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  • Destiny Yarbro

Teaching Languages to Both Hemispheres of the Brain

“Brain research shows that much academic content is processed primarily in the left hemisphere, but that the right hemisphere processes context. A common educational complaint is that teaching is too focused on content with little attention to context. Focusing primarily on content produces student learning that may be unconnected to life events and largely meaningless. These points suggest that to make learning meaningful—and thereby build more extensive neural connections—teachers should incorporate context as much as possible” (Schunk, 2012, p. 40).

Content or Context

The Schunk (2012) quote above immediately brought to mind one of the most insightful books of my life: Bridges Out of Poverty by Payne, DeVol, and Smith (2010). One chart in particular had a significant impact on me. The authors explored common perspectives on schooling held by those in poverty, middle, or wealthy classes. For example, many in the wealthy class see schooling as primarily a way to build connections, many in the middle class see schooling as a way to learn the skills to earn a living, and many in the poverty class see schooling as having no application or use in the real world.

In large part, this view held by many in poverty class is correct. Learning about calculating the angles of triangles has no value when a student is simply trying to survive bullying on the playground, studying the Revolutionary War has no immediate worth when a student’s family is living on the streets, and comparing various forms of government will not insure that a student has food to eat that night. “Focusing primarily on content produces student learning that may be unconnected to life events and largely meaningless” (Schunk, 2012, p. 40).

This is why I strive to make every subject, every lesson plan, relatable and applicable to a student’s existence. (Whether to their current reality or to their future goals to succeed.) This does not mean appealing to context while disregarding content, but instead using both as balancing tools in learning. The Rwandan genocide becomes a conversation about how to stand up for what is right when everyone around you is following the masses. Calculating percentages becomes a vital lesson in avoiding credit card debt. Analyzing Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” provides a safe environment for students to process the harsh realities they face daily in their home life.

The question then is not whether content or context is the priority as this assignment’s prompt suggests. As I read this week’s readings, I see how I always teach the content through the lens of context. As a minority language teacher, my goal is to help students know that language is inseparably affixed to culture and community; that language learning is about communication and connection (context), not just grammar, conjugations, and memorizing vocabulary (content). Both are vital for language learners, but context should never be left out of the equation, otherwise language is sterile and worthless.

Teaching to Both Hemispheres

A teaching tool that helps me teach to both hemispheres is the multiple intelligence theory. I agree with the research that students do not learn in a specific way. However, teaching in a variety of ways engages different areas of the brain in the learning process so that no subject is only left- or right-brain-centric. For example, math is thought to be a more left-brain-centric subject and traditional teaching methods for math reinforce this supposition (Waters, 2017). But a teacher can teach fractals by bringing in potted ferns (natural intelligence), teach angles while shooting hoops in the school yard (kinesthetic intelligence), or teach fractions with classical music rhythms (musical intelligence) or Legos (visual / kinesthetic).

Schunk’s quote reminds me of the difference between curriculum- and student-centered learning environments. In a way, curriculum (and assessment) learning environments are focused on the content. Student (and community) learning environments are more focused on context; in other words, how and why a unit of knowledge is important and potentially useful to them. Neither environment is inherently bad; providing context doesn’t surplant content. Context simply adds the right brain into the equation in a more balanced way.

Concluding Thought:

As I consider Schunk’s quote about content and context, I realize that his recommendation to provide as much context into a lesson plan as possible is spot on. I realize that content-focused lesson plans are often static while context-focused plans have to be flexible and adaptable to a variety of student experiences. For example, learning how to conjugate Spanish subjunctive using a fill-in-the-blank sentence activity has no real-life value for students, no matter how clever the sentences might be. Instead, learning how to speak in the imperative form while watching a match at the World Cup provides an emotionally charged context for students to learn how to shout in Spanish: “Run to the right!” or “Help him, help him!” or “What was the referee thinking?!”

Context provides the emotional stimuli that adolescent brains crave (Armstrong, 2017, p. 10). Math does not matter to a student until they are trying to calculate how long it will take them to earn enough money for their first car. Learning American Sign Language does not matter until a student visits his friend’s home and feels left out when everyone around them is cracking jokes in sign and laughing without him. Politics do not matter to a teenager until they start earning minimum wage at their first job and see how much of their paycheck is acquired by the IRS. These emotionally-charged scenarios provide context and meaning behind what would have been dry and sterile content required by school curricula.

Reference List:

Armstrong, T. (2017). The power of the adolescent brain: strategies for teaching middle and high school students. Hawker Brownlow Education.

Payne, R. K., DeVol, P. E., & Smith, T. D. (2010). Bridges out of poverty: Strategies for professionals and communities. Moorabbin, Victoria, Australia: Hawker Brownlow Education.

Schunk, D. H. (2012). Learning theories: an educational perspective (6th ed.). Pearson.

Waters, E. (2017, July 24). The left brain vs. right brain myth. TED-Ed.


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