If it is true that the majority of the children struggling in our schools are right-brained learners, it is critical to understand what exactly is hard for these students so we can eliminate those things from our teaching. Best practice will address the needs of both left- and right-brained learners, so no fears about making life hard for the lefties! This post will not cover everything that is hard for right-brained learners, but will address the most critical elements that stop a right-brained learner in his tracks.
1. Having a teacher tell me something verbally and expect me to remember it
This is huge, isn’t it? In classrooms all over this nation, teachers are talking and asking their students to listen, study, and remember what they are imparting. The better the teacher, the more he or she has command of their subject and can talk about it with confidence. The fundamental problem for right-brained learners is that they are not auditory. In their finest moments, they will have enough supplemental helps going on (related visuals to look at while the teacher is talking, for instance) that they will be able to extract meaning from the lesson. In their worst moments, they will hear the words, know they are words that are familiar but be unable to process the meaning. Right-brained learners learn via tactile and visual means, so basically if we want to teach them successfully, we are going to have to make learning hands-on, student-driven, and discovery based.
2. Having a teacher give me a rule and ask me to memorize and apply it
Traditionally, both reading and math are taught in similar ways – via rules to learn and apply. Right-brained learners are not able to just memorize a rule, remember it, and apply it. What they do is look at the global picture, make connections (pattern seeking), and then extract their own rules from what they saw. It is exactly backward to how we typically teach.
3. Having a teacher parcel out information in little pieces that follow a sequence
This is precisely how we teach in the traditional classroom. We assume children need to have all learning broken down into little steps for them because we are still in the modes described in items 1 and 2 above. Say our goal is that students learn to read. We’ve been told exactly how to teach reading, and it is a step-by-step, linear process that starts with the children learning their ABC’s. I don’t need to elaborate on how we teach reading because we know all about this already. The reality is that right-brained learners learn little parts here and there, but most of the time that we are parceling out the little pieces, they are subconsciously asking, “What am I supposed to do with this? Where does it fit? What can I stick it to that will make sense? What does this have to do with anything?” It's easy to assume they don’t need to know why they are learning all this stuff since WE as the teacher know they are supposed to be heading towards being fluent readers, and that should suffice. I teach; you learn. The truth about right-brained learners is that they have to start at the END of the process and then and only then will they be able to break that learning down into little pieces or patterns.
4. Having a teacher limit content based on grade level expectations
What? Something else that can be really hard for us, as teachers, to swallow is that any content is really not sorted into grade level material for the right-brained learner. There are no such things as 1st-grade words, for example. I have personally witnessed kindergarteners who devoured ALL the high-frequency words clear up to grade 4 Dolch words. I have also experienced first graders who eagerly absorbed word list after word list, 100 words per list. It happened because their teachers didn’t limit them. Right-brained learners learn the most when the doors to learning are swung wide open, their environment is rich for their kind of learning, and they are given the freedom to go as far as their brains will take them.
Somewhere there is an unwritten rule about how to teach students words and how to design word walls. I speak from personal experience because I have been in the classroom myself and was told exactly what to have on my word wall on day one, and precisely how to proceed from there. But in doing this we limit kids!
I have heard countless people say they are looking for SnapWords® sets that contain specific words and that they don’t need the other words in our sets because those words are not on their list of required words. Let's choose to open the doors for our right-brained learners and not hold them back because of a list of prescribed words.
We’re going to have to do an about face if we want our right-brained learners to succeed
Nothing is going to change for our failing children until we radically change how we are teaching. More money, more resources, more hours in the day, more review, more drilling – none of this is going to help. In fact, what this will do is deepen the sense of failure our right-brained students already carry. The reality is that we are teaching our right-brained population in a severely left-brained manner, and when they fail, we break learning down into an even more left-brained fashion. What results is a totally unnecessary tragedy for each of those learners.
We’re also going to have to embrace a radically different viewpoint about teaching
At this point, when a child fails in school, it's easy to automatically take the view that the STUDENT is not able to learn. We typically assign the low grades, have student study meetings, enroll them in a special education class, and we go on. What we must all do in order to begin to see a rise in achievement school-wide is to do a radical about face. This will be a total relief for those teachers who suspect the kids are not responsible for their failure, but a really awful pill to swallow for those who have been the most adamant that children, ALL children should be able to learn the way we’ve always taught.