Monday, 18 June 2007

Left Brain - Right Brain follows VAK

There is some fascinating discussion here, here and here about this article in the Economist and this article by the excellent Frank Coffield on the relationship between neuroscience and education. Apparently the idea that the left side of the brain is associated with boring serial thinkers and the right side with fascinating lateral thinkers is out, and it is all proving much more complicated than that.

Many teachers must have the same feelings about theories of learning that slimmers have about diets:

every year we are told that everything we have been doing up until now is wrong and here is the real truth

It is true that a lot of what has passed for the theory of learning has proved to be far less useful to teaching and learning than the hype at the time suggested. From operant conditioning through to learning styles, the study of learning has passed through fashions with little more lasting value than clothes fashion. Coffield's paper is warning that this may be just as true for neuroscience. The mistake is to assume that all science is like physics - pretty much a dead cert on which you can build trips to Mars. Theories of learning are tentative and their acceptance is as much down to the prestige and communications skills of its proponents as it is to evidence.

But Coffield also points out that with proper attention to context and the reality of teaching there may be some useful nuggets arising from neuroscience. The same applies to some other theories that have fallen out of fashion. Even operant conditioning has been shown to be useful in the classroom in maintaining discipline among children with learning difficulties.

I have never really taken much notice of the left brain/right brain meme. I always assumed it was an enormous over simplification and I never really cared where things were happening in my brain anyhow. But it is quite useful to bear in mind the difference between analytical, logical approaches to a subject and creative, spontaneous approaches. As long as you don't take it too seriously, then left brain /right brain might be quite a useful image for reminding us that both are needed. In fact I may start to take it more seriously now.


Karyn Romeis said...

In a recent lecture, Prof John Geake talked about the significance of connectivity between the various areas of the brain - and not just across the hemispheric divide (or whatever its correct name is). Based on his research conducted using MRI, it seems that it is important for different areas of the brain to work together to complete any given task.

I do worry a little, though, that we are getting hung up on the physical structure of the brain and paying too little attention to the intangible concept of the mind. Time magazine on 18 January ran a special issue focusing on the brain, where this point was illustrated.

There is a growing library of anecdotal evidence of people who should not have been able to function normally, if their brain structure were anything to go by, and yet...

I suspect that we are still a long way off understanding what makes us tick!

Mark Frank said...


I am sure you are right. It will be a long time before we can fix dyslexia through brain surgery.