News: CJ Exclusives

Brainy Issues in the Schools

NC is first to adopt statewide initiative based on analysis of different learning styles

Are you a left-brain learner or a right-brain learner? Are you visual, auditory, or kinesthetic? It makes a difference, experts say, in how you absorb, retrieve, and communicate information throughout life.

Although few of us are strictly one style or another, the differences between individuals who are more intuitive vs. those who are more fact-oriented can affect the early years of learning, and will carry over through the teen and adult years as well, some experts say.

In May 2004, the State Board of Education invited Dr. Mel Levine, pediatrician, author, and director of the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, to address the board’s monthly meeting. Levine is the founder of a nonprofit organization, All Kinds of Minds, which stresses the importance of focusing on children’s learning styles. Teacher training can help each child’s style work for their academic success, Levine said.

Levine developed the Schools Attuned program to train and support teachers dealing with all kinds of learners. North Carolina is the first state to adopt Levine’s program as a statewide initiative. Schools Attuned receives part of its funding from the General Assembly, and Levine’s pitch before the State Board is part of an effort to gain their endorsement.

State Board Chairman Howard Lee said he would like to establish “a closer relationship between the Board and Levine to take greater advantage of his expertise, especially in the area of professional [teacher] development.” Levine encouraged the board to “consider systemic changes and not just professional development. This will require a change in school priorities and stronger support of the All Kinds of Minds philosophy by the state,” he said.

The state’s “balanced curriculum” initiative, adopted by SBE in January 2004 for K-5 classrooms, already requires restructuring some teaching methods and measurement objectives. It isn’t clear how the balanced-curriculum initiative would mesh with Levine’s Schools Attuned approach (Carolina Journal, March 2004.

Different brains are “differently wired,” said Levine, whose book A Mind At A Time identifies eight skill areas of potential strength or weakness. Levine’s plan is to attune the teacher to learning differences so that students can reach their potential in all eight areas — math, reading, writing, speaking, spelling, memorization, comprehension, and problem solving — without expecting them to excel in all.

Levine observes that as adults, we do not perform all tasks equally well, and that children’s academic skills will vary for the same reason.

At Mangum Elementary School in Bahama, N.C., a Schools Attuned location, students and teachers “collaborate in managing differences in learning,” and “are given choices as to how they would like their class work evaluated.”

When teaching a child with “a learning style that doesn’t fit the assignment,” Levine said, the teacher and parents should develop strategies that will work around the weakness.

Recent theories about how children learn focus attention on the child’s natural orientation toward visual, auditory, or kinesthetic signals. They also consider the child’s broad preference for dealing with the world either through facts or through feelings — the left-brain/right-brain difference.

Left-brain and right-brain distinctions were identified in the 1960s after Roger Sperry, a psychobiologist, proposed that the human brain “has two very different ways of thinking.” The right brain is visual and intuitive, while the left brain is verbal and analytical, he said.

In humans, the left side of the brain controls the right side of the body, and vice versa. While there aren’t any hard and fast rules, people are considered to be mostly right or mostly left-brained in their approach to information. Research has divided this further, into the visual, auditory, and kinesthetic styles of listening, thinking, and communicating.

Most curriculum is designed by left-brainers for left-brain learners, educator and curriculum designer Wade Hulcy said. The quiet, visual, fact-oriented student is a typical left-brain child, Hulcy explained in a talk titled “Struggling Learners: Right-Brain Learner Suppressed in a Left-Brain World.”

According to Hulcy, students who hate to read text for facts, and fail in their reading tasks, can develop a love of reading music, and thereby expand into the world of reading in general. Patrick Henry, for example, was a typical right- brain individual who didn’t fit his left-brain education, Hulcy noted. Henry did succeed eventually, but today would have been identified for special ed or medication, and headed for the dropout statistics. A rebellious spiky-haired “free spirit” who is “just plain weird” is another example of a right-brainer.

They are also artistic, intuitive, restless, and creative, research reveals. While these are traits that can make for a successful adult, they are out of place in most classrooms.

Right-brain kids can be successful in classrooms where teachers know how to work with their learning style, Levine said. Getting young right-brainers to access facts stored on the left side may take some doing, however.

Carla Hannaford’s Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All In Your Head and Brain Gyms suggests that right-brain students use movement and kinesthetic methods to help access left-brain information.

Her work is based on biological research that indicates that the two halves of the brain don’t coordinate information well until after puberty.

Specific motions that cross the child’s long axis, or midline, will promote left-brain right-brain coordination.

Since federal law requires schools to produce verified academic progress in students, and to measure achievement by conventional means, teaching methods and measurement have increased importance.

Researchers seem to have found an explanation for why some students don’t fit. Next, teaching reform advocates will have to detail the alternative assessment methods that will also satisfy the demands of NCLB accountability.

A classroom-level approach to teaching and evaluating kids, based on individual learning styles, has yet to demonstrate that it can fulfill these tasks.

Dr. Karen Palasek is assistant editor of Carolina Journal.