For years, we’ve all heard about left-brain and right-brain thinkers, learning styles, and multiple intelligences. We’ve also been told that we should try to incorporate as many different styles into our classrooms as possible. Is it possible to do? Does neuroscience research support these concepts and, if so, are there any scientific based recommendations? This blog post is not exhaustive, but hopefully it will give you some insights into what may help at home and in the classroom.
Current neuroscience research uses functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to determine how the brain is working. An MRI takes a picture of the organ or tissue the doctor needs to study. An fMRI detects blood flow in the brain which is captured by the computer. Different colors indicate how much blood flow there is to that area of the brain. This enables scientists to determine what parts of the brain are being used in a given activity (e.g., reading, answering questions, looking at certain types of pictures, etc.)
It has been assumed that people who are left-brain thinkers are analytical/sequential thinkers while right-brain thinkers are creative/visual thinkers. Scientists at the University of Utah analyzed 1000 fMRIs and found that no one preferred one side of their brain over the other. In all the fMRIs, brain activity occurred throughout the brain. According to Dr. Jeff Anderson, director of the fMRI Neurosurgical Mapping Service, “It is not the case that the left hemisphere is associated with logic or reasoning more than the right. Also, creativity is no more processed in the right hemisphere than the left.” In fact, parts of both sides of the brain are being used.
In doing my research for this blog, I found many ways people have developed to explain learning styles and multiple intelligences. The one I like the best is from The Think Tank at the University of Arizona and their explanation can be found in this Prezi. I like it because it talks about learning styles as the way in which we would prefer to take in information, through our visual system, our auditory system, or our physical or kinesthetic system.
Brain studies have not found reliable data to support learning styles. However, by thinking of learning styles as a preference, we can bypass the need for scientific support and anecdotally see the effects in our homes and in our classrooms. The University of Arizona presentation gives you several things to think about if you prefer to receive information in a certain way. If you review this presentation, one of the things you will notice is that some of the learning strategies for one style interfere with learning strategies for another style. This can be a problem in a classroom where all learning styles are represented. The teacher must then determine how to accommodate these styles in the classroom. This is good for all types of learners because science has found that people remember information better when many different areas of their brain are being engaged. Thus, information should not only be presented with words, pictures, or actions, but a combination of the three.
Learning styles deal with how people prefer information to be presented, whereas multiple intelligences refer to how you would best like to show what you have learned, your output. Multiple intelligences cannot (yet) be measured with fMRIs, but we all know that we have strengths and weaknesses when it comes to showing our knowledge. There are 8 multiple intelligences: intrapersonal, interpersonal, musical, naturalistic, linguistic/verbal, mathematical/logical, athletic/kinesthetic, and visual/spatial. By knowing your student’s or child’s preferences and strengths, you can find ways to help them express what they know in a way that helps them feel powerful and understood. Plus, the work that you receive will be more fulfilling to you also.
How can you assess a child’s preferences? There are several tools available online. You complete a questionnaire and the results are immediately available or emailed to you. Most are free, but a couple do charge. I found the results across all the tools to be similar. Here is a list of the ones I found most easy to use and understand.
- Education Planner
- Learning Styles Inventory
- LD Pride
- Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire
- Learning Style Assessment - 70
My belief is that as scientists do more research and their tools become more refined, we will find hard evidence to back up our learning preferences. Brain science is still a very new field and there is much we don’t know. We do know that providing information in different ways activates more areas of the brain and makes it easier for people to remember the information. Thus, incorporating different learning styles and multiple intelligences into your child’s or students’ learning helps them retain information and makes your life and classroom much more interesting.