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
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.