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)