Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is there a left-brain learning style?

Several people who called my attention to last week's New York Times science section article did so because of what it says about left-brain learning styles: 

Take the notion that children have specific learning styles, that some are “visual learners” and others are auditory; some are “left-brain” students, others “right-brain.” In a recent review of the relevant research, published in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a team of psychologists found almost zero support for such ideas. “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing,” the researchers concluded.
Because my book is one whose title, "Raising a Left-Brain Child," strongly suggests that there is a left-brain learning style, I have followed this question closely.  What does the cognitive science research mean for the conclusions I draw in my book?

To answer this, let's turn to Dan Willingham, an increasingly prominent debunker of learning styles theory whose recent book, Why Children Don't Like School, has received a great deal of attention, and who now writes a frequent column for the Washington Post.

Willingham argues that for something to be a "learning style" in any meaningful sense, it can't simply be a difference in abilit(ies).  If someone is more "visual" than someone else only in the sense that they are better at remembering what things look like, creating visual representations, and rotating three dimensional objects in their heads, then that's not a learning style difference. For "visual" to be a learning style, your "visual students" would have to be, on average, as capable of learning reading, writing and arithmetics, etc., as their "non-visual" counterparts, but learn these skills better than other students do when they learn them through visual channels.  And Willingham shows quite convincingly that the experimental evidence contradicts this notion.

What about left-brain?  The protagonists of my book are children who are some combination of unsocial (shy, aloof, and/or social awkward), analytical (good at math, grammar, science, analytical writing), and linear/one-thing-at-a-time in their thinking (better at focusing on one thing in depth than many things in breadth). These traits largely reflect cognitive strengths and weaknesses, and, to some extent, personal preferences, and so, in these respects, don't constitute learning styles.  Luckily, that doesn't matter for any of the conclusions I draw in my book.

But I have wondered whether one vs. many things-at-a-time, in particular, might possibly be a learning style difference.  Personal and anecdotal experience suggests to me that different people are able to handle different amounts of simultaneously streaming information; that some people can keep track of more information at a given time than others can; that, at the extreme, you get "linear thinkers" who can only tune into one conversation at a time, and only handle one task at a time (I count myself among them). And, while this narrow bandwidth might be considered a disability, it seems to me (based again on personal and anecdotal experience) correlated with an ability to process things in greater depth.

In other words, might breadth vs. depth in information intake and information processing be a tradeoff, with different people achieving similar results depending on whether the material is presented in a breadth-first or depth-first way?  Broad bandwidth people, for example, might learn literary analysis better through large group discussions, while one-on-one discussions work better for their narrow-bandwidth counterparts.  Likewise, broad bandwidth people might learn and remember history better through a broad, thematic approach, while their narrow-bandwidth counterparts learn and remember it better through a more depth-first linear approach--even if the same material is ultimately covered.  

Much about learning styles has been debunked, but, to my knowledge, no one has debunked the idea of varying band-width, however much it might reflect abilities and preferences, also having an effect on optimal learning environments.


Neil said...

What about the idea of using games or game theory to advance education rather than the traditional classroom approach? There's been a bit of research showing that games on platforms like facebook have successfully changed behavior, etc.

Deirdre Mundy said...

So are you arguing the Isaiah Berlin "Hedgehog and the Fox" idea, but on a classroom level?

It makes sense.....

Alex Francis said...

You've kind of shifted the focus of the discussion, I think. It seems to me that cognitive theorists would have little trouble with the proposal that kids vary in their information processing capacity, although it would be hard to distinguish between predictions of the slow-serial/fast-parallel contrast you are proposing, and a more strictly quantitative contrast between slow/fast serial processing (with sufficiently fast switching masquerading as parallel). At the level of processing I'm familiar with (early perceptual processing of speech), this distinction wouldn't matter, but it would probably be important when trying to extend this to more complex processing, i.e. your history example.

There is definitely individual variation in such basic capacities as working memory/selective attention. I don't know much about research on variation within cognitively "normal" kids (i.e. kids who perform within age-normal criteria on standard tests) but there are definitely studies looking into apparent differences in working memory and sustained attention in specific clinical populations (i.e. a student I worked with found a small but significant difference in sustained attention in children with Specific Language Impairment). Similar studies have looked at working memory capacity, and probably other cognitive mechanisms as well, and I'm sure there are similar studies with kids "on the spectrum", but I don't know if anyone's looked at such variation within kids who are performing adequately in school.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

What do you think of sentence diagramming as a way of teaching grammar to "left-brain" kids?


Katharine Beals said...

Sentence diagramming is one of those activities that, while more appealing to left-brainers than to others, probably brings equal benefits to all. Its main benefit, in my mind, is to get students thinking about things like parallel structure. It's not clear to me whether there's some "right-brain" alternative way to teach this. As a linguist, however, I'd prefer an even more analytic approach: teaching linguistic tree diagrams rather than those not fully linguistically principled grammarians' diagrams.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I've done both Reed-Kellogg diagramming and syntax trees, and I find that for English, the Reed-Kellogg diagrams are more visually informative, since the shapes carry some of the grammatical information. Syntax trees are good for context-free grammars in artificial languages, but too much is hidden in the labeling for them to be a good teaching tool for people who don't already have a solid grasp of grammar.