What Happens When We Teach a Right-Brained Learner in a Left-Brained Fashion?

I’ve been researching more about learning preferences, (brain) hemispheric dominance, and the correlation between student performance in school to hemispheric dominance. What I am finding is more evidence that my beliefs during the past ten years can be supported by data. For someone who relies very heavily on her instincts, it is always lovely to find out that I don’t have to resort to saying, “I think this is true because I have a strong hunch that it’s true!” 

Clarifying terms

Before sharing what I’ve been reading, let me clarify a couple of things so we are on the same page. One is that there is no such thing as a wholly right-brained or left-brained learner. We learn in various regions of the brain at one time depending on the type of work we are doing. But there IS such a thing as a learner who learns most naturally and best in one hemisphere or the other. But even the term “right-brained” is not totally accurate because according to Carla Hannaford, Ph.D., neuroscientist, educator, and writer, there are a small number of people out there who have the “right brain functioning” located in the left hemisphere of their brains. So, to use the term Dr. Hannaford seems to prefer, “gestalt learner” replaces “right-brained learner.” 

It is beside the point, really, where the functioning is; what is totally to the point is what is happening when a gestalt learner (or right-brained learner) learns.

The Dominance Factor

In her book by that title, Dr. Hannaford explores “the linkages between the side of the body we favor for seeing, hearing, touching, and moving and the way we think, learn, work, play, and relate to others.” She details the various profiles of learners, shares how they learn, what they do most easily, what is hard for them, and what happens when they are under stress. She then makes suggestions for how to help these learners learn most easily. (The Dominance Factor, 1997, Great Ocean Publishers). The book is easy reading, interesting, and quite informative.

The Bottom Line

I am one of those gestalt learners, so I skimmed through the book and then studied the very end of the book before going back to find the earlier bits I wanted to know more about. It helps me to understand the end so I can absorb the steps that lead to the end. In her final chapter, Dr. Hannaford shared a study she conducted, and as I read I once again began to hurt for all the kids out there who are primarily right-brained learners in a primarily left-brained system of education.

In 1990, Dr. Hannaford conducted a formal study to compare students’ dominance profiles with terms used by schools to classify and sort their learners. She wanted to find out the relationship between labels such as Gifted and Talented or Special Education and certain profiles

For those of us who like the bottom line in the beginning, what Carla Hannaford discovered was that “overall, people with logic hemisphere dominant [left brain dominant] profiles were heavily represented in the Gifted and Talented category, whereas students with right-brained or sensory-limited profiles were heavily represented in the Special Education groups.” 

In the test, Gifted and Talented kids were 78% left-brained learners while only 22% were gestalt or right-brained learners. “Normal” learners (kids doing fine in regular classrooms) were split 60/30 between left-brained and right-brained learners. Remedial (kids in Title 1 and kids with specific reading difficulties) were split about 56/44 between left and right-brained learners. Special Education was a mirror image of Gifted and Talented learners, with only 22% left-brained learners and the remainder right-brained learners.

What did the numbers reveal?

My hunch is that it is no accident that the numbers came out as they did. It is logical to assume that if you insert right-brained learners into a logical/sequential system of education, they will not do as well as their logical/sequential counterparts. This is the reality we are coping with. For all the studies that are done, all the research, all the new programs, and approaches that are launched and touted as being the answer, nothing changes for our children because the WAY we teach does not materially change. We still teach in a sequential, auditory way.

The saddest thing is that we have structured school to perfectly reach only 15% of our children.

According to Rita and Kenneth Dunn, as many as 85% of our children are kinesthetic learners who need hands-on activities and movement integrated into their learning. There are very few kinesthetic techniques in a traditional school curriculum. 

Dr. Hannaford also states that about 52% of children do not learn via auditory means, yet much of teaching is done through verbal lessons and lectures. She further states that only about 15% of our children in school learn best via lecture, can deal with sequences of steps, rules, look and listen to the teacher, and then have the ability to verbalize what they learned. This 15% do well in school, make the grades, do well on the SAT, but frankly can be lacking in some of the important gestalt functions such as seeing the whole picture, sensing the implications of ideas, or even of generating new, creative ideas.

Stress and Learning

One factor that exacerbates an already difficult situation is what happens in the brain when stress occurs. If you take a primarily right-brained learner, put her into a logic/sequential educational setting, the result is going to be stress for the child. Stress comes from being presented with information in a linear, sequential manner (steps, rules to learn) when the child learns best by means of images, visuals, patterns, etc. 

Failure produces stress in the child. When a child is under stress, she will go more deeply into her dominant hemisphere. If she is right-brained dominant, under stress she will have even less access to the left or logical, sequential hemisphere. The result? A deepening spiral of failure.

When you put children into a classroom at ages 5-7, a time when their right-brained brain is rapidly developing, learning will be far more difficult for them than otherwise. It, is for this reason, many experts say “wait until the child is older before introducing primarily left-brained concepts such as reading and math.” I doubt this waiting will come about in our lifetime. The focus is, in fact, on introducing academics earlier and earlier in the attempt to bring our schools out of the downward spiral of failure.

What is the answer?

Child1st exists because we believe something CAN be done for all those wonderful right-brained children. What is missing for them are the tools that provide a predominantly left-brained population of teachers with materials that integrate images, patterns, visuals, and other right-brained elements into the mostly left-brained curriculum. Our recommendation is to start as early as possible with the brightly colored visuals, with the visual learning games, in order to catch children before they experience failure. We design products that incorporate elements that engage multiple regions in the brain so that every child will love learning.


  • Susan Tompkins

    I came across your website while searching for schools that teach design beginning in middle school. So far I don’t see any curriculum that promotes art/design as a necessity for life skills such as the sciences. I am teaching art at a private classical school whose focus is on the Greek/Roman/Latin curricula. I am struggling with the intensity of the classwork required while leaving the arts as a bonus if they can afford to add it. Having graduated with a BS in Art Education many many years ago, and watching my second child struggle all through school with the audio learning style that every school uses, I keep thinking…why aren’t there programs that value visual? I mean as a path for life. How many jobs are there where science, biology, and chemistry are used (yes, I know we need Doctors and nurses)…verses the jobs increasingly available for using creative skills? The daughter who struggled, just as did her mother, now home schools. She researches and decides based on each of her sons. All of them are different. All of them learn differently. But schools just don’t seem to want to spend the energy it takes to figure out what you have. I appreciate your publications…but my grandkids that need the help are already in high school. (Different daughter…different grandkids) I am helping mentor the oldest granddaughter who is now in the classical school. She has 10 classes for 5 subjects…she stays up until midnight reading out loud so she will remember what she is reading. Her parents requested dropping something…what they dropped her from is…you guessed it…art! I just wish I could get these administrators to understand. I grew up feeling stupid. And it took me well into my 40’s before I realized I am not. It is just really sad to me…they just don’t get it.

  • Pam

    My son is in 4th grade and I am so frustrated at a system that cannot teach my son. We just heard AGAIN that he is not meeting their expectations — with no offers to help, no solutions, and no admission that they realize he is a different styled learner who isn’t successful sitting in a desk and listening to lectures all day as you write in the blog. He struggles to keep up on a daily basis and the failure mantra is starting to settle in and become acceptance. “Mom, I know I’m an average student.” Well he isn’t. He’s bright and creative and intuitive. And he can learn with proper methods. Our private school is under no requirement to give him accommodations and so we do it there way or we find another school. What kind of school is best for this type of learner?

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