Right-Brained Kids and Memorization

One topic that seems to come up often on the Homeschooling Creatively list is how to help right-brained kids with memorization. This makes sense, since a lot of learning (especially in the early elementary years) is based on memorization: memorizing math facts, spelling words, phone numbers, you get the picture.

While there are some specific suggestions that can help right-brained kids with memorization, I think it is important to look beyond the specifics and understand what is going on from a right-brained perspective.

When it comes to memorizing, the important thing to remember is that memorizing is not a right-brained strength. It is not a way that they learn naturally although they do tend to become better at it as they get older. The fact that a lot of early “school” focuses on memorization is what often makes it look like the right brained learner is a “struggling” learner.

When it comes to giving our right-brained kids what they need to learn, there are two parts. One is understanding how they learn.  Two is understanding when they are developmentally ready to learn. Without understanding these two aspects, you are going to find that you are hitting your head against a wall (especially when they are 8 or 9 years old!) For those who are new to right-brained learners, I highly recommend reading Cindy’s Collaborative Learning Process. I am finding that this is scarily dead on for my right brained son.

So for how they learn….right-brained kids are definitely not strong in memorization. But they are strong in learning through association and by seeing patterns. They are not detail oriented kids but they are global thinkers and can often see higher level connections. This also means that they learn best when the learning is holistic rather than broken down into separate pieces.

These are the kids who have to know why something is important to know. They need context and a real reason to know something. So they can learn how to spell easier by writing and using words rather than by doing “spelling lessons”. They learn math facts easier by using numbers to do math rather than by doing flashcards.

Right-brained kids also are creative kids…which means that if something is mind numbingly boring, they are less likely to actually retain it. Which is one reason why I try to keep the throwing marshmallows quote in mind whenever dealing with Jason. Resources for these kids should focus on big picture learning, using patterns or associations or bringing some sort of creative aspect into it that will engage the right brain and help turn on the left brain.

As far as when they learn…right-brained kids develop on a very different schedule than left-brained kids. Unfortunately, the left-brained timetable is what is considered “normal” (for my thoughts on this, see my Fixing Right-brained Learners? post). This means that our kids (especially in the early years) always appear to be “behind.”  But our kids are not behind, they just develop skills at different times. Right-brained kids develop their 3D visual processing skills first before their 2D sequential processing skills. Since reading and writing and doing much of arithmetic is very sequential, these skills are going to come later. Reading usually clicks between 8-10 years old. Writing tends to be a little bit later around 10-12.

Knowing all this has helped me greatly in shifting my understanding of Jason. I don’t see his poor memorization skills as a major issue or something to be “worked” on. It is just something that he is not great at (and as he gets older he is getting better). I am terrible with following picture directions (something he is really good at) and have a lousy sense of direction. I developed coping mechanisms. Just as he will.

So when we did long division and he just could not keep all the steps straight, I put it aside until later. We moved on to something else, coming back to it periodically. I let him use a multiplication chart to help with the higher math and the more he uses the numbers the more he is remembering them (and the chart helps with seeing patterns).

When he was 10, I did start working on spelling a little bit, choosing a program that uses patterns (Sequential Spelling) but found that since he was not writing much in general, it just seemed too removed/separate to really mean anything to him. So I backed off. Now at 13, we are starting to do some Brave Writer exercises and he is doing more writing for his online games and his spelling is improving naturally. I have now started pushing him a bit more to do more memorization for some things that he has not picked up naturally…and he is much more ready for it.

Just as I don’t recommend “working” on reading with a right-brained 6 year old, I also don’t recommend working a lot on spelling with an 8 year old. They just are not developmentally ready for it. That does not mean do “nothing” though. Continue to play with words, have them make up stories, draw comics, play with clay etc. Create a relationship with writing in other ways. Focus on the creative aspect of writing/creating. The technical part (spelling) will come later and that “gap” can be filled in much easier.

I guess what it comes down to for me is that I want to teach Jason the way that he learns best. I want to work with his natural strengths, not against them. Especially when he was younger and developing a relationship with learning.

I remember when Jason was younger, he wanted me to put together one of his really big lego creations and while I could do it, it took a lot of really focused effort on my part. I got really frustrated and confused at points and I often ended up yelling at the boys for breaking my concentration. I can tell you that I get really cranky when asked to do this kind of thing.

I realized that must be exactly what it feels like to do something that goes against his natural learning style. Why would I want to make something that difficult for my son when there is an easier and just as valid way for him to learn? It just seems silly to make learning a “struggle” by trying to use a weak area (or focus so much attention on a weak area (to make it stronger)) while ignoring an existing strong area. And there are benefits to his learning style…he will not be one of those kids who just “memorizes the steps” without understanding what he is doing.

I want him to know how he learns best so that as he gets older he can find things that work for him. It does not mean that I ignore his weaker areas…just that I don’t focus too much on them when he is younger (and not as developmentally ready.) As he gets older I help him develop coping mechanisms (such as the fact that he still does not know his phone number so he carries it in his wallet) and we work more in his weaker areas.

Anyways, just wanted to throw some additional information about why certain approaches work better for our wonderful right-brained kids (and why others don’t).