March 2011


  • The truth hurts
    Tackling an underperforming colleague is never easy but by avoiding it or passing the buck you risk undermining school improvement. Edward Gildea offers some strategies for handling sensitive situations. More
  • Time for reflection
    The government is dispensing with the SEF but that doesn’t mean schools should abandon it as a tool for improvement. Tony Thornley looks at the future of self-evaluation and the implications for schools. More
  • Free range
    Ramsey Grammar’s pride and joy isn’t a state-of-the-art IT suite or Assessment for Learning scheme, says David Trace. It’s a sheep shed and piggery in the school’s animal unit… More
  • An end to pushover policies?
    Doctors and generals wouldn’t tolerate it. So why does the education profession passively accept direction from ministers on how and what to teach? It’s time to set the agenda ourselves, says Peter Campling. More
  • Brainwaves
    Accommodating right brain learning and enabling students to draw on imagery for revision rather than written texts could fundamentally improve outcomes, argues David Hughes. More
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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

The structure sparked both competition and co-operation and all the students knew they could be chosen at random to present their findings, so they had to assemble their ideas in a coherent format.

I knew that the differentiator of the higher grades was not knowledge of specific elements of the historical study but the ability to apply knowledge across the subject, to compare and contrast, to see continuity and discontinuity.

In truth, this underlying skill of identifying patterns would be of more use to my students later in life than the specific contribution of Vesalius to the development of anatomy (unless they were going to be surgeons, pub quiz fanatics or appear on University Challenge).

The result in this mixed ability group, which was representative of the whole school cohort, was that 50 per cent of students gained C or above in their GCSE (20 per cent was the school average) and all gained E or above – an outstanding result for the school in those circumstances.

Significantly, many learners had applied the same revision technique to their other subjects and secured five A-C passes which, in many cases, was widely beyond expectation. This is how I came to understand that effective learning is more often pattern-based than text-based. The underperformers in school were certainly often those who fidgeted, were always somewhere else in their head, got up and walked around and asked awkward questions.

Without an understanding of the learning process, these students will appear every year as underperforming and in need of pastoral and disciplinary intervention.

Reading confidence

Probably foremost in the UK for translating metacognitive research into working learning interventions is Dr Roy Paget, a learning consultant. He has applied his PhD studies on right brain learners to workable interventions with students, to staff professional development in order to change cultures and to supporting parents to help their children learn effectively, all with remarkable effect.

His interventions with students focus on the key elements of confidence raising, validation of students as learners and giving structured methods to address the two key areas where right brain students find it so difficult to access the curriculum: reading confidence and speed and the application of numbers.

Even short interventions can have a 10-20 per cent improvement in GCSE performance when the roughly one-third of the year 11 cohort who are right brain dominant thinkers are targeted. Imagine the improvement in learning if you addressed these students’ needs across the whole school.

Possibly the most important element in focused metacognitive interventions is increased learner motivation – that, after all, is a right brain trait.

  • David Hughes is a learning consultant specialising in school leadership and sustainable accelerated learning processes for schools.