Our Right-Brained Learning Journey

My oldest son Jason is a right-brained learner (also commonly referred to as a visual-spatial learner). The realization of this was a turning point in our homeschooling journey. It totally changed the way that I approach things with him and has helped me better understand him and where he is coming from. As a side benefit, I have also learned a lot about myself, as I am a left-brained learner but never realized it. I have realized that I am not a visual person, but rather a feeling/relationship person, which is kind of a cool thing to know.

Where Jason and I differ is that he thinks primarily in pictures (whereas I think primarily in words). Right brained kids are whole to part learners…this means that he is better at picking up the high level concepts rather than the details. He learns globally or just seems to understands things all at once, rather than learning things sequentially. Right brained kids can not always “show their work” because they do not get to the answer in a step by step manner and often just “know” the answer. 

Before I identified Jason’s learning style I felt like I was hitting my head against a brick wall. Despite the fact that I followed a very child-led learning approach, he still resisted any active “teaching” and often my way of explaining things seemed to confuse him. My approach, while relaxed, was all wrong, but I did not know why.

It was also frustrating because although he was obviously very intelligent, he struggled with the "basics". Phonics did not make any sense to him and at 7 years old, he showed very few signs of being ready to read (other than a few sight words he had picked up mostly from his computer games). Yet he had a very high comprehension level as well as an extensive vocabulary. We had started reading Thomas the Tank chapter books (the original stories) when he was 3 years old and by the time he was 5 or 6 years old we were reading more complex books such as Redwall and Harry Potter. He struggled to remember his addition and subtraction facts, yet, he could intuitively understand complicated concepts such as adding negative numbers. He had "fine motor delays" as well and printing was a very painful and slow process for him. He often reversed his letters and numbers. When it came to the "3Rs" (Reading, 'Riting and 'Rithmetic) he struggled. By "school standards", he would have definitely been considered "behind".

Luckily, since we were homeschooling, being "behind" was not the problem it would have been in school. Not reading did not mean that he did not learn. Not knowing his math facts did not mean that we had to stop learning math. Not writing did not mean that he could not have his stories told. We worked around these issues. But still I worried...why was he so resistant to learning certain things?

Around the time that Jason was 7, I met my friend and mentor, Cindy Gaddis, on an unschooling list. She recognized certain things about Jason and suggested that I might want to read about right-brained learners.

I had always thought that right-brained people were more traditionally creative types like musicians, artists, and dancers. None of which I really identified with Jason. He has never really been drawn towards any kind of musical instrument, he has always disliked writing/drawing/coloring and does not really like painting or other forms of art.

Yet, once I started looking into it more in depth, I began to recognize a lot of Jason in the descriptions. In the beginning I mostly recognized the more challenging traits: the perfectionism, the fear of failure, the intensity. But as I learned more, I came to recognize the positive traits as well: how he intuitively grasps complicated concepts, his strong problem solving skills, his ability to see the big picture and develop creative solutions, his creative mind.

I have come to realize that there are many ways to be creative…although Jason has shown no interest in playing an instrument (yet), he is actually extremely musical. He notices music everywhere and often makes comments on how it makes him feel. He will go into the extras on his video games and play the different music themes and pick his favorite (it drives Kyle crazy when he does this!) He has a definite sense of rhythm and likes music with a strong beat.

While he is not traditionally "artistic" and does not like drawing, painting or "arts and crafts", he has discovered a passion for clay since taking a homeschool pottery class. There is something about the "3D-ness" and the tactile-ness of the medium that appeals to him. He says that it is easier to get what is in his mind out in the clay as opposed to on paper. He also likes building toys such as legos, bionicles, zoobs and knex.

There are so many other things (he has a very good natural eye for photography for instance) that I have noticed, now that I am paying attention. I am seeing that creativity can take very many forms.

If you are interested in learning more about right-brained learners, I have compiled a collection of links to good articles, blogs and email lists for learning more about right-brained learning. Be sure to check out my Right-Brained Learning Book List for books that might help better understand how these kids think. While there are no books that focus specifically on homeschooling and right-brained learning, I have been able to glean a lot of insight from these books. As always, take what works and leave the rest. And be grateful that we do not have to help our kids learn coping mechanisms for fitting into a school system that does not meet their needs (or fight to get accommodations for them).

I have also developed a Right-Brained Learner FAQ, that hopefully will be ready soon. Cindy, in addition to her website, has a new book coming out in Fall 2012 called The Right Side of Normal. She also has a right-brained learners email list, called Homeschooling Creatively, that is an incredible resource for talking with others who are homeschooling these creative kids.