Book Review: "Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind: A Guide to Right Brain/Left Brain Education"

Anyone exploring learning styles and teaching strategies eventually encounters a slender book published in 1983. Although it has never been updated and its author apparently never published another book, it still remains popular. This niche classic is Teaching for the Two-Sided Mind: A Guide to Right Brain/Left Brain Education by Linda VerLee Williams.

The WorldCat.org database shows the book as catalogued in 655 libraries worldwide, and a recent Google Scholar search found 227 citations in books and journals. What makes this book endure?

Williams was a teacher, not a brain expert. Jacket copy touts her experience teaching at every level from preschool to college, including training teachers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Despite its title, the book is primarily about different learning modalities and her philosophy of inclusive teaching to accommodate all of them. In a passage that embodies her central message, she never mentions right- or left-brain hemispheric functions or any neuroscience term:

“Understanding the differences in how people think and being aware of one’s own personal style and of its strengths and weaknesses is particularly important for teachers. Without that awareness, it is all too easy to assume that the way one approaches a task or problem is the ‘right’ way and to discourage and even penalize other approaches. The result for students whose learning styles differ from the teacher’s is to deprive them of their primary and most efficient way of learning. Many cannot overcome this obstacle.”

Early chapters discuss brain function in relation to the ways some students grasp “wholes” rather than “parts” or to how some students learn better through hearing or physical movement. However, the majority of the book features exercises and commentary on classroom techniques to serve all learning styles.

Williams devotes entire chapters to metaphor, visual thinking, fantasy, multisensory learning and direct experience (labs and field trips). These chapters display wisdom and compassion and focus on how to cultivate active learners rather than how to convey prescribed facts. She writes, “To teach children too early so that they learn by rote is to deprive them of the joy and excitement of meaningful discoveries. It fills their heads with things they ‘know’ but do not understand.” 

Three decades of research have altered views on brain function. Early theories about hemispheric specialization succumbed to high-tech images revealing integrated brain activity. Neuroscientists today brand right-brain/left-brain learning a “neuromyth.”

Articles such as “Why Right-Brain Teaching Is Half-Witted: A Critique of the Misapplication of Neuroscience to Education” cite Williams book, and fault educators for applying “split-brain” research done on patients treated for epilepsy to the normal whole brains of students. Critics should note Williams’ own caveats: “In the excitement that followed the split-brain studies, an oversimplified view of hemispheric function emerged…. While scientists have gone far beyond this view, it persists in the general public and, unfortunately, among some teachers.” 

She further states “there are no right- or left-hemisphere subjects,” that the two hemispheres are “complementary” and that the model of brain functioning “may well change as we learn more.”

“Learning does not occur in classrooms; it occurs in students’ minds. The role of the teacher and the classroom he creates is to offer possibilities in such a way that students will both want and be able to learn. The richer the banquet we lay, the more students will partake and the longer they will stay at the table.” 

Williams saw disparities in the ways students learn and accepted en vogue theories about right brain/left brain differences as their cause. While that connection now appears flawed, different learning styles continue to pose classroom challenges — and the creative teaching approaches that Williams offers continue to fill that need.