Today, Gifted Exchange welcomes Katharine Beals, author of the new book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World. Beals, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education, argues that "bright, quirky, socially awkward children" are at a distinct disadvantage in today's schools, which emphasize group learning and class participation. While certainly not all gifted children fit that description, the stereotypical "nerd" does -- and Beals argues that such children need help from parents and schools to best make their way in the world. Her book also contains a section on parenting mildly autistic children; if you've got a twice exceptional child, that is well worth checking out.
Gifted Exchange: Describe what you mean by “left-brain children.”
Beals: I’m using the term “left-brain” not in a neurological sense, but in the everyday sense that has permeated our language via popular psychology. So by “left-brained,” I mean those who think abstractly and logically, analyze and systematize, process things linearly (or one at a time), attune themselves to verbal rather than nonverbal communication, and prefer to work independently.
GE: What do you make of books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind, which claim that what you label a “left-brain” style has previously been dominant, and the new economy will be based on a “right-brain” style? Do you think left-brainers are actually in the minority? Have they always been?
Beals: I agree with Pink that the “left-brain” style no longer dominates in terms of what most Americans consider important. As I argue in my book, this is especially true in our K-12 classrooms. But I believe left-brain thinking has always been essential to our economy, especially when it comes to scientific and technological advancement, and I find it rather alarming that Pink thinks we can comfortably outsource all of this to India.
I’m no expert on nature vs. nurture, but I suspect that the left-brain disposition is largely innate, and thus independent of societal trends. Whether or not left-brainers are in a minority really depends on where you draw the line. How social you are, and how linear a thinker you are, is really a matter of degree. Also, you might be fairly social but extremely analytical, or vice versa—in which case some, but not all right-brain trends will be problematic for you.
GE: Is there any relationship between giftedness and being “left-brained?”
Beals: I think there’s quite a strong relationship, particularly when it comes to academics. Strong analytical skills lead to aptitude for math, science, foreign language, and expository writing. The problem, though, is that fewer and fewer educators appreciate this connection. Today’s schools increasingly de-emphasize analytical skills in favor of social and organizational skills and visual creativity. The unfortunate result is that many bright left-brainers are no longer recognized as gifted.
GE: How can parents and schools teach left-brain children to cope with social situations?
Beals: Many unsocial children need more structure than the typical peer group environments offered by schools, which are often unstructured and unsupervised. Much more ideal is a social skills group run by a trained specialist—e.g., a developmental psychologist or speech/language therapist. Some schools offer this, but typically parents must look outside the schools to private clinics.
In my book, I also recommend several textbooks that focus on conversation rules in particular. Though these books were written for students learning English as a foreign language, and American culture as a foreign culture, much of what they say is also helpful to left-brain Americans.
GE: Has the increased use of text-based and virtual communication (email, texting, online games, etc.) opened up new ways to interact for socially awkward kids?
Beals: Yes, it has, and this is a very promising development. Many unsocial left-brainers are much more comfortable with text-based than with in-person communication. With text, all the social cues are right there, written out in front of you, and there’s more time to figure what to say and how to say it. Online games like Second Life, where you customize a two-dimensional “avatar” to stand in for yourself, have been a godsend to many shy or socially awkward kids--a non-threatening way to make friends and practice social skills.
GE: What makes math “reform” (making it more social and right-brain friendly) appealing to educators? Can a good teacher do it (or the other ideas, like Writing Across the Curriculum or Project-Based Learning that you criticize) right? Or is it inherently problematic?
Beals: Reform math appeals to educators partly because education schools have been pushing it for years, partly because it aligns with state math tests, and partly because it involves a lot less drill than you find in traditional math programs. But because it diverges so drastically from the structured, linear, explicit teaching environments that left-brainers depend on, and because the actual math is so much less challenging than it used to be, it’s hard to imagine how it can be successfully adapted to left-brain learners. An excellent alternative to Reform Math is Singapore Math: rigorous math without the intensive drill that turned off many students to math a generation ago.
Writing Across the Curriculum and Project-Based Learning are different. What makes these practices problematic is when the assignments are open-ended or large in scale—both of which can overwhelm left-brain learners. The way around this is for teachers or parents to break assignments down into smaller pieces and make the instructions more explicit, spelling them out step by step. Also, teachers need to be more flexible about the projects’ “creativity” requirements, recognizing analytical in addition to visual creativity.
There’s one element of Writing Across the Curriculum from which left-brainers should be exempt, however, and that is the requirement that they explain their answers to math problems verbally. Many left-brainers do arithmetic automatically in their heads in ways that can’t be explained in words.
GE: The main message seems to be that all kids are different. Is individualized education the answer?
Beals: To some extent it is. The easiest way to make school more hospitable to left-brainers, especially in the short run, is to let these kids work on their own, at their own rates—especially since left-brain students typically thrive when working independently. This also allows their more social classmates to continue working in groups. However, an argument can be made that certain subjects, especially math and science, need to be more left-brained and rigorous for everyone—indeed, that the future of our country depends on it.