Unit 1: We all have different brains

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Section 2:
Debunking the left-brain, right-brain myth

In 1983, Howard Gardner's Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences changed the way many people thought about intelligence and teaching and learning. Gardner succeeded in challenging and expanding the notion of intelligence and revealed the role of cultural and social bias in how different abilities are valued and developed in children. His ideas resonated with the experiences of parents and teachers, who witnessed daily the rich variety of "talent" or "intelligence" in budding writers, debaters, poets, mathematicians, athletes, musicians, painters, politicians, scientists, dancers and psychologists. IQ tests seemed to view people through a peephole darkly, so when Gardner offered a larger vision of human potential that jibed with observation and experience, teachers and parents rushed to embrace it.

Despite the continuing importance and validity of his richer view of human skill and of the role culture and social forces play in learning, many educators have reduced Gardner's insights to the modular model of brain functioning on which his theory was originally built. Our brains have a music module, a language module, a math module. The result has been years of misleading talk about designing lessons for visual learners and kinesthetic learners, left-hemisphere learners and right-hemisphere learners. "Right-brainers will rule the future," declares Daniel Pink.

Although such statements are likely meant as metaphors to suggest that those who can think creatively and empathically will become increasingly important to businesses, they lock us into ways of thinking about brain function that reduce our understanding of the brain and, therefore, limit our ability to develop more effective models of education. The left-brain/right-brain metaphor puts us into the very box out of which we encourage creative people to think.

More recent studies reveal that both hemispheres are involved in almost all cognitive tasks. Thanks to fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and other techniques like MEG (magnetoencephalography), we can now marvel at the cascade of neural energy that lights our way through the reading of one simple word. Russell Poldrack (University of Texas at Austin) and others have made movies to explore the interplay of neurons firing from different areas across the entire globe of the human brain during different activities. The more we recognize and understand the complexity of the brain, the greater will be our understanding of learning and of the inevitability of differences in how we learn.

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