There is a lot of discussion these days about right-brained learners and what we can do to help them become more left-brained in their processing. Sometimes the implication is that if they are right-brained learners, they are processing in a less desired way. Two things about that idea: Which hemisphere is more desirable depends fully on what we are trying to get the child to do, and quite honestly, both left- and right-brained processors have limitations if they are processing very strongly in their dominant hemisphere.
Left-brained, or logic dominant learners succeed in school more readily when the task has to do with following steps and dealing with words, letters, numbers and various types of rules. These children perform well in our traditional educational system, and this is why people tend to see the left brain as the smarter hemisphere.
However, if a child is processing in a very left brained fashion, what he is not accessing is all the stuff processed in the right hemisphere of the brain, such as the whole picture, comprehension of the meaning behind the words, and the ability to see goal and steps to the goal as a whole in order to detect steps that might not be working as well as other steps might. In the right or gestalt hemisphere, intuition abounds, and it is there that the person can pick up on the emotions of others. It is also where a brand new solution might be imagined.
Right-brained, or gestalt dominant learners process strongly in the gestalt hemisphere and so have a really hard time verbalizing what they see and what they have learned. They struggle with anything at all that has to do with symbols (letters and numbers), if they are taught in a linear way.
For example, a teacher might say, "First learn this little piece, then this little piece, but don’t forget the first piece you learned because you’re going to need it later. Now learn this rule for how to use these little pieces." This is precisely how we traditionally teach reading and math in school: with symbols and in a linear step-by-step way. It is for this reason that many right-brained learners end up in special education classes.
Is one hemisphere the smarter of the two? Or do we need to access both hemispheres any time we think or work on something?
Of course we need both. Logic dominant children need to add the meaning and emotion and comprehension to their great logic skills so that they can improve as problem solvers. Gestalt dominant children need to match all the linear stuff with the colorful right-brain stuff they are so good at.
So where do we go from here? The obvious answer would be to guide children into accessing their less dominant hemisphere. And here is where the rub is. How do we do that? The prospect of redesigning our teaching materials so that we are teaching in an integrated way that will automatically access both hemispheres can be daunting in the extreme. Who has time for that?!
The quickest route to integration is to enlist the help of your students. Teach your students that some of them are gestalt dominant while others are logic dominant in their processing. They need to understand their strengths as well as what is hard for them so that they can help themselves.
In a Utopian classroom, we would group children together so that half of the group is logic dominant and the other half is gestalt. These children would work together to turn each activity into an integrated learning experience. But what you can do in every classroom is teach children to help themselves by relying on what comes easy to them when learning new concepts.
Since traditional schools already employ left-brained tools, share the tools utilized by right-brained learners. Focus on color, music, pattern, rhyme, movement or gesture, the global whole (or the whole picture), images, stories, skits and metaphor ("this is like _____," a statement that's generated by asking the questions, "how can I remember this? What does it look like or remind me of?") Start with a small lesson – maybe some terms in science you want your students to learn, or a phonics rule. Challenge the group to integrate a right-brained vehicle into the lesson, maybe by making the rule into rhyming lines, putting it to music, illustrating it, acting it out, etc. At first it might be slow going, but like any other skill, it will increase in fluency the more you have the children work on this.
So maybe that Utopian classroom is possible after all! Can you only imagine the learning gains for all students? The increase in self confidence for those gestalt learners? How the lessons will become student-driven with the students doing the hard work of teaching and learning instead of you? Remember, the best question to ask the children (gestalt) is, “What can we do to help us remember this?”