Left/right brain theory is bunk

Creativity isn’t a right-brain function. Logic isn’t a left-brain function. Left/right brain theory is bunk, writes cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham on The Answer Sheet.

In the usual mythology, the left hemisphere of the brain is logical, ordered, and analytic, and it supports reading, speech, math, and reasoning. The right hemisphere is more oriented towards feelings and emotions, spatial perception, and the arts, and is said to be more creative.

We have known for at least 30 years that this characterization is incorrect.

It takes a whole brain to read or listen to music or think sequentially or do just about anything. Educators who try to teach to one side of the brain or the other are wasting their time, Willingham writes.

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.

No right brain left behind

Must kids prep for ‘risk-taking’? asks USA Today in a a story on the “right-brain future” spiel of Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools (private schools).

Here’s the Cliff Notes version: As traditional jobs in the left-brain world of finance shrink, the USA’s economy will increasingly be tethered to creative innovations rooted in right-brain thinking.

Bassett was inspired by Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

At High Tech High, a charter school in San Diego, students are encouraged to use those skills to practical ends such as dreaming up new sources of energy or calculating ways to stretch the West’s limited water supply, says the school’s CEO, Larry Rosenstock.

“You want kids who are math whizzes, yes. But you want them to also have the creative talent to apply those math skills to find answers to big questions.”

Barrett praises other schools that are pushing students to think outside the box. He cites Fay School in Southborough, Mass., whose students last year teamed with peers at South Saigon International School in Vietnam. Using video chats and a specially created online wiki-space, they designed a “socially conscious business model” that involved both selling products and creating public service announcements to build awareness for disaster relief.

“That’s the future,” he says. “Kids being analytical and creative to come up with solutions for us all.”

Well, the kids are our future. Or, at least, they used to be.

The “killer app” of the 21st century will be combining right-brain innovations with left-brain skill sets, proclaims a companion story.  Hmmm. A whole brain is better than half a brain!

Put bluntly: The economic engine needs more iPods (a talisman no one really knew to miss until it arrived) and fewer data-crunchers (tasks that can be shipped overseas or tackled with software such as TurboTax).

The article’s examples aren’t always convincing:  Is our economic future dependent on lawyers who become interior decorators, Wall Street analysts who start cookie businesses or investment bankers who turn into web photographers?

On the other hand:

First- and second-year Harvard Med students now vie to get into (Joel) Katz’s 10-week course that uses Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts to teach future physicians how to critically analyze famous paintings.

Those who take the art course typically show “a 50% improvement” in assessing a patient’s symptoms, says Katz, himself an internist. “Usually doctors are not trained in humanism. Students usually say this has expanded their way of thinking, which benefits the patient.”

Though I was a creative writing major, I’m a logical, linear thinker. I don’t look around and see a surplus of logical thinkers, nor a shortage of “creative” types. What we need are those whole-brain people.

Risk takers? Sure. But that’s not something anyone learns in school. It’s part of the American culture.

For science fair, science should count

Lefty’s autistic son started doing science experiments at the age of two, but he’s never been chosen to represent his class in the middle-school science fair. Why not?

To make it past that first hurdle, it turns out, you have to be elected by the majority of your classmates. And for this, you are evaluated not on the scientific merits of your experiment, but on the quality of your presentation.

Thus, graphic design and public speaking skills trump scientific talent, further reducing what few opportunities remain for left-brainers to distinguish themselves.

Why not pick the best scientist — and then add a kid who’s good at graphics and a kid who’s good at public speaking to the team?