why not? The general consensus was that it is a recognisable scenario, although maybe not all the facts included in the scenario are found in one school, but rather across different schools. Selwyn et al. include five different vignettes in their paper. I used one because of time constraints,  but my workshop participants agreed that this scenario depicts a left hemisphere approach to education.

The reason for starting with this scenario was that I felt that if participants were to have any chance of reimagining an education experience that aligns more with the right hemisphere in the given time, they might need a story/narrative to help. We could imagine a real child’s experience rather than an abstract concept.

At this point I asked participants to consider what Aria’s school experience might be like if it was based on the themes,

  • Two kinds of knowing
  • Flow and betweenness
  • The ‘Other’
  • Depth and Breadth
  • Embodiment
  • Creativity
  • Qualification

All these themes reflect characteristics of the right hemisphere’s approach to the world. My idea was that participants would work in twos, threes, or fours, to discuss one of the themes and answer the question ‘What would Aria’s school experience be like if it was based on the theme you are working on?’ For each theme I gave participants some text taken from the Master and His Emissary, so that they could focus on what Iain McGilchrist has written about them. No group was given ‘Two Kinds of Knowing’, as I felt that in any discussion of education, no matter what the theme, the left hemisphere’s role should always be remembered. Although we were focussing on the right hemisphere’s way of working, my view is that we should not ignore or demonise the left hemisphere. Instead, we should aim to try and restore some balance.

This is the handout I provided on the themes (the-master-and-his-emissary-key-themes-150821). I wanted the focus to be on lessons from The Master and His Emissary, rather than on educational psychology and philosophy more broadly, although it is possible to see many parallels between some educational philosophers’ work and McGilchrist’s work.

Prior to the event, I tried to answer the question for each of the themes myself, to see whether it was achievable in the time and how hard a task I was setting. A result of this was that, against my better judgement, I decided to provide a worked example ( on the theme of imagination), as a sort of prop (advance organiser), to help people get going. This is the example of how I approached the task – see the-master-and-his-emissary-imagination-120821-1

I was well aware that there are many possible ways to approach this task and of the disadvantages of providing a worked example. I was also aware of the irony of retreating to this left hemisphere approach, but I didn’t want anyone to be defeated by the task and ultimately most participants ignored this example. Only one group produced something similar. Another group decided that a better theme, which would incorporate all these themes, would be health. In fact, each group interpreted the task differently as you would expect.

So, was the workshop a success? One participant told me it was hard. Another how much she had enjoyed it. Another that his group dynamic didn’t work for him. I wonder whether that related to left and right hemisphere approaches. For me, the ideal would have been a longer workshop in a quiet space, or a series of workshops with time to dig deep into this. Nevertheless, there was loads of discussion between the 16 participants, so much so that we ran over by 10 minutes and everyone was fully engaged and fully on task for the entire workshop. If they also went away with new thoughts and questions, for me that counts as a success.

What did intrigue me though is how difficult it is to suppress the left hemisphere. I asked participants to try and think completely outside the box, and not to consider the constraints that would be imposed by the current education system if a more right hemisphere approach was proposed, but it really is difficult to escape the left hemisphere.

Any thoughts on any of this by any readers of this post, would be most welcome.

Source of image: https://www.ted.com/talks/iain_mcgilchrist_the_divided_brain?utm_campaign=tedspread&utm_medium=referral&utm_source=tedcomshare

A Right Hemisphere Approach to Education

In a week’s time, I will be once again in the Cotswolds, UK, attending the Field & Field 4 day conference at which Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the making of the Western World, will be the keynote speaker. This will be the fifth time I have attended this conference (or retreat as the organiser likes to call it). On all prior occasions I have shared my notes from the conference on this blog. They can be found on The Divided Brain page, linked to here.

The last time this conference took place in 2019, I ran an hour long workshop in which we discussed the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/coming-to-your-senses-with-iain-mcgilchrist/). For that workshop, I didn’t assume that everyone was familiar with McGilchrist’s book, so we examined and discussed the key characteristics of the left and right hemispheres’ take on the world, how these might affect education, and what changes to education this knowledge might suggest. An hour is nowhere near long enough for this discussion, so we only scratched the surface.

This year, despite the shortage of time once again, I would like to take this discussion further, by focussing on what a right hemisphere approach to education might involve and include. To do this we will first briefly consider the direction that education might take if it continues to be dominated by left hemisphere approaches. We will then spend the rest of the session discussing how some key themes from McGilchrist’s book, related to the right hemisphere’s way of attending to the world, might be implemented in schools. The themes I have selected for discussion are: flow and betweenness; depth and breadth; embodiment; qualification; creativity; the ‘Other’; and two kinds of knowing. There are, of course, many other possible themes, and if participants want to work on an alternative theme, that would be fine with me. I have written about some of these themes on this blog (see The Divided Brain page).

Because of the shortage of time, I will be providing notes to support this activity, but I see this is as a more challenging task than the one we worked on in 2019. It requires escaping from left hemisphere thinking and trying to imagine an alternative approach to education. There will be no one way of doing this, no ‘right’ answer. Hopefully there will be many alternative perspectives. But more than this, my hope is that the session will provoke new ways of thinking, suggest new possibilities for education, or, at the very least, raise questions to take away and think about. McGilchrist has said that we need a paradigm shift, a change of hearts and minds to redress the balance between left and right hemisphere. I will be interested to see whether this sort of activity has the potential to start this process.

Nature in education and education in Nature

The past year has seen a surge of interest in what has been called ‘reconnecting with Nature’. It is a sign of our times that it has taken a pandemic of global proportions to bring about this surge of interest and greater recognition of the importance of Nature to our lives, health and well-being.

The one thing everyone in the UK has been allowed to do during lockdown has been to exercise once a day outdoors, and many people have spoken/written about how this has helped them to reconnect with Nature for the first time in many years. Last week I attended an online event which explored this need for re-connection.

The event was organised by  Invisible Dust  – “What will our view of nature bring to the future?” in which a panel of speakers explored the following questions:

  • What changes in how we see the natural world could lead to a brighter future?
  • Rather than seeing ourselves as separate from nature, might we see ourselves as a part of it – changing how we see non-human animals and our relationship to the natural world?
  • Can we move forward positively from the COVID-19 pandemic and act to reduce future risks?
  • What can we learn from the indigenous communities that have lived in harmony with nature rather than tried to conquer it?

The panel was made up of a diverse and very interesting group of people, who were all deeply committed to exploring these questions:

Danielle Celermajer, author of Summertime: Reflections on a Vanishing Future

Milka Chepkorir, advocate for indigenous land rights from the Sengwer community.

Usman Haque, artist-architect and creative director at Umbrellium.

Iain McGilchrist, psychiatrist and author of The Master and his Emissary

Hosted by: Jessica Sweidan, founder of Synchronicity Earth and Patron of Nature for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature

The discussion started from the premise that we are now experiencing an ecological crisis in which our relationship with Nature is broken, and this is the root of some of our greatest problems. We are removed from the consequences of our actions and numb to the loss of our connection with Nature, but the paradox is that we, as human beings, have never been more connected, to each other, to other cultures, and to other ways of living.

Whilst panel members were coming from different perspectives, they all agreed that the heart of the problem is that we now think of Nature as something separate from ourselves, an exotic ‘Other’, something we use, something we are different from and superior to. We fail to recognise and acknowledge that there is no line between human beings and Nature. As McGilchrist said, We are Nature and Nature is us; we come out of Nature and we go back into Nature. Nature is not out there around us, but in us; it is something that is always being born. Milka Chepkorir, coming from the indigenous Sengwer community of Kenya, recognised this as a symbiotic relationship, saying that for her people there is no separation between Nature and people, and that we should know that if we harm Nature, then it will harm us. Indigenous people have not lost their connection with Nature, but are having to fight to maintain it. In a rather sad indictment of our education system, Milka said that in order to get her voice heard about this she had to get a recognised academic qualification for which she had to study what she and her people already knew! At one point she said that indigenous people don’t understand why the rest of the world don’t get it. Why don’t non-indigenous communities understand that Nature is in us and we are in Nature? The question of trust was raised in answer to this. How we can become more accepting of other cultures?

All agreed that we have to change the way we think to address the problem of disconnection from Nature. Usman Haque is just starting to work on The Eden Project in London, which aims to ‘rewild’ London; this would also involve ‘rewilding’ people! What an amazing idea! By this he meant that they would try and transform people’s relationships to each other and to non-human systems, and find ways to enable people to make a visible first step, such as growing things to eat, or bee keeping. These small individual steps would hopefully then grow into larger more collective actions.

There was a lot more in this discussion than I have mentioned here, and it is well worth watching the video of the whole event, not least because it is so enjoyable and uplifting to watch.

Of course, changing the ways people think is no easy matter, as Usman Haque mentioned, and it was recognised that education would play a key role in this.

It’s interesting that a brief look at the UK National Curriculum for schools doesn’t mention Nature in the science curriculum, but rather the environment. For example, in Year 1 Pupils should use the local environment throughout the year to explore and answer questions about plants growing in their habitat. McGilchrist does not like the word environment, which he believes reinforces the idea that we humans are somehow separate from the world, and the statement above does seem to emphasise the use of Nature. Pupils throughout school do of course study ecosystems and the interdependence of organisms, but I wonder if there is enough emphasis on our place as humans within Nature rather than separate from it, and I wonder whether a simple change of language, i.e. exchanging the word environment, for the word Nature might kick-start a change in awareness. The language we use is so powerful in influencing the way we attend to the world.

There are of course many projects which are being developed in the hope of helping people to reconnect with Nature. In my local area, there is the Morecambe Bay Curriculum (part of the Eden Project North), which aims to work with local schools to develop a unique educational tool to help unite and inspire the next generation in terms of our natural history and the immense environmental challenges we face as a society. But projects such as these will need to go beyond thinking of Nature as something ‘Other’ if we are to overcome the current ecological crisis. Studying Morecambe Bay or any other aspect of Nature from a distance, or from within a walled classroom, will not foster an understanding of Nature being in us and we being in Nature. Hopefully the Morecambe Bay Curriculum project, and others like it, will involve a lot of hands-on time in Nature. One of the richest educational experiences I have ever had was a week long field trip to Seahouses (North-East England) for my ‘A’ level Biology course.

Source of photo: https://www.trekearth.com/gallery/Europe/United_Kingdom/England/Northumberland/Seahouses/photo199218.htm

This involved days of peering into rock pools, and studying every imaginable aspect of the seashore. It was magical. This experience was more than 50 years ago, but it greatly influenced my relationship with Nature, and I still have the book in which I pressed the seaweeds I collected for identification purposes at that time.

The Invisible Dust event panel members were optimistic that people haven’t lost the ability to love and feel connected with Nature. Let’s hope so.

Paulo Freire’s questions for educators.

Paulo Freire’ questions for educators.

In my last post in which I shared the notes I made on my reading of Freire’s book Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed, I mentioned that at the end of Chapter 4, on p.124, Freire listed the problems and questions that educators and education must always continue to seriously consider, discuss and address. Here is the quote in full.


Source of image: https://al.se.leg.br/iran-destaca-atividades-em-comemoracao-aos-99-anos-de-paulo-freire/

“What seems to me to be unconscionable, however, today as yesterday, would be to conceive—or even worse, to practice—a popular education in which a constant, serious approach were not maintained, antecedently and concomitantly, to problems like: what content to teach, in behalf of what this content is to be taught, in behalf of whom, against what, and against whom.

  • Who selects the content, and how is it taught?
  • What is teaching?
  • What is learning?
  • What manner of relationship obtains between teaching and learning?
  • What is popular knowledge, or knowledge gotten from living experience?
  • Can we discard it as imprecise and confused?
  • How may it be gotten beyond, transcended?
  • What is a teacher?
  • What is the role of a teacher?
  • And what is a student?
  • What is a student’s role?
  • If being a teacher means being superior to the student in some way, does this mean that the teacher must be authoritarian?
  • Is it possible to be democratic and dialogical without ceasing to be a teacher, which is different from being a student?
  • Does dialogue mean irrelevant chitchat whose ideal atmosphere would be to “leave it as it is to see if it’ll work”?
  • Can there be a serious attempt at the reading and writing of the word without a reading of the world?
  • Does the inescapable criticism of a “banking” education mean the educator has nothing to teach and ought not to teach?
  • Is a teacher who does not teach a self-contradiction?
  • What is codification, and what is its role in the framework of a theory of knowledge?
  • How is the “relation between practice and theory” to be understood—and especially, experienced—without the expression becoming trite, empty wordage?
  • How is the “basistic,” voluntaristic temptation to be resisted—and how is the intellectualistic, verbalistic temptation to engage in sheer empty chatter to be overcome?
  • How is one to “work on” the relationship between language and citizenship?”

It is almost 30 years since Freire wrote these words, and more than 50 years since Pedagogy of the Oppressed was first published. Despite this, Freire’s questions remain relevant and still have the power to challenge the current Brazilian government – see Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Hope. Reliving Pedagogy of the Oppressed. My Notes

In this book published in English in 1994 (originally in Portuguese in 1992), Freire revisits the ideas he first published in his radical text Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968, which was translated from Spanish to English in 1970. At the time of writing Freire was living in exile in Chile, hence writing in Spanish. He was considered a subversive by the Brazilian government of the time, and his legacy remains a contentious issue in Brazil today (Why is the Brazilian Right Afraid of Paulo Freire?)

Pedagogy of Hope, offers little that is new, other than that hope is essential to a pedagogy of the oppressed. Rather, in this book Freire reflects on his original ideas, attempts to answer his critics, clarify his thinking, and share his experience of working with oppressed groups across the world in the intervening 25 years.

https://pt.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficheiro:Painel.Paulo.Freire.JPG

These are my notes, chapter by chapter.

Opening Words

In these opening words Freire introduces the idea of a pedagogy of hope and why it is important

  • Freire’s writing is an experiment in bringing out truth.
  • Hope, he says, is an ontological need, an existential concrete imperative, which demands an anchoring in practice.
  • Hope is necessary but not enough. Just to hope is to hope in vain.
  • We need critical hope the way a fish needs unpolluted water.
  • We need a kind of education in hope.
  • Hopelessness and despair are both the consequences and the cause of inaction or immobilism.

Chapter 1

In this first chapter, Freire gives us some background to the origin of his ideas on progressive education

  • Freire originally trained in law, but swopped to education, researching the relationship between schools, families and punishment.
  • He found a difference in the relationship between authority and freedom in cities and rural fishing villages. In the latter children had more freedom and were punished less.
  • Freire believed in the democratisation of the public school and noted that Piaget argued for a dialogical, loving relationship between parents and children in place of violent punishments.
  • Freire began to realise the importance of class, context, and knowledge of the living experience of the oppressed.
  • But he thought that a more critical understanding of the situation of oppression alone does not liberate the oppressed.
  • Freire lived in exile in Chile for four and a half years. Here he discovered the importance of enabling the popular classes to develop their own language for a pedagogy of hope, and a respect for cultural differences and context.

 Chapter 2

Here he reflects on the process of writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed and the criticisms levelled at his writing

  • For Freire, education needs to be radical, utopian and progressive.
  • In this chapter he describes his process of writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed, the importance of speaking his ideas out loud, his collaborative way of working whilst in exile in Chile, and how his friends helped him.
  • Friere writes at length about metaphor and beautiful writing saying ‘Language’s esthetic moment, it has always seemed to me, ought to be pursued by all of us, including rigorous scholars. There is not the least incompatibility between rigor in the quest for an understanding and knowledge of the world, and beauty of form in the expression of what is found in that world.’ p.61
  • He also discusses reading and how to read; reading requires time, patience, sensitivity, method, rigor, determination, and passion for knowledge.
  • Throughout the book he repeatedly draws our attention to the importance of beginning with the educands’ ‘here and now’ and ‘knowledge of living experience’.
  • An educator must be consistent, patient, tolerant and humble. Teaching is a creative and critical act, not a mechanical one.
  • There is always a risk in education. Education is always political and directive.
  • In this chapter, Freire also discusses, responds to, and defends himself against the criticisms  that have been made of his work, principally sexist language, arrogance and elitism.

Chapter 3

I found this chapter a bit of a political rant and a stream of consciousness. I focussed my attention on the following points

  • Freire tells us that teaching and learning should be a joy; the teacher should start from where the students are, and never under-estimate knowledge from living experience.
  • He does not mean that by starting from students’ positions that is where we should stay.
  • Starting from and respecting the local is not a rejection of the national.
  • It is more useful to talk of the oppressed and oppressor than social class.
  • There is no change without a dream, and no dream without a hope. We do not struggle without hope.
  • Capitalism is wicked. Human beings do not simply live, but socially exist.
  • We have to work with the relationship of the innate and the acquired.
  • The oppressor is dehumanised in dehumanising the oppressed. The oppressor can neither liberate nor be liberated.
  • ‘I am not, I do not be, unless you are, you be. Above all I am not if I forbid you to be.’ p.89

Chapter 4

The key points for me in this chapter were about the relationship between teaching and content. There is also a great section on p.124, which lists the problems that a popular education must address, but I have not included these here, but instead in my next post.

  • In this chapter Freire calls for the raising of consciousness, saying this is needed before change can occur.
  • It is important to engage in dialogue, to read the world and read the word, and to understand how others do this.
  • Brazil has a slavocratic past, where people learned to obey to survive, but also learned to resist and to dream.
  • Educational practice always implies a teacher, a learner, method, content, and the relationship between these.
  • There is no education without teaching of content, but who chooses the content, in favour of whom, against whom, in favour of what, against what?
  • It is impossible to democratise the choice of content (involve everyone) without democratising the teaching of content.
  • The role of educators is to bring out other readings of the world, not impose their own.
  • We need neither authoritarianism nor permissiveness, but democratic substance.
  • Dialogue between teachers and students does not place them on the same footing professionally, but does mark the democratic position between them. (see p.107)
  • It is impossible to transfer knowledge, but a teacher can make a presentation and then analyse that presentation with students. Freire questions what sort of educator he would be if he had no concern for being maximally convincing in the presentation of his dreams. But that does not mean that he can reduce everything to his truth, his correctness.
  • Students have the right to know the ‘why’ of the facts.
  • Freire puts Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970) in the context of a troubled moment in history. It is important to understand the mechanisms of social conflict.
  • Education is more than the technical training of a labour force. It is an understanding of ourselves as historical, political, social and cultural beings with a comprehension of how society works.

Chapters 5 and 6

In these two chapters Freire describes his experience of meeting with oppressed groups across the world.

  • In Chapter 5 Freire tells us how, after the publication of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, he was invited to talk to groups all over the world. In Geneva he spoke to Spanish workers who wanted to set up an alternative school (a complement to the Swiss school their children were attending), whose purpose would be to critique the Swiss education. He also met groups in South Africa, the US and Cuba. He personally experienced racism in Chicago. Throughout all this he stressed the need for unity in diversity, oneness in difference, and the need to concentrate on similarities not just differences.
  • In Chapter 6 Freire continues describing his experience of meetings across the world, again focussing on unity in diversity, but also on cultural pluralism and multiculturality. He stresses the need for a new ethics founded on a respect for differences and new human relations, and recommends a radical breach with colonialism, and a radical rejection of neo-colonialism.

Chapter 7

This is the final chapter of the book, although it is followed by an Afterword and Notes on each of the chapters written by his wife Ana Maria Araújo Freire. These seek further clarification of the points made by Freire in the book.

  • In Chapter 7 Freire turns his attention to universities saying that they should be critically engaged in the service of the popular classes, without loss of seriousness and rigor. The role of the university is to teach, to train, to research, and should seek an interdisciplinary understanding of teaching, not merely a disciplinary one.
  • He stresses again the ‘wickedness’ of race and class discrimination, and the importance of hope.
  • ‘The oppressed may learn that hope born in the creative unrest of the battle, will continue to have meaning when, and only when, it can in its own turn give birth to new struggles on other levels’. p.185
  • Finally this is a quote from this chapter that stands out for me as an educator:
  • ‘… first, the one who knows must know that he or she does not know all things; second, the one who knows not must know that he or she is not ignorant of everything. Without this dialectical understanding of knowledge and ignorance, it is impossible, in a progressive, democratic outlook, for the one who knows to teach the one who knows not.’ p.176

Testing Times in the Classroom: Re-imagining education for the 21st Century

The final task at the end of the fourth and last week of Exeter University’s FutureLearn course – Testing Times in the Classroom. Challenges of 21st Century Education was to re-imagine compulsory schooling. This seems like an enormous task to tag on to the end of the final week of a four week course, which is probably why, as far as I can see, only one person has made any attempt to complete it. Exeter University have tried to minimise this task by giving some advice:

We would encourage you to undertake this re-imagining exercise in any way that might make sense for you. It is entirely up to you how you choose to respond. For example, you might just want to add some notes to the discussion below on your re-imagined school system, or you might want to compose a short poem which captures some of your main thoughts. It might also be helpful for you to do this by creating a visual image.

As an example they provide a link to this blog post – The problem with that equity vs. equality graphic you’re using. I doubt that the complexity of re-imagining compulsory schooling can be reduced to one image, although it might be possible to represent aspects of it in this way and it probably could be represented by a map, particularly if using Matthias’ Melcher’s Thought Condensr Tool. (See the examples on this page – http://condensr.de/samples/)

At this stage I am at a loss as to how to complete this task. The FutureLearn site has told me that I have 11 days of access left to the site. After that I have to pay if I want continued access, which I don’t intend to do. But it will take me more than 11 days to think about this task in any depth. A whole book could be written on the topic, or a PhD or at a minimum a Masters thesis. Nevertheless I have decided to collect resources which might inform how I could respond to the task.

My starting point has been UNESCO’s Future’s of Education initiative, which I became aware of via Stephen Downes’ OLDaily newsletter . This is Stephen’s commentary:

UNESCO has launched an initiative called ‘Futures of Education’, “a global initiative to reimagine how knowledge and learning can shape the future of humanity and the planet.” …. The initiative is framed around the idea of ‘learning to become’, that is, “a philosophy of education and an approach to pedagogy that views learning as a process of continual unfolding that is ongoing and life-long. To think in terms of “becoming” is to invoke a line of thought that emphasizes potentials, rejects determinism and expresses a flexible openness to the new.” 

This approach suggests a real possibility of re-imagining education as something other than the essentialist approach to education currently taken by the UK government.

But what does ‘learning to become’ mean? Many educationalists have written about this. Ronald Barnett, with reference to students in Higher Education, devotes a whole chapter to the idea of ‘Becoming’ in his book ‘A Will to Learn. Being a student in an age of uncertainty’, referencing Heidegger, Kierkegaard, Deleuze, Nietzsche, Sartre and others, showing us that this is an age-old discussion. In concluding this chapter, Barnett writes:

In a genuine higher education, the student not merely undergoes a developmental process, but undergoes a continuing process of becoming. This becoming is marked by the student’s becoming authentic and coming into herself, which are two depictions of the same phenomenon. In this coming into herself, the student finds for herself a clearing that is hers. The staking out of the clearing brings with it freedoms, but also responsibilities; for the student can now be called to account on her own account, not that of others……. She discovers her own voice, is able to articulate it and deploy it to effect. She brings to bear not just her own intentionalities, but her own will…… However, this is a becoming that is never finished. The challenges keep coming; the student is called by her programme of study to displace herself into yet another place. Here, we see an ontology in-the-making, but it is continually in-the-making.

Barnett writes in the context of higher education, but his understanding of the meaning of becoming could equally be applied at all educational stages. This would require, as a starting point, a philosophical approach to re-imagining education as opposed to a political, economic, determinist, social equality approach. Perhaps this is what the UNESCO initiative hopes to do. Time will tell.

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: 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.

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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