Left brains and right brains in English language teaching

Author Gaetan Lee . Tilt corrected by Kaldari. CC
From Wiki

Well hello! Good news, I have a guest post today and who else but the original TEFL sceptic, Philip Kerr! The author of books on vocabulary,  and co-author of inside out and straightforward   he also recently wrote a book on how to use L1 and translation in the classroom and has spoken in support of translation and L1 several times at conferences ( see here for example). He’s recently been writing about adaptive learning over on this blog.  

If you’ve seen my IATEFL talk, you’ll know that someone asked why I didn’t include ‘left brained/right brained’ teaching. Well, as I mentioned then, one of the reasons is that Philip had already done a pretty thorough job of critiquing it. Unfortunately the article in question was not available online, -until now that is!

This was originally published in issue 36, 2011 of ebulletin TESOL Macedonia-Thrace northern Greece. (p.5-7)

Left brain / right brain differences in ELT

If you ever go to ELT conferences or read magazines for language teachers, you will probably have come across references to the differences between left and right brains. For example, at the 2006 TESOL France Colloquium, Rita Baker gave a presentation entitled ‘The Global Approach to Understanding English Tenses’, the abstract for which says that ‘the Global Approach is a ‘whole brain’, visual and kinaesthetic way of teaching and learning, starting with the ‘big picture’ (right brain) so that the ‘details’ (left brain) can be understood in context.’ An article by Larry Lynch (2007),entitled ‘Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning’, describes the importance of developing the different skills and abilities located on either side of the brain. One best-selling international coursebook (Cunningham & Moor, 2005) offers a quiz for students that asks them to consider whether they are left or right brained. The examples I have given here are purely illustrative: a quick internet search will bring up many, many more.

Many, but certainly not all, of the references to left / right brain differences in the discourse of ELT are to be found in texts associated with Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) or Brain Gym. On the British Council / BBC website, Teaching English, for example, there is an article by Steve Darn, (2005), ‘Neuro Linguistic Programming in ELT’, which explains that NLP ‘encompasses or is related to left / right brain’ functions’. The online magazine, Humanising Language Teaching, contains an article by Tom Maguire (2002) about Brain Gym, which he describes as a holistic approach to learning that ‘enables students to find an equilibrium between both sides of the brain and the body’.

Lynch (2007) provides a brief summary of the left brain / right brain issue for ELT practitioners. Learners can be categorised as predominantly left-brained (number skills, written language, reasoning, spoken language, scientific thought) or right-brained (insight, three dimensional, art / visual / images, imagination, music). More generally, it is implied that left-brained individuals are rational, linear (boring and male); right-brained individuals are typically intuitive, emotional, creative (fun and female). By extension, classroom activities can be categorised in the same way so that particular activities will particularly suit a learner of left (e.g. using lists) or right-sided (e.g. singing) lateralisation. The significance of these differences is that schools, and the activities that take place within them, tend to bias the left brain, thus disadvantaging certain types of individual.


The popular history of left brain / right brain differences

The interest of educationalists in brain lateralization (the functional differences between the two cortical hemispheres) dates back to the 1960s when Roger Sperry and Michael Gazzaniga conducted research into epileptic patients who had had their corpus callosum (an area of white matter that connects the hemispheres) cut. It was observed in such patients that certain cognitive functions could be attributed to one or other of the hemispheres. Their findings were rapidly picked up on by others, and, in 1972, Robert Ornstein published his massively influential ‘The Psychology of Consciousness’. In this book, he argued that education needed to place greater emphasis on the more creative, intuitive functions of the right brain. Other, even more popular, books, including Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ soon followed. At the same time, NLP and Superlearning® (both of which drew on ideas about ‘whole brain’ learning) began to take off in educational and management circles. Corballis (2007: 293 ff.) provides a useful, short history of the evolution of right / left brain ideas in popular consciousness. From a combination of these sources, ideas about brain lateralization have found their way into the discourse of ELT.


There is, however, a problem with the application of these ideas to education. The idea that people can be categorised as predominantly left brained or right brained is a myth. As Dörnyei (2009: 49) puts it, this idea is ‘simplistic at best and utter hogwash at worst.’ Dörnyei uses strong words, perhaps because of the widespread acceptance of such a myth in the world of education and language teaching, in particular. It is, he believes, very unfortunate, ‘that the aspect of brain research that has most succeeded in filtering through to the wider domain of public knowledge [i.e. left brain –right brain discrepancies] is a highly problematic, and a somewhat outdated, area of cognitive neuroscience.’ His view is shared by Usha Goswami at the Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge, who describes the ‘current gulf between neuroscience and education’ (2006: 406), a gulf that is filled with ‘packages and programmes claiming to be based on brain science’ but are actually full of ‘neuromyths’.


Academics such as Dörnyei and Goswami may be justified in their irritation with the durability of these myths. Almost thirty years ago, Michael Corballis (1983) drew attention to the popular misunderstanding of what researchers refer to as hemispheric specialization. ‘Hemispheric specialization means that one side of the brain is more adept than the other. It does not necessarily mean that the other side cannot perform a function at all or is not routinely involved in a particular activity. […] Virtually all behaviors and modes of thinking require both hemispheres working together.’ (Hampson, 1994) Researchers are in broad agreement that there are differences between the information-processing biases of the brain’s hemispheres, but that these exist at the micro-level, and not at macro-levels such as language or spatial processing. The idea that the left brain is rational and analytic or that the right brain is intuitive and suggestive is not a scientific idea: it is pop psychology or pseudo-science. As it is scientifically meaningless to talk about left-brained or right-brained learners, it is correspondingly meaningless to talk about classroom activities that favour one particular side of the brain or that contribute to inter-cerebral communication.


The power of metaphor

The fact that we do not use only one side of our brains to be either intuitive or analytical does not, of course, mean that some people are not generally more or less intuitive or analytical than others. There is nothing wrong with contrasting intuitive insights with rational ones. Learner differences exist, and the idea that we should adapt our teaching to our individual learners is neither new nor contentious. The problem is how we categorise these differences, and there is no research-based consensus on how we should go about this. If there is agreement on anything, it is that individual differences are not absolute and context-independent (Dörnyei, 2005: 218): such differences are situated in particular contexts.

This is, frankly, unfortunate. It would be nice to have a way of categorising learners (e.g. into left and right brains, or into visual / auditory and kinaesthetic, or into one of Gardner’s ‘multiple intelligences’) and then to devise learning programmes and activities that addressed their different needs. It is unfortunate, too, in that those people who argue that we should move away from a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching have a very valid point. Teaching does tend to be excessively rational, atomistic and analytic, and would almost certainly benefit from a more emotionally-rich and holistic approach. The people who talk about left brains and right brains offer us pegs on which we can hang our cultural preconceptions (Corballis, 2007: 300) and their ideas resonate in very positive ways. The left / right brain metaphor is comforting (Sternberg, 2008: 419) and may be useful in correcting some of the problems in our approaches to teaching. Unfortunately, it is only a metaphor.

It has sometimes been argued that we should judge theories by their transformative potential, rather than the extent to which they can be subjected to empirical testing. Should we worry if left brain / right brain ideas are actually hare-brained … so long as they lead to improvements in the real world? Perhaps not, but there is a deep problem when writers like Lynch or Maguire co-opt the language of science in order to confer a spurious scientific respectability on their ideas. Their practical suggestions may be good, but their cause is not advanced by appeals to pseudo-science. It may be the case that, at some point in the future, science will unequivocally legitimize some of these practical suggestions. However, as Sternberg (2008: 419) points out, we are not there yet. Importantly, too, there is a very substantial literature, going back almost three decades, that cautions educators against jumping to conclusions. To ignore such literature is surely to lose the right to call oneself an educator.

For teachers who are interested in the relationship between neuroscience and education, the website of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education may make a useful starting point http://www.educ.cam.ac.uk/centres/neuroscience/ . Alternatively the books by Blakemore & Frith (2005) or the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) will provide intelligent and informed reading. For a brief no-nonsense summary of educational principles that can be derived from research in neuroscience, Christison (2002) is also useful. Developments in this field are fast and furious. They deserve our respect and interest. The crude simplification of insights from this research in order to sell us a coursebook, an interactive whiteboard or a teacher training course deserves our contempt.


References and further reading


Blakemore, S.J. & U. Frith (2005) The Learning Brain: Lessons for Education. Oxford: Blackwell

Bruer, J.T. (1999) In Search of …Brain-Based Education Phi Delta Kappan Vol. 80 / 9

Calvin, W.H. (1991) The Throwing Madonna: Essays on the Brain New York: Bantam

Christison, M. (2002) Brain-based research and language teaching English Teaching Forum April 2002 pp. 2 – 7

Corballis, M. C. (1983) Human Laterality New York: Academic Press

Corballis, M. C. (2007) The dual-brain myth. In Tall Tales about the Mind and Brain Ed. Della Sala, S. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 291 – 313

Cunningham, S. & Moor, P. (2005) New Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate. Harlow: Pearson Longman

Dörnyei, Z. (2005) The Psychology of the Language Learner. Mahwah, NJ: LawrenceErlbaum

Dörnyei, Z. (2009) The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Edwards, B. (1999). The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. New York: Tarcher

Goswami, U. (2006) Neuroscience and education: from research to practice? Nature Reviews Neuroscience 7 pp. 406-413

Hampson, E. (1994) Left Brain, Right Brain: Fact and Fiction Organization for Quality Education Newsletter, December 1994 http://www.societyforqualityeducation.org/newsletter/archives/left.pdf

Lynch, L. M. (2007) Using Right and Left Brain Activities in English Language Teaching and Learning Ezine Articles http://ezinearticles.com/?Using-Right-and-Left-Brain-Activities-in-English-Language-Teaching-and-Learning&id=833921

Maguire, T. Brain Gym® Humanising Language Teaching Year 4 Issue 3 http://www.hltmag.co.uk/may02/mart3.htm

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2002) Understanding the Brain: Towards a New Learning Science

Ornstein, R. E. (1972) The Psychology of Consciousness. San Francisco: Freeman

Sternberg, R.S. (2008) The Answer Depends on the Question: A Reply to Eric Jensen Phi Delta Kappan, February 2008 pp.418 – 420

Willingham, D.T. (2006) ‘Brain-based learning: More fiction than fact’ American Educator Fall. (available online at http://www.aft.org/newspubs/periodicals/ae/fall2006/willingham.cfm)



EBEFL asks part 2: The evidence strikes back…

One odd thing that happened after IATEFL was people suddenly assuming I was an EFL expert. I started getting questions about the efficacy of this or that method or the merits of vocabulary versus grammar. To be honest I generally have no idea and while it may be expedient for me to cultivate an image of being a knowledgeable so-and-so that’s not the case. I’m not expert in very much and more importantly other ‘experts’ are probably not as expert as we may think. 

How do I know this? Maths. 
According to Fred Perry there are around 100 journals relating to SLA and language teaching at present. Each of these puts out around 3 or 4 issues a year (3×10=300) and each one has, let’s say, about five articles a piece which is about 1,500 articles a year. There is no way anyone could reasonably be expected to keep up with these and all the articles/books that have gone before them. Rod Ellis may be an expert on SLA but how would he fare in discussions of ELF, testing or corpus linguistic?
So in short I don’t know that much and nobody knows everything. These two points bring me to two requests:

No. 1. I’d like to try to help spread the ‘ask for evidence’ meme created by Sense about Science. If anything came out of the talk at IATEFL for me it’s the need for teachers to be less afraid of asking questions and challenging the status quo. I had a large number of emails thanking me from people saying they’d always thought something was not quite right but never felt they couldn’t say anything. Some had even got into trouble for questioning ‘established practice’. There is nothing wrong with asking the question ‘how do you know that?’ In fact, it’s sad that educators should feel they can’t. As long as you are not rude or patronising it’s reasonable to expect an answer.

So the next time someone claims that ‘teacher talking time should be reduced’ or ‘grammar mcnuggests are bad for students’ or that ‘students have nine different types of intelligence‘ politely enquire on what grounds the speaker makes those claims and be cautious of accepting ‘my experience’ or ‘it’s obvious’ as answers. There may be very good reasons for the claims, then again there may not. Either way, you’ll learn something. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised that people, who are probably far busier than me, have taken the time to respond to my emails. And that brings me to…

No. 2 I’d like to ask anyone who is an expert/knowledgeable in a particular field, be it motivation or vocab to get in touch. As I said earlier, it’s impossible for anyone to know everything and with that in mind I’d really like to start having some guest bloggers, particularly those who can offer teachers practical advice based on research. Ideally you’d be highlighting the research evidence that a certain practice or set of practices ‘work’ or conversely, don’t.
Let me know at rm190@le.ac.uk


Hubbard or Gattegno

I’ve recently been reading up on the silent way for another post and it has inspired this post, which is a trivial game.  The rules are simple. Read the statements below and decide if they were said by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard or Silent way founder Caleb Gattegno. Scroll down for the answers.

1. “
Consciousness . . . is present in every cell and in every amount of energy in the soma’”

2. “A misunderstood word will remain misunderstood until one clears the meaning of the word. Once the word is fully understood by the person, it is said to be cleared.”

3. “‘Ogden’ is the name we have given to the [amount of] mental energy mobilized to retain an arbitrary sound or an arbitrary connection.”

4. “I have been engaged in a study of applications of technology to illiteracy and illiterate or semiliterate populations.”

5. “The supporters of mankind could achieve their ends if they could shift to becoming holders of the relativity that generates tolerance of the other, But . . . they do not seem ready to pay the price: abandonment of absolutes passed on from times when awareness was not the concern of people.”

6. “An educational program[me] which begins with the child’s parents, progresses through kindergarten and grade school, through high school and into college and preserves at every step the individuality, the native ambitions, intelligence, abilities and dynamics of the individual, is the best bastion against not only mediocrity but against any and all enemies of mankind”

7. “I have need of more lives to chisel myself, my quantum, further and [to] make me more myself by making me more human”

8. “Mental energy is simply a finer, higher level of physical energy. The test of this is conclusive in that a thetan “mocking up” (creating) mental image pictures and thrusting them into the body can increase the body mass and by casting them away again can decrease the body mass

 9. “I am an energy system endowed with awareness. Hence I can become aware of the energy inputs I receive and know them for what they are”


All of the even numbers are Hubbard and the odds are Gattengo. L. Ron Hubbard (1911-1986) started life as a TEFL teacher in Guam whereas Gattegno (1911-1988) started life as a maths teacher. All Gattegno quotes come from Stevick.