Teaching the Right-Brained Learner

Remember those artsy/craftsy, musician kids in school? The other kids were told to just humor them in hopes that the artsy/craftsy kids would filter into society as they got older. Oh yeah, they dressed a little differently, often forgot their homework and lunch money, and acted a little weird, but if we smiled and encouraged them, perhaps they would come around when they reached their thirties! Why did they seem to be so “out of it” much of the time?

With the explosion of brain research in the last ten years, particularly studying the way humans assimilate information and learn, we now know that the percentage of “weirdoes,” the “out-of-touch” people is not 5 to 10%; they are 50% of the general population. That is right–half of our population learns in a right-brained way. If you have four children, statistically, two of them are right-brainers. The potential of this group of right-brain learners is amazing. Research tells us they are the visionaries, inventors, and the people who employ you and me in the workplace. In fact, some of the most successful people in the world have been right-brained! Winston Churchill, the Wright Brothers, Thomas Edison, “Magic” Johnson, Walt Disney, Theodore Roosevelt, and Benjamin Franklin are examples of right-brain greatness. We must make every effort to help kids like these learn to their fullest potential.

The problem is that traditional schools teach in a left-brained way. They hand students textbooks, and ask them to read the text and answer the questions at the end of the chapter. These textbooks are usually written by people who were left-brained learners themselves. They typically had great success in school and wanted to become teachers because of all those warm, fuzzy, childhood memories about how great and wonderful school was. After graduation they became teachers, and then they were promoted to curriculum writers. The cycle of more left-brained curriculum being written by more left-brained teachers seems to perpetuate itself. Now we are discovering that half of the children do not learn in a left-brained way. I am reminded of the young boy in a regular classroom who said to his mom after school, “I might be sitting still on the outside, but I’m wigglin’ on the inside!”

Since many school kids struggle with left-brained teaching methods, they often fall off the classroom conveyor belt. The teachers stick them back on the belt a few more times, but if they still struggle and continue to fall off the conveyor belt, they are given a left-brained IQ test. Some children are held back a grade while others are shuffled off to special education classes. Many are medicated.

It is now known that much language and memory retention, called taxon memory, is stored in the left part of the brain. The child with a right-dominant brain takes information into his brain into the right side, the more natural side of the brain for him. Until puberty the two halves, or lobes, of the brain are not fused together at the midline, so children have trouble gathering information in the right sides of their brains and accessing the answer in the left sides, where math facts, spelling words, vocabulary lists, and phone numbers are stored.

Think about how this works in learning. For example, a flashcard has “3 x 4” on the front, with the answer “12” on the back. You and I read “3 x 4,” which enters into the visual side of the brain, the right side, and immediately crosses the midline. We pull “12” out of our taxon memory, located in the left brain. Have you ever seen a child who knows “3 x 4 = 12” three days in a row, and on the fourth day, he cannot find the answer? A flashcard that would help the right-brainer is a card with “3 x 4 = 12” on the FRONT of the card. Right-brainers have picture-perfect memories. In fact many right-brained kids can spell long, difficult words frontwards and backwards! According to Dianne Craft from Child Diagnostics, the left-brained mom often says to herself, “I am NOT making flashcards with the answers on the front. That’s cheating.” However, that is the kind of teaching strategy that helps these non-traditional learners soar. The right-brained child will be able to visualize the whole problem with the answer when he needs to, rather than relying on retrieving the information from the left side of his brain. He will still “know” the answer!

As home schoolers, we have a unique opportunity to honor the way God made each of our children, for indeed, the psalmist tells us in Psalm 139, “I will give thanks to Thee for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” As parents and home educators, we need to be teaching mostly to our children’s strengths, not their weaknesses. In Proverbs 22:6 we read, “Train up a child in the way that he should go and when he is old, he will not depart from it.” The important word in this well-known verse is “GO.” The word “go” here means, according to his bent, his tendencies, his areas of giftedness. We should be training up our children according to THEIR BENT, the way they learn best, not the way the mothers/teachers learn best!

Jeffrey Freed and Laurie Parsons, in their significant book Right-Brained Children in a Left-Brained World, tell us, “It’s important that the curriculum for children who are right-brained and/or ADD be not only relevant but stimulating. It may seem a paradox, but children with ADD actually need more stimulation to learn than does the average child.” Freed and Parsons go on to write, “Not all right-brained learners have ADD, but all ADD kids are right-brained learners.

“What [right-brained learners] need isn’t a prescription for pills [Ritalin], but a prescription for a different teaching method,” [my insertions]. The “different teaching method” to which Freed and Parsons are referring is no mystery; it has been around since kindergarten. It is called hands-on learning. Right-brained learners thrive when taught the “big picture” first and then the details. They need the information to be presented with meaning, color, and story in order to have it stick in their memory files. In fact, in his book Teaching with the Brain in Mind, Eric Jensen says, “Brain-compatible learning means that educators should weave math, movement, geography, social skills, role play, science, and physical education together.” Wearing a three-cornered hat, making an Indian headdress, or planting seeds in the garden—doing something with the information makes it memorable.

I cringe when I hear a mother describe her child’s heartbreaking experience in public or private school, only to have her tell of her choice to use more textbooks and workbooks at home to get her child “back on track.” Remember this: if a child has trouble with workbook and textbook learning at public or private school, bringing him home might help a little, but not significantly if that is the only teaching method used. If a child is lactose intolerant at a traditional school, will bringing him home suddenly cure him so he can drink milk as a home schooler? Of course not. The traditional conveyor-belt learning via reading the chapter and answering the questions in the back of the chapter will be as big a source of frustration at home as it was in the classroom setting.
Home schooling is too important a task to rely on an inefficient method that “teaches” information to your children, just to have them forget everything they learned in a couple of weeks. If hands-on learning helps information stick in children’s long-term memories, mothers need to incorporate more hands-on strategies in their day-to-day teaching. Most left-brained moms, however, want to stay step-by-step with the traditional scope and sequence and traditional teaching methods. They often feel uncomfortable with hands-on, non-traditional teaching, yet they know their children are not retaining their textbook studies. Many children are crying out for a new and fun way to learn.

Choosing curricula that use these hands-on teaching methods and still give enough structure for left-brained moms to feel comfortable becomes critical. Matching curriculum and learning style is the best way to give the right-brained learner a real chance to succeed in his academic setting and to prove to himself and the world that he truly has been “fearfully and wonderfully made.” These kids can do more than just succeed; they can soar. Let us make sure they do, with teaching that is hands on and fun!