Left-brained child, right-brained world

Once they called it “marching to the beat of a different drummer.” Now the eccentric kid who does his own thing may be labeled a nerd or diagnosed with “social anxiety disorder” or Asperger’s Syndrome.

Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World by Katherine Beals offers “strategies for helping bright, quirky, socially awkward children thrive at home and at school.” Beals, who blogs at Out in Left Field, argues that left-brainy children do best with a structured, analytical curriculum. New ways of teaching, such as unsupervised, group-centered discovery and open-ended, interdisciplinary projects may leave them confused, bored and floundering.

Beals suggests how parents can advocate for their children and reminds them that it’s not so bad to raise a non-conformist.

My nephew is one of those left-brainers. Despite an Asperger’s diagnosis, he was told in class after class to write about his feelings, which he considered an invasion of privacy, rather than being allowed to analyze a book or a historical issue or whatever. He’s now studying computer science with his fellow lefties.

In keeping with my self-promotion vow, I will mention my book, Our School:  The Inspiring Story of Two Teachers, One Big Idea and the Charter School That Beat the Odds.

About Joanne


  1. I can’t believe that we have reached the day where calm students who are enthusiastic to learn directly from a teacher are labelled as nonconformist.

  2. If you are shy and bad at art, you are screwed. If you don’t show the teacher that you are actively learning, you are screwed. If you don’t like group learning, you are screwed. Memorizing vocabulary words is bad, but memorizing words while drawing pictures of the words is OK. Memorizing basic math facts is bad, but if you do it with manipulables, then it’s OK. Apparently it’s not OK to have an internal process of learning. You have to show it.

    These aren’t kids who are particularly different. This is a reflection of a very shallow view of learning. You have to make teachers feel good about themselves. Think of all of those team building meetings (or better yet, in-service classes) you have at work. Imagine your salary being based on your performance in those meetings.

    When process, not content and skills, is king, you’re just being taught how to play the game. If you can’t or won’t play the game, you are screwed.

    Good job, Katharine.

  3. This will be a great resource for parents of these kinds of kids.

    There is nowhere to hide when your kid is in K-8. I have just been through this, and what Steve said is absolutely correct–if you have a kid who is private or shy and isn’t particularly good at art, then he is most definitely screwed.

  4. My solution to “write about your feelings”-type papers was to write papers talking about how much I hated “writing about your feelings” papers.

    Didn’t get me good grades, but made me feel better.

  5. Margo/Mom says:

    I am a bit cautious about overcategorizing what goes on in schools. My son would thrive in an atmosphere categorized by group-work, manipulatives, infusion of artwork–even feelings identification. The times when that was available to him stand out like small islands in a sea of separate classrooms, copying answers from the board, strategies for locating the right answer in the text and copying it, and lots and lots of isolated individual work on worksheets. If he ever finishes high school (a big if at this point) it will be because he is willing to sit for hours at a computer screen carrying out computerized versions of these approaches (or because someone has come up with something differenet).

    I don’t deny the existence of group-work focused, inquiry-based learning opportunities. I have seen them in operation from time to time and drooled over the opportunity that I cannot obtain for my son.

    The issue, in my mind, is our inability to pay attention when kids are not learning well, and respond in ways that better fit their needs. What we tend to do instead is follow one way or another, based on what excites teachers, and try to bend the children to fit the mold. The ones who don’t work can always be placed in special ed–or if we annoy them long enough they will drop out.

  6. “I have seen them in operation from time to time and drooled over the opportunity that I cannot obtain for my son.”

    You better be careful about what you wish for. That may not be green grass you’re looking at.

    What you are talking about is a focus on the goal rather than the process. Unfortunately, many schools think that it’s all about the process. They can’t tell if a child is “learning well”. Even if they could, it would unlikely match your own criteria.

  7. Deirdre Mundy says:

    I was talking about a friend about this the other day– It’s amazing how many of the people I knew in college (and especially the Math/Sci people) would be diagnosed as “Asperger’s” if they happened to be unfortunate enough to be in school today.

    Yet these are all people who have happy productive adult lives. They were a bit weird in grade school, but once they found a niche, a few close friends and challenging coursework, they thrived. They didn’t need ‘special education.’ They were just very smart, math/logic oriented and introverted!

    I think we have too many extroverted teachers. Extroverts tend to assume the intorverts have a ‘problem’ that needs fixing. Maybe an introvert-rights group or something could help?

  8. Bill Leonard says:

    I believe SteveH has it right. In personal terms — based on my own experience and that of my now-adult children, no one learns much of anything in “committees.” Neither does much come from drawing pictures of words, or probably, of much of anything in art minus real artistic talent.

    I was raised K-6 in the Des Moines school system during the dark ages of the late 40s and early 50s. The emphasis was still pre-WWII and stressed basics — mastery of grade-level math facts and reading were predominate. From third grade on, art and music were separate subjects taught by an art and a music teacher — but not every day. Not surprisingly, no kid was promoted to the next grade level if he couldn’t rate at his present grade level.

    We moved to California when I was in seventh grade. No movement from class to class, except for one hour of Phys Ed daily. Lots of “committee” work for social studies. Considerable time spent — wasted, I believe, since I have zero art talent — drawing pictures while listening to music.

    Lucky for me, I had that K-6 grounding, so I knew how to learn, could read well, and managed well enough.

    But I thought then, and believe to this day, that the “process” stuff — dividing into social studies “committees”, and reporting to the rest of the class once or twice a semester — was a waste of time.

  9. Cardinal Fang says:

    Deirdre remarks, “It’s amazing how many of the people I knew in college (and especially the Math/Sci people) would be diagnosed as Asperger’s if they happened to be unfortunate enough to be in school today. Yet these are all people who have happy productive adult lives. They were a bit weird in grade school…”

    Yeah, well, a lot of those math/science people would be diagnosed with Aspergers because they have Aspergers. You might want to ask them exactly how awful their K-12 years were before dismissing the problem.

  10. Extroverts tend to assume the introverts have a ‘problem’ that needs fixing.

    This was the biggest source of conflict between my father and me when I was growing up. I am only moderately introverted- I actually am fairly social in small groups where I know everyone well. I just hate big groups, especially if I don’t know the folks very well. But my dad, Mr. Life-of-the-party, thought that there was something wrong with me. So he kept insisting I be signed up for things I hated to try to “help me get over my shyness”. Ugh, ugh, ugh!

    Throwing me into large group situations that made me uncomfortable had the opposite result he intended. If he was concerned about my social skills and making friends, he should’ve encouraged more involvement in small groups. I made more friends in high school and college when I was able to choose my own activities. I even joined a sorority, albeit one of the smaller chapters on campus (there were 9 other girls in my pledge class).

  11. Margo/Mom says:

    CW–I think that one of the other mythologies is that introverts, when quiet, are uncomfortable, or feel left out. Some of us enjoy crowd watching from a comfortable corner and feel no need to be drawn out.

    None of this changes the fact that somehow we all gotta get along. We should be able to educate kids the way they are (all the ways that they are), rather than setting out some “right” way and sending all the poor fits out for reprogramming.

  12. Most secondary teachers are, in fact, introverts. It isn’t the same as being shy.

    Having Asperger’s and being happy and well adjusted are not mutually exclusive propositions. It isn’t a prophesy of misery. I think this whole piece is kind of odd, actually. Group work, etc. is anything but new, and the label “nerd” has been around a long time, too.

  13. Group work was used as a break in the day, or for a special project way back in my day, not as a daily, ritualistic part of the core curriculum. And “nerd” hasn’t gone anywhere even with all of these feel-good techniques for getting kids to be more social. If anything an uncomfortable, shy child will just stick out more in those situations and be penalized for it when the grade comes back.

    Also, as Steve said, it’s often hard to access who is learning and who is not if kids are in groups in every class most days. If the group isn’t chosen well, certain kids will often drag the others along, yet get stuck with the same grade as the others. Again, this isn’t too much of a problem if it’s used here and there.

  14. I always wonder why parents can’t teach their children the skills needed to get along with groups of people. I wasn’t all that interested in making new friends when I was a kid, but I saw my parents and extended family make small talk with the check-out clerk, taxi drivers, etc. and while I rolled my eyes at the time, I must have absorbed something, as I work in a field where I chat up strangers for a living. I taught both my kids–the loud one and the shy one–how to be polite and make other people feel at ease, and it’s paid off.

    I don’t expect schools to teach social skills, but I’m always surprised at how many adults proclaim (on line especially) that they have poor social skills or can’t make small-talk. I think it’s a bug not a feature, but I seem to be in a minority.

    Group assignments are usually most successful when a bossy person, like Lucy van Pelt, is in charge.

  15. Oops, that’s “assess”, not “access”.

  16. Devilbunny says:

    I’m glad I grew up when I did; I’d face too much crap these days.

    It’s pretty clear – if you spend some time around me – that I’ve got a touch of autism spectrum disorder. I’m more or less completely introverted (in the Myers-Briggs sense), I don’t really require a lot of human interaction, I’m not feelings-oriented, and I’m certainly not the life of the party. Nonetheless, I can function pretty well in society, and I’m very cognizant of the fact that others are not like me.

    As long as we allow for people like me to find a place, though, it’s not really a problem. It bothered me a lot in adolescence, and I never really understood why a promise of success at age 40 was supposed to make high school more tolerable, but I’m happy with what I do and reasonably well-liked at work. I wish I’d had a book like this. It would have simplified things greatly.

    And since this provides me with an excuse to bring it forth: the fundamental problem with autism-spectrum disorders, from the incredibly mild to the utterly destructive, is that its sufferers are not wired properly to understand human interaction. A consequence is that every single human interaction is a draining intellectual exercise, like taking the SAT is for most people. And I’m pretty high-functioning…

  17. KateC: I always wonder why parents can’t teach their children the skills needed to get along with groups of people.

    Quite possibly because they don’t consciously know those skills? My parents are both native English speakers with university degrees, but I got speech therapy as a kid, which was based on the speech therapist telling me explicitly how to move my tongue and lips to form the sounds I was having problems with (along with a *lot* of practice, in which my parents helped). Her training as a speech therapist had given her conscious access to things that my parents, and most native speakers, do unconsciously.

    Social skills could well be similar. Like language, many children pick it up without any conscious effort being needed, but if a child isn’t picking it up unconsciously, it’s not that easy for the average parent (or any other person) to work out how to teach the skills explicitly.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:

    Interesting point. Why do kids–whom we expect to eventually mimic their parents’ speech to include local accents–sometimes miss one or another phoneme?
    I had trouble with small talk until I figured out that the operative concept was “small”, for a reason.
    Then I changed my way of dealing with people casually and it made a major difference. Groups are more fun now.
    Point is, I was not precluded by learning or hard-wiring from figuring it out and making the change.
    My parents were great at it and had more friends than you could count. But they never saw me in situations where I was stepping on my necktie, so they weren’t in a position to suggest anything.


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