Science of Adolescent Learning: Debunking the Myth About Left-Brain/Right-Brain Learning Styles
December 14, 2016 09:34 am
The following blog post is part of the Alliance’s work on the potential impact the science of adolescent learning (SAL) can have on the educational experiences of secondary students. It is written by Kara Blacker, PhD, a distinguished science of adolescent learning fellow in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. Her research focuses on the neural mechanisms of working memory and improving cognition through training.
We all have seen and (maybe taken) those quizzes on Facebook that ask us to answer ten questions to find out if we are left-brained or right-brained. But is there any scientific evidence behind this idea that our personalities, learning styles, or strengths are the result of an unbalanced brain? More importantly, how do these ideas influence educational practices? What happens when teachers buy into these ideas and students internalize these notions about themselves?
What is the left-brain/right-brain myth?
The myth is that everyone has a dominant hemisphere (or side) of the brain. Left-brained people are thought to be logical and good with math and language, while right-brained people are thought to be more creative and artistic. Interestingly, this idea originated from some groundbreaking research on “split-brain” patients—patients in whom the left and right sides of their brain were disconnected from one another. This work was the first to show that some brain functions are more “lateralized” or mostly controlled by brain regions on one side of the brain. For example, areas of the brain that are involved in language tend to be on the left, whereas those involved in attention tend to be on the right. But does that mean that any given individual uses or favors one side of his or her brain more than the other?
Why is it wrong?
While social media quizzes might be fun to do, there is no scientific evidence that individuals use one half of their brain more than the other or that an imbalance in the two sides explains individuality. In fact, it would be really inefficient to use only half of the brain. A group of neuroscientists at the University of Utah had more than 1,000 people undergo brain scans while they were either lying still or reading. While the scientists did find that certain brain functions are more lateralized, they found no evidence of individuals having stronger left- or right-brain networks. Therefore, the left-brain/right-brain idea is considered a “neuromyth.”
How does this neuromyth impact education?
While the idea that people are more left-brained or right-brained may seem harmless, there are some real concerns about the existence of this myth in educators and students alike. Educators are increasingly encouraged to attend courses on “brain-based learning.” These courses often illustrate how ingrained these neuromyths have become. For example, some brain-based learning courses encourage educators to identify students as left-brained or right-brained and to adjust their teaching approach for these different learning styles. As a result, many teachers believe that this is a valid, scientifically backed idea. For example, in a sample of 242 teachers, 90 percent agreed with the statement “differences in left-brain right-brain [preference] can help explain individual differences amongst learners.” This is alarming given that this belief may influence the way in which teachers instruct specific students or groups of students and result in unconscious biases about a given student’s academic abilities (e.g., a teacher assumes that a student labeled as a “right-brainer” is not strong in math).
Meanwhile, if students internalize this neuromyth it could impact their sense of self-efficacy— the beliefs and confidence a student has about his or her ability to perform and succeed at an academic task. A body of research has shown that students’ self-efficacy beliefs predict their subsequent ability to succeed at an academic task. During adolescence, in particular, student’s self-efficacy begins to be influenced more by experiences in school, such as interactions with peers and educational evaluation. Therefore, if a student is labeled as a “right-brained” person, for example, that could negatively impact his or her beliefs about his or her ability to perform math-related tasks, which in turn could make the student less likely to succeed in math.
Busting the neuromyth
While neuroscience may have a lot to offer educational practices, it is important to remember that the science still is young and developing and it will take time to merge these two fields. In the meantime, educators must take care not to accept myths as science.
Science of Adolescent Learning is the interdisciplinary study of what happens in and with the brain during learning. To learn more, visit https://all4ed.org/issues/science-of-learning/.