March 28, 2012

Learning Like Drawing: Left Brain, Right Brain

The idea of right and left brain thinking seems to have moved more into the world of "popular psychology"  than academic research the past decade.

We often hear about being able to broadly label students as "logical" or "creative" based on lateral dominance. This is probably a dangerous over-simplification, but there are some good lessons to be found in this research, even if the support for right/left brain thinking is not as strong as it was in the 1980s.

A lot of the early research came from studying people who had a part or the entire hemisphere either injured or destroyed. What was lost? What functions can be assumed by another region (perhaps even in the opposite hemisphere)?

I remember reading Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain when it was published in 1979.  It was written by Betty Edwards, a professor emeritus of art at California State University.

That first edition came from her interpretation of the neuroscience of the time, especially the cerebral hemisphere research which suggested that the two hemispheres of the brain have different functions.

There is a new edition and she has refined her material both based on new research and on the many workshops and seminars she has conducted over the years. What is still there is the focus on drawing techniques and instruction on self-expression through drawing. I always liked her connections for using drawing for problem solving. It remains a very popular drawing-instruction guide.

Edwards' method of drawing and teaching was revolutionary when she published it in 1979. Her premise is that the brain has two ways of perceiving and processing reality — one verbal and analytic, the other visual and perceptual. In her method, the latter dominates.

In fact, she actually wants students to suppress that left brain. Students need to try to disregard their preconceived notions of what the drawn object should look like. Many of us are frustrated when we try drawing a dog or a scene or a person's face because our drawings don't "look like" the source or what we imagine the drawing should be. She wants you to see edges, lines, spaces, relationships, light and shadow, and then seeing them and seeing them as a whole.

Research the past thirty years seems to show that the locus of particular activities is much less clear cut. Even the very simple idea that brain function lateralization can be seen in right- or left-handedness and right or left ear preference, isn't clear.  A person's preferred hand is a good general indicator, but not an indication of the location of brain function.

Of course, we live, teach and learn in a right-handed society. But the he number of left-handed children seems to be increasing. Why? Certainly, we are more relaxed about allowing children who show early preference for the left hand to use it, as opposed to a 1950s tendency to force the right hand for learning penmanship and other simple school tasks. Is technology changing our brains?  That's a popular theory being presented. (see The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains)

In our writing world, language functions (such as grammar, vocabulary and literal meaning) are typically lateralized to the left hemisphere, especially in right handed individuals. Interestingly, while language production is left-lateralized in up to 90% of right-handed subjects, it is more bilateral, or even right lateralized in approximately 50% of left-handers.

The neuroscience even seems to show that depression is linked with a hyperactive right hemisphere. This is beyond my interest or comprehension, but there is evidence of selective involvement in "processing negative emotions, pessimistic thoughts and unconstructive thinking styles", as well as vigilance, arousal and self-reflection, and a relatively hypoactive left hemisphere, "specifically involved in processing pleasurable experiences" and "relatively more involved in decision-making processes".

Beyond drawing, it is probably just as worthwhile for teachers to examine themselves as right or left-brained teachers, as it is to look at their students preferences.

Teachers with left-brain strengths generally prefer to teach using lecture and discussion. To incorporate sequence, they put outlines on the board or overhead, and they like to adhere to prepared time schedules. They give problems to the students to solve independently. Teachers with left-brain preferences assign more research and writing than their right-brain peers. A reasonably quiet, structured classroom is preferred. The classroom tends to be clean, with items in their place.

Teachers with right-brain strengths generally prefer to use hands-on activities over a lecture format. In concert with the right-brain preference of seeing the whole picture, these teachers incorporate more art, manipulatives, visuals, and music into their lessons. They tend to embrace Howard Gardner's multiple intelligences. They like to assign more group projects and activities, and prefer a busy, active, noisy classroom environment. The classroom of a strong right-brain teacher will typically have materials and books scattered all over.

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