Left brained, right brained learners?
In recent years, I’ve had parents phoning me with the news that they have a child who has had an assessment to find out their learning style. They usually go on to say that results showed their child to be a ‘right-brained’ learner and that they need help in convincing schools to change the curriculum. Seems that right-brained learners struggle to cope with a largely left-brained approach to schooling. What’s going on? Is there really a battle going on in children’s heads as the two brain hemispheres fight for supremacy? Are children really operating with only half a brain? Can their learning, future career and general future well-being in their careers be predicted on the basis of body and brain dominance?
It’s a moot question but despite hearing all about these evaluations and the significance of results, only two facts remain clear. Children, as with all humans, are whole-brained learners and the brain hemispheres prefer cooperating rather than conflicting with each other.
The terms ‘right brain’ and ‘left brain’ are used to oversimplify what is actually a highly complex research field. Referring to the two hemispheres as separate brains with specialized areas of functioning is more a metaphor than a fact. We would serve children better by improving our understanding of how we can sensibly apply brain research to help children use both hemispheres as an efficient and flexible system for learning and performing. To put this more simply: if a particular hemisphere is not supporting the child adequately and relies on the opposite half to do most of the learning work, the question to be asked is why? What is going on in the ‘weaker’ half and how can we encourage it to step up to the mark and do what it is supposed to do?
A view from the top of the brain will show two distinct halves – the cerebral hemispheres. These consist of two sets of cortical lobes and subcortical (lower level) structures that need to work together for all kinds of mental activities.
Joining the two hemispheres is a thick band of fibres, called the corpus callosum which conveys a constant stream of messages between the halves, allowing for rapid communication and sharing of specialisations. Brains strive for normalcy. Even in cases of extreme surgery, where one hemisphere is completely removed, the remaining hemisphere will try to take over the functions of the missing half – often with astounding success.
In an intact brain, any activity automatically engages both hemispheres. The fact is that because we are hard-wired to engage both hemispheres, it would be impossible to design a curriculum for any one side. And we wouldn’t want to. Carl Sagan emphasized this when he wrote that the corpus callosum was the ‘path to the future’ because only dynamic cooperation between the hemispheres can achieve mankind’s highest objectives.
Of course there are individual variations in the way the different areas function so we show our own personal balance of abilities and learning strategies. One child might be excellent at maths and show excellent comprehension but be careless with written work, struggles to read aloud, can’t remember multiplication tables and forgets what homework has been given. Some signs of ‘right brained’ functioning. His friend may read well and recall details of a story but misses its point; he can compute well in maths but struggles with ‘story sums’ and using graphs, charts and maps. He shows more left brained modes of handling information.
These are the signs of different hemispheric styles and there are reasons for developing particular styles, including genetic as well as environmental aspects. However, it’s important to know that the corpus callosum holds a key to brain efficiency by being able to activate and suppress hemispheric control. For example, in reading, areas in both brains are used, but if the language centres of the left hemisphere aren’t dominant, accuracy, fluency and comprehension may suffer.
We don’t change the curriculum. We retrain the brain. In the case of difficulties with reading accuracy and comprehension mentioned above, we need to help the left hemisphere come into play and enable correct interpretation and understanding of written words.
Interhemispheric integration, being the term used for connectivity between the hemispheres, begins at a young age. One of the movements helping to build the connecting bridge between the two brain is crawling – a good reason for encouraging infants to crawl for an extended time. But there are other ways of helping as well.
Parents who want to help their children build the bridge between the two brains can follow three major guidelines:
- Encourage a wide variety of activities to engage all parts of the brain
- Let the child’s interest direct learning. Connections develop in response to demands from the child’s brain, not from an adult’s.
- Don’t expect full hemispheric integration until after puberty.
Here are some suggestions for building bridges between the hemispheres:
- Games that combine visual and verbal clues (e.g. Simon Says)
- Having children make a movie in their heads as you read a story
- Have children draw the story you have read to them
- Describing actions with words
- Verbalising discoveries (‘How did you know that?” “What clues did you use?”)
- Describing problem-solving experiences (‘Tell me how you did that puzzle’)
- Memorising maths facts to music (e.g. singing multiplication tables)
- Spelling words backwards; listening to number sequences and repeating them backwards
- Keeping the score of a game in their heads
- Cooking by following recipes
- Writing up science experiments
- Watching TV then retelling the story in sequence
- Building models from directions
- Reading music