Two kinds of knowing

This is the third theme I have selected from Iain McGilchrist’s book, The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, to look at more closely in relation to education. So far I have explored what he has to say about breadth and depth, and about flow. But I have also in past posts explored other themes with reference to McGilchrist – themes such as truth, betweenness, the meaning of ‘Other’. (I have linked to just one post for each of these latter three themes, but there are others).

McGilchrist’s work is an in-depth study of the divided brain. He tells us that both the right and left hemispheres of the brain are involved in almost everything we do, but they are each involved differently. This means that they are both involved in ‘knowing’ but have different perspectives on knowing.  New experience engages the right hemisphere; familiar, routine experience engages the left hemisphere. Thus there are two kinds of knowing, which McGilchrist describes as the new and the familiar.

McGilchrist is not the only person to observe that there are two kinds of knowing. Just in the past week I have been reminded by Maria Popova in her Brain Pickings midweek pick-me-up of the work of Marion Milner (British psychoanalyst and writer 1900-1998). Writing under the pen name Joanna Field, Milner wrote a book, ‘A Life of One’s Own’, in which she analyses her own personal experience of the pursuit of happiness. On taking this book off my bookshelf, I am now reminded that I highlighted exactly the same passage that Maria Popova has selected:

As soon as I began to study my perception, to look at my own experience, I found that there were different ways of perceiving and that the different ways provided me with different facts. There was a narrow focus which meant seeing life as if from blinkers and with the centre of awareness in my head; and there was a wide focus which meant knowing with the whole of my body, a way of looking which quite altered my perception of whatever I saw. And I found that the narrow focus way was the way of reason. If one was in the habit of arguing about life it was very difficult not to approach sensation with the same concentrated attention and so shut out its width and depth and height. But it was the wide focus way that made me happy. (Milner, 1934. Preface xxxv)

Also this week, I have listened to a recorded lecture by Jan Derry, Professor of Education and Co-Director of the Centre for Philosophy at the UCL Institute of Education. The title of her talk, which was delivered on May 22nd 2018, is Knowledge in Education: Why Philosophy Matters.

Jan Derry starts this talk by telling us that there’s intense disagreement in education circles between those who favour facts and disciplines on the one side, and those who favour meaning making and individual expression on the other. This debate has been ongoing for at least 50 years.

McGilchrist hasn’t opposed the two kinds of knowing. Rather, as we can see from his book, he makes the case that the favouring of facts and taking a narrow focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the left hemisphere, whereas the favouring of meaning making and taking a wide focus approach, is the kind of knowing favoured by the right hemisphere.

McGilchrist writes of the nature of knowledge that it can be seen from both these perspectives (see p.94-97, The Master and His Emissary). Both kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear on the same object. (p.96)

The left hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is putting things together from bits, the knowledge of what we call facts.

  • This is knowledge in the public domain
  • It is fixed and certain. It doesn’t change from person to person, or moment to moment.
  • Context is irrelevant
  • It is only a partial reconstruction of aspects of the whole
  • It is concerned with repeatable findings
  • It is general, impersonal, disengaged

The right hemisphere perspective is that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘Other’.

  • It is uniquely ‘my’ knowledge. It is personal, but also expects a consensus to emerge
  • It permits a sense of uniqueness of the individual
  • It is not fixed or certain
  • The whole is not captured by trying to list the parts
  • It is not easily captured in words and resists general terms
  • It is embodied and has to be experienced
  • This knowledge depends on ‘betweenness’ (an encounter)

Interestingly, these two kinds of knowing are not recognised in the English language as they are in other languages. In Latin, French and German there are different words for the first kind of knowledge, where it is pinned down so that it is repeatable, and the second kind of knowledge, which is never to fully know.

Knowledge of facts; fixed, certain, repeatable Personal knowledge; new, uncertain, never fully known
Latin Sapere Cognoscere
French Savoir Connaitre
German Wissen Kennen

Jan Derry has suggested that in our current UK education system the focus is on knowledge of facts and memorising these facts for exams and tests. This system promotes a mechanical process of transmission and assimilation, and policy makers deprecate attention given to meaning making. But as Jan Derry points out, simply memorising facts stops well short of understanding them. To illustrate this, she uses a Richard Feynman video (2.05 minutes), who points out the limitations of rote learning of meaningless terms without understanding.

Jan Derry’s interest is in inferentialism. I cannot do justice to her lecture or her ideas here, but one of her main points is that meaning comes from understanding things in relation to each other, i.e. the meaning of one concept is dependent on its relation to others. This relates closely to McGilchrist’s thinking (p,97)

Knowledge and perception, and therefore experience, exist only in the relations between things. Perhaps indeed everything that exists does so only in relationships, like mathematics or music: there are aspects of quantum physics that would support such a view.

This fact, that knowledge comes from distinctions, implies that we can come to an understanding of the nature of any one thing, whatever it might be, only by comparison with something else we already know, and by observing the similarities and differences.

Derry also quotes Robert Brandom (2015) as saying, “one cannot have one concept without having many”, noting that this appears to present a learning paradox. How can you understand one concept unless you understand them all?

Our education policy makers’ answer to this problem, and a common response, is to break teaching down into many elements or ‘bits’ and then start from the simple and work up to the more complex, putting the ‘bits’ together, which McGilchrist would recognise as a left hemisphere approach.  This is the approach which Jan Derry says comes from a belief that inferences can only be made when initial awareness is restricted to a representation, and only after this representation has been grasped. But she believes, referencing Vygotsky, that meaning making takes an inferential rather than representational orientation to knowledge. Vygotsky suggested that rather than introducing the learner to an accumulation of simple elements, instead we should start by introducing them to a rich domain in which they can begin to make sense of ‘what follows from what’ (relations between ideas), in which their responsiveness to the relevant reasons and relations that constitute concepts, can develop.

For McGilchrist we should not only start in the rich domain (the domain of the right hemisphere), but also end in the rich domain. McGilchrist suggests that ‘knowing’ is first experienced in the right hemisphere, before being passed to the left hemisphere for analysis and ‘fixing’, and then should ultimately be returned to the right hemisphere for further appreciation of the whole.

For McGilchrist, there are not only two kinds of knowing, but also two different ways of attending to the world, which in turn brings two different worlds into being.

In the one, that of the right hemisphere, we experience the live, complex, embodied world of individual, unique, beings, forever in flux, a net of interdependencies, forming and reforming wholes, a world with which we are deeply connected. In the other, that of the left hemisphere, we “experience” our experience in a special way: a “re-presented” version of it, containing now static, separable, bounded, but essentially fragmented entities, grouped into classes on which predictions can be made. This kind of attention isolates, fixes and makes each thing explicit by bringing it under the spotlight of attention. In doing so it renders things inert, mechanical, lifeless. But is also enables us for the first time to know and consequently to learn and to make things. This gives us power. (p.31)

McGilchrist makes the case that if we get  stuck in the left hemisphere’s world of the familiar, known, and explicit, where we focus on the parts rather than the whole, on abstraction and reification, we run the risk of missing a return to the right hemisphere’s way of knowing, which reflects Marion Milner’s wide focus, Jan Derry’s meaning making and individual experience, and Vygotsky’s rich domain.

Near the end of her lecture, Derry says:

Difficulties will almost certainly arise when knowledge is approached on the basis of the students’ construction of meaning, but equally these cannot be resolved by teaching facts unless the facts are situated in a network of inferential relation……Access to these inferential relations can be provided in numerous ways; it may involve how a task is designed or by the quality of questioning.

She ends her talk by saying:

Neither meaning making nor the presentation of facts should be dismissed but rather should be brought together through an inferential rather than a representational orientation to knowledge.

Likewise, as mentioned above, McGilchrist doesn’t oppose the two kinds of knowing that he writes about, saying we need them both. Currently the left hemisphere’s perspective on ‘knowing’ dominates. A more balanced approach between the two kinds of knowing requires having greater awareness of the right hemisphere’s perspective.


Robert Brandom (2015) Interview by Richard Marshall, 3:AM Magazine

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

Milner, M. (1934) A Life of One’s Own. Routledge

Vygotsky, L.S. (1998) The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky, volume 5, child psychology. In R.W. Reiber (Ed.), New York: Plenum Press

Thinking of knowledge as a graph

This is a response to the E-Learning 3.0 task  for course participants created by Matthias Melcher. See

The task requires that we select from one of the topics of this course, and create a map from the list of keywords for the topic provided by Matthias. Matthias took the keywords from the synopsis for each topic written by Stephen Downes. The task is to connect and annotate the keywords.

Matthias provided links to two types of mapping tool –  and  a tool he has created himself – . I have used both tools in the past, but I am more familiar with Matthias’ tool, so I used that.

I selected the ‘Cloud’ list of keywords, to create this map.

  • storage
  • electricity
  • server virtualization
  • vmware
  • docker
  • amazon web services
  • edx
  • coursera
  • yaml
  • vagrantfile
  • jupyter
  • redefine textbooks
  • experience
  • algorithm
  • containers
  • load-balancing

Creating the map

Since I have used this tool before (see A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes) I did not find it technically difficult.

Here is a screenshot of the map I created. Click on the image to enlarge it.

And here is a link to the interactive map, which is much more interesting, because by clicking on a node you can see the annotations – 

(I contacted Matthias to ask him to create this link for me. WordPress does not host .htm files; at least, as far as I am aware it does not)

Despite the lack of serious technical difficulties,  I did somehow manage to inadvertently make 4 copies of my map, one under the other. I found that it took a while to delete each node and link individually. And at another stage I managed to lose the map entirely (I think I swiped it off the screen). I have done this before, but I couldn’t remember how to get it back. I had saved the xml file though, so just uploaded it again. I know that Matthias is refining this tool all the time, so a block delete function sometime in the future would be great. (Update 13-11-18 – See for Matthias’s video explanation of how to overcome these minor difficulties that I had)

I created the map using the text from Stephen’s synopsis. This revealed the aspects of the topic that I still haven’t understood. I made a note of these in the text annotations (in italics). I did look up definitions and explanations of some terms and added text if an explanation wasn’t evident in Stephen’s text, e.g. algorithm. If I were to continue to develop the map, I would do more of this.

Thinking of knowledge as a graph

This is the real challenge, i.e. moving from thinking and seeing knowledge in a linear way to thinking and seeing knowledge as a network/graph.  I like lists, but in recent years I have come to appreciate that when you organise and categorise terms in lists you miss the richness of connections. Some terms need to be in more that one category. A map shows us how ideas are interconnected. A list cannot do this. Matthias explains this really well at the start of his video, which is posted on his website download page –

I know from my experience of using this tool, that my tendency is to use it as a repository for resources. It is actually great for this. I have used it for research purposes, as a place to store information and thoughts about related articles, but as Stephen writes

The graph, properly constructed, is not merely a knowledge repository, but a perceptual system that draws on the individual experiences and contributions of each node. This informs not only what we learn, but how we learn.

To develop my knowledge of the Cloud, to learn and understand more about it, I need to grow my connections and the links between them. The state of my knowledge can then be represented by the map. A  key affordance of Matthias’ Think Tool is that it is easy to ‘grow’ the map, adding nodes and links, and storing information about them, as this growth occurs.

A graph is a distributed representation of a state of affairs created by our interactions with each other. The graph is at once the ­outcome of these interactions and the source of truth about those states of affairs. The graph, properly constructed, is not merely a knowledge repository, but a perceptual system that draws on the individual experiences and contributions of each node. This informs not only what we learn, but how we learn. (Stephen Downes –

I do not yet fully understand the link that Stephen makes between graphs and the “source of truth”. I have yet to read the article he links to – Epistemology in the Cloud, which I think might help. Stephen has written

The source of truth, if there is any, lies in how those links are created and maintained ….. and that …. it’s not the individual idea that’s important, but rather how the entire graph grows and develops. It protects us from categorization errors and helps prevent things like confirmation bias.

This links to what Matthias says, at the beginning of his video, about the dangers of pigeon-holing things.

These ideas go beyond what Matthias asked for in his task, but I do see that in order to start thinking of knowledge as a graph, we probably need to start by creating graphs, and his Think Tool helps to make the shift from thinking of knowledge as a representational system to thinking of knowledge as a perceptual system.

And finally, I now realise, more than before, that I have already been thinking about this, implicitly, in my search for understanding what Iain McGilchrist means by ‘betweenness’, which I was writing about last month on this blog. See

‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world –

Understanding ‘Betweenness’ – seeing beyond the parts –

Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism


Matthias Melcher Thought Condensr website –

E-Learning 3.0, Part 3: Graph – and associated video  (Stephen’s summary of the week)

Questions to ask when planning a MOOC

The task that has been set by Stephen Downes in Week 25 of ChangeMooc,   is to create and present an artifact, which answers the three questions below.

Since I am currently working on planning a new MOOC (massive open online course) – First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, May 21st – June 22nd  – I thought I would focus on this as a response to this task (this is called ‘killing two birds with one stone’!), although I suspect that this is not quite the kind of artifact that Stephen had in mind 🙂 But taking my autonomy into my own hands – here it is with the questions and my answers below.

Q.1. How does your learning artifact instantiate knowledge? And what is the knowledge the artifact represents? Focus not simply on the statement or expression of that knowledge, but also on the organization that constitutes a deeper and more complex knowledge.

I am aware that this artifact looks over simple. There has been a lot written about the organization of MOOCs, not least by Stephen himself.  Having just started with George Roberts  and Marion Waite to plan a MOOC myself (First Steps into Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, May 21st – June 22nd) I have become aware that the planning depends on asking the right questions.  The quality and validity of the questions  in my artifact depends on what I already know and will only be as good as what I know. What I know about MOOCs is a result of my direct experience over the last four years in a number of MOOCs, the research I have conducted and my gradual increasing ability to recognize emerging patterns in my own understanding.  So the questions in the artifact are my questions, that are specific to my context, reflect my understanding and are personal to me … but might also (hopefully) be recognized as helpful to others.

(Not sure that I’ve answered this question correctly or adequately.)

Q.2. How does a student use your artifact to learn? In what way does the artifact replicate or emulate the experience and performance of a person who already has this knowledge?

The artifact models and demonstrates my belief that raising questions is usually more effective than providing answers. I hope the questions I have raised are open enough to be answered by any learner at any level, in the sense that if the learner doesn’t know the answer, then the learner will be encouraged to find out. They are only ‘starter’ questions. Each question leads to a whole load of further questions, some of which I have indicated as possibilities. I have deliberately not provided answers to the questions. A MOOC runs on principles of autonomy, diversity, openness and interactivity. I would like to think that the questions in this artifact also promote these principles.

Q. 3. What is the community around that knowledge – is it a community of language speakers, or practitioners, of adherents of a faith? What would characterize the community – does it revolve around an object, set of beliefs, way of looking at the world? How does the community learn?

There is a recognizable community/network ‘MOOCers’ – a community which, for me, is searching for new and more effective ways of ensuring that everyone on the planet has a right to an education that leads to effective learning.  The community interacts to explore this concern through open sharing  of diverse resources, made richer through the belief that autonomy is fundamental to effective learning. It makes use of advancing technologies to increase the network and the affordances of the web to run massive, open, online courses. Through these MOOCs we give voice to some of our dreams and aspirations for a better future for education across the world.

Knowledge, Learning and Community: Elements of Effective Learning

This is the title of Stephen Downes’ presentation to Week 25 of ChangeMooc

Here is the link to a Recording of the session

Also here: Slides, audio and Elluminate video recording

My notes from the session

What is knowledge? It is not memory. It is not facts or laws, which are slippery. It is not in the network. It IS the network, the recognition of the emergence of patterns. We are recognising beings. Knowing is NOT being able to NOT recognise (the double negative is important).

Emergence is how we see patterns of connectivity, how we recognise patterns as something,

Patterns form in different ways, e.g. Hebbian Associationism (based on concurrency), Back Propagation (based on desired outcome), Boltzman (based on ‘settling’ , annealing). Experience results in forming and breaking connections.

Meaning is contained within the mind itself. We cannot tie meaning to what it directly represents. The external referent is not important. It’s what is in our own mind that is important.

Theorists confuse public and personal knowledge. Personal knowledge is in our own mind. Public knowledge is out there in artefacts. They are different. There is no transformation from one to the other.

Knowledge is the organisation of connections in networks.

If a human mind can come to ‘know’, and if a human mind is essentially a network, then any network can come to ‘know’, and for that matter so can society. (Slide 13)

04-03-12 Correction: The comment from Matthias Melcher below has prompted me to listen to the recording of the session and present this more accurately. This is what Stephen said in the session about personal and public knowledge.

Knowledge is the organisation of a set of connections in a network. It follows directly that if there are different kinds of networks there are different kinds of knowledge. There are two distinct kinds of knowledge (but not only two kinds). Our personal knowledge is the organisation of the set of connections in our own mind. Public knowledge is the organisation of all the artifacts in society. The organisation of society is not the same as the organisation of a personal mind.

What is learning? Learning is to practice and reflect (teaching is to model and demonstrate). We can only create an environment in which learning can occur. For personal learning we use the social network (physical) to create neuronal connections (personal).

Developing personal knowledge is more like exercising than like inputting, absorbing or remembering (Slide 17)

We recognise neural connections by performance in the environment/network. A personal learning environment is one in which we immerse ourselves into the workings of a community. Learning is ‘being’ in an environment.

What is community?  We don’t need a personal learning environment to engage with the community. We do not need to all do things the same way. The main thing is that we are connected. Knowledge emerges from the set of connections between us. Groups work on the premise of collaboration and sameness, but networks and community work on the premise of cooperation and connection.

Networks work on the basis of four basic principles – autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction. Without these, the network will stagnate and die.

What stood out for me? One thing Stephen said really jumped out at me.

Learning is becoming more and more like the person who is doing the teaching.

I think I must have misunderstood the intention behind this statement, as on one level I find it disturbing – and on another just completely counter to my own experience.

As a teacher, I want learners to develop their own identities. The last thing I want is for them to turn out like me! Whilst some learners will choose to model themselves on their teachers, many others will make a conscious choice to be as unlike their teacher as possible. The issue is surely more about how learners develop and recognize their own identities than becoming like the person who is doing the teaching?

04-03-12 Clarification: Again, in response to Matthias Melcher’s comment  here is a bit more about what Stephen said in the session:

A person who practices in the environment is going to come to be like the person who is doing the teaching.  The person who is teaching is not presenting simply facts but presenting an entire way of being. The person who is learning is watching this and attempting to replicate it.

04-03-12 Further comment from me. I am aware that there is some risk in sharing my notes. They will be read ‘out of context’ and obviously interpreted according to the personal perceptions of the reader in their context and I am not and never will be ‘infallible’ in my interpretations. Stephen himself has said that he knows that his writing and presentations are likely to be misinterpreted however careful he is with his use of words.

I was also reminded during this presentation of a comment made in the most recent Networked Learning Hotseat  about how ‘we notice things when we are ready’.  I have heard Stephen talk about some of these ideas a few times before, but this time I noticed things I haven’t noticed before  – must be patterns emerging?

A dark night of identity

I have spent the last 24 hours at a conference in Birmingham.  I found this a highly stimulating event. Once again, Etienne Wenger was the keynote speaker, but this time he was speaking specifically about the meaning of learning, to an audience of mostly Higher Education academics.

I find Etienne inspiring to listen to. There are many things I could have picked to quote from his keynote today – but this is one that struck me as relevant to the process of reflective learning and in particular to my learning.

He said:

‘Any serious learning will take you through a dark night of your identity’.

I can absolutely relate to this and how this relates to the transformative aspect of deep learning and knowledge being troublesome. According to Etienne, we need to be able to cross a boundary and know how to engage enough on the other side of a boundary.

Does this stir you as much as it stirs me?

Dave Cormier’s ideas

I’m still thinking about Dave Cormier’s ideas so I listened to his interview with George Siemens which I found on pageflakes (I do seem to be finding resources of interest, by chance!)

A couple of key points/questions came out of this interview for me.

The interview starts with a discussion about the distribution of knowledge across networks and how the traditional system of validating knowledge through peer-reviewed research articles and the like, is both too hierarchical and too slow in relation to how fast knowledge is growing and changing in today’s technologically advanced world. (DC did – at the end of the interview qualify this by saying that his article was focussed on knowledge about new technologies)

According to DC, although we can still have experts, people these days just can’t individually have the spread of knowledge that is needed, hence the need to be able access networks, scan the internet, read a lot, filter and assimiliate.

Whilst listening to him talking I found myself thinking about the age old tension between depth and breadth in learning. There’s no doubt that increased connectivity will enable increased breadth, but it seems to me that what experts have is also depth. A network seems to me a very flat structure. How is depth built into a network?

Later on in the interview Dave Cormier describes his taught course with no curriculum – again qualifying this by saying that his own curriculum/subject area lends itself to this sort of approach. What really interested me at this point was that he talked about community as a curriculum model.

Now to me, a community is something very different to a network. In the words of Etienne Wenger, ‘every community is a network, but not every network is a community’. In a community ‘there is a level of identification that goes beyond degrees of connectedness.’

As yet, I have not been able to see, feel or identify with a community on this course. I can see the network very clearly, but I don’t feel a sense of community. I suspect that Dave Cormier’s course was successful not because he exploited possibilities of networks and connectivity, but because he established a community.

What is knowledge and do we care?

Dave Cormier asked this question in the Ustream session on Friday. It was rather glossed over, but at the time I thought -‘Good for him’. GS felt we should care because  ‘so much in life has an epistemological foundation’. I thought it interesting that at this point someone felt the need to define epistomology for us all in the chat room ( as epistemology = theory of knowledge). I haven’t yet looked this up to see whether it’s correct!!

SD has also expressed surprise in a Daily (today?), that educators appear not to be that interested in the question of what is knowledge and are more interested in the process. Is this something to do with workload and overstretched teachers?

I think I am interested in both, although since even GS and SD couldn’t agree on what is knowledge, I don’t think I am any the wiser.

According to GS all knowledge is connectivist in nature. Presumably that means that there is no knowlege that is not connected. Knowledge can’t stand alone.

According to SD all knowlege is associationist rather than connectivist, but he didn’t explain what he means by associationist. Does he mean that knowledge is connected through the senses (qualities) through quantities and by being connective?  I suspect that this sentence shows how completely confused I am and I do wonder whether it is worth caring about! I need a picture in my head about what associationist means and currently I don’t have one.

Another thing that I have picked up over the week, is that knowledge is distributed across networks. That much makes sense. But the business of knowledge being externalised is still unclear to me. Does this mean that knowledge is something different to and separate from my own personal ‘knowing’? I have to admit to being completely lost here. I’ll have to return to the forums – but the number of posts is ‘blinding’! Aaaaargh”!!!

Like others I did not gel with the coal analogy. I’m not sure what SD was getting at with this. I think the error was in choosing an inanimate object to reflect a living network.

Off the top of my head (and definitely not related to any wider reading yet) it seems to me that

  • we probably do need to think about knowledge differently these days because the internet has made it possible for many people to launch in with their expertise (e.g Wikipedia), so in this sense knowledge is distributed across a network
  • but some people will have more expertise in a given area than others and we will need to be able to navigate networks to find these people. How will we judge who is worth ‘listening to’ and who is not?
  • the advent of connectivity across the internet also means that we can all contribute to developing knowledge and expertise in specific domains, but the question remains of how to judge the validity of expertise
  • and it still leaves the question of the value of ‘knowing’ as a personal quality/attribute. What will be the role of teachers in this distributed knowledge network? What will happen to leaders, to experts, to geniuses? Will they naturally rise to the surface like bubbles of oxygen in a bog?

I have to admit to not having read these yet. Perhaps it will all become clearer when I have!

Connectivism & Connective Knowledge

I signed up for this course yesterday – a bit late and am chasing my tail to catch up. I have briefly looked at some of the readings for this week, but none of last weeks yet. I have promised myself that I will not spend more than 2 hours a day on this.

I have spent most of my time struggling to get organised with the technology – setting up this blog (trying out WordPress for the first time), downloading CmapTools (don’t know why since mind mapping and me just don’t go together), bookmarking the readings, adding myself to the map, i.e. spending far too much time on the technology and not enough time on the ideas/concepts.

As for feeling connected: I only know one other person out of the 1900 people enrolled on the course. How’s that for feeling connected?