May 262011

Brain Waves and Underperforming, At-Risk Students

Brain waves: By David Hughes in Leader Magazine

Accommodating right brain learning and enabling students to draw on imagery for revision rather than written texts could fundamentally improve outcomes, argues David Hughes.

It’s that time of year again. The plans for revision groups are being rolled out, targeted students have been identified and the clock is ticking toward exam time.

Data from the management information system (MIS) so clearly identifies underperforming students that the temptation is to reinforce and intensify tried and tested methods at revision. But the requirement to bolster this year’s results could prevent a more fundamental appraisal of why students are failing, one which would begin with learner perspectives.

We have embraced the idea that there are different types of preferred learning styles in terms of visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners but has that knowledge translated to new ways of organising learning?

In fact, metacognition research on how the brain learns has shown that we all lie along a continuum in which either the left or right brain is dominant, with up to 60 per cent of the population tending to be significantly more left or right dominant.

It is an inclusive theory of learning in that those with autistic spectrum disorders, who have little emotional attachment to the work and see everything literally, would be at the extremes of left brain dominance. Vincent Van Gogh, for whom life was lived almost exclusively through the emotions, could be seen as being at the extreme right brain end of the spectrum.

In my experience, traditional teaching methods have favoured left brain learners. However, significant improvements of up to 20 per cent in English and maths scores at GCSE have been found by identifying and supporting predominantly right brain learners in the cohort to access and respond to the curriculum more effectively.

Right brain learners are characteristically:

  • motivated and engaged by non-verbal clues rather than by text and talk
  • emotional and intuitive
  • subjective rather than objective thinkers, attaching values and emotions to their standpoints
  • prefers images to text
  • metaphorical
  • artistic
  • can appear disruptive and childish
  • think in patterns
  • daydream

They respond better to patterns than to dense text and linear notes, so using large sheets of blank paper liberates their creativity. Access to the free applications of Microsoft Moviemaker and Photo Story, for example, allows them to compile their ideas with text, images and narration – a much more comprehensive way of learning.

Through this creative use of ICT assets, you can build up a bank of revision resources, enabling students to become active participants in revision rather than passive consumers of teacher-built revision notes.

Obstacles to achievement

A simple five-minute questionnaire about learning preferences will help to identify right brain dominant learners. It tends to reveal ‘the usual suspects’: the same learners seen as disruptive and ‘difficult’ in class, those with poor concentration spans and those with behaviour or literacy issues.

In fact, these learners are struggling against the grain of the left brain bias in the way many schools and colleges are structured. The things they are good at are not valued; the way they prefer to learn is marginalised. Everything about the set up presents obstacles to their achievement.

My own light on the road to Damascus came when I taught history in the inner city. Granted, I taught the school history project form of the subject, which encouraged students to see patterns, continuity and discontinuity; as with science, we were testing evidence and theorising.

In one exercise, both the history of medicine and the American West course were mapped out in a tabular format with themes along one axis and chronological periods along the other.

The challenge was to produce the most complete map of the knowledge provided in the course, tracing the development of individual themes, chronologies, relationships and dependencies.

Understanding became a network of connections, like the neural learning process in the brain, rather than a single linear story. One student was able, for the first time, to appreciate why the invention of the microscope had accelerated the rate of understanding of the microscopic nature of disease and the ability to explore potential cures.

Another grasped why Vesalius had the advantage of a benign climate to study anatomy through the dissection of human bodies, which was not the case in the rest of Europe.

Revision sessions were split into two-thirds individual quiet work and one-third discussion and explanation in which an individual student would explain to the class the most s significant pattern he or she had identified and students could move around the room discussing each other’s work.

Competition and co-operation



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brain, McDonald Sales and Marketing, LLC