The Real Mr. Fitz: Right Brain vs Left Brain-- We Need a Whole Brain                                                  

Right Brain vs Left Brain-- We Need a Whole Brain

The current battles raging in education are really battles between the two halves of our collective brain. Or maybe that's wrong. Maybe it's a battle between Whole Brainers and the more limited Left Brainers.

Years ago I learned about the differences between the two hemispheres of our lumps of gray matter when I read, and did the exercises in, Betty Edward's terrific book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I got a crash course review of those brain traits when I read Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future recently.

In case you've forgotten, the Left Brain is logical, sequential, verbal, analytical-- it sees the parts of things. The Right Brain is more spatial, more wholistic, and sees relationships between things, the meaning of things. Left sees the little parts of the picture; Right sees the Big Picture.

Left brain tends toward the bottom line, toward measurement, toward proof. It wants the correct multiple choice answer. That there might be more answers than the A, B, C, and D presented is not something that occurs to the Right Brain. That there could be more than one right answer is also foreign to Left Brainers.

And so Left Brainers have taken over school policy-- from the political Left and Right. We talk about measurement, and progress, and measurable progress. Everything is about data, numbers, and statistics. Left Brainers are really following the old philosophy of logical positivism: If I can't prove it, I don't believe it.

But if Daniel Pink is right-- and I think he is-- putting all our eggs in the Left Brain basket will leave our students with an impoverished view of reality-- and possibly an impoverished future. His premise is that Left Brain jobs, which have dominated our ecomony for decades are being automated by computers or outsources, and that the wave of the future is Right Brained jobs that focus on things like design, story, empathy, and meaning-making.

And so depriving our kids of the Arts and limiting them to a Left Brained analytical, multiple choice version of "student achievement" isn't only bad philisophically-- it's bad ecomonically, too.

The Reformers' attempts to remake American education lack vision, because their Right Brain prejudice has left them without any Big Picture. They think education is just to get you a better job. Right Brainers know that it is also to make you a better person. Left Brainers' myopia has also left them with a basic misunderstanding of what motivates people. In their Left Brain, bottom-line world, people are only motivated by money-- something you can measure. But as Pink's other recent book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us points out, many of us (and I think many, if not most, teachers) are motivated not by money, but by the sheer love of what we do.

Left Brainers don't understand this. They are motivated by money.

Scientists have just been catching up with this truth about motivation in recent years, but artists and writers have known it forever. This past summer my wife and I were in a local production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play You Can't Take it With You. We did this production for the love of it. Our kids helped backstage, too: our son rigged fireworks to go off and our daughter was the designated "kitten wrangler." The play is essentially about a family of Right Brained free-spirits, the Sycamores (played by yours truly and my wife Andrea), who run up against a Left Brained family, the Kirby's. Mr. Kirby is a stock broker. The Sycamore clan consists of a fireworks maker, a printer, a ballet dancer, a playwright/painter, etc. The families don't exactly hit it off.

In the end, the grandfather in the play (played by Andrea's cousin!) gives a speech about the need for us to do what we love and love what we do, as the "Life is Good" shirts say. The Right Brainers win out, and even the stuffy Mr. Kirby looks like he might dust off his saxaphone and start playing again-- his childhood dream.

As education moves toward more and more measurement and less and less joy, maybe it's time the Right Brainers find a way, not to wage war on the Left Brainers, but to remind them that we need both halves our brains, our whole minds, to succeed in life-- not just the half that's easy to measure.

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