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Q: What's wrong with the old metaphors about brain function?
In 1983, Howard Gardner, also studying patients with damage to different parts of the brain, published Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences and changed the way many people thought about intelligence, teaching, and learning.
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Gardner succeeded in challenging and expanding the notion of intelligence and revealed the role of cultural and social bias in how different abilities are valued and developed in children. His ideas resonated with the experiences of parents and teachers, who witnessed daily the rich variety of "talent" or "intelligence" in budding poets, mathematicians, athletes, musicians, and painters. IQ tests seemed to view people through a peephole darkly. So when Gardner offered a larger vision of human potential that jibed with observation and experience, teachers and parents rushed to embrace it.
Despite the continuing importance and validity of his richer view of human skill and of the role that culture and social forces play in learning, many educators have reduced Gardner's insights to the modular model of brain functioning that influenced his theory but proved to be too simple to fully explain the richness of the different intelligences. Many persist in believing that our brains have a music module, a language module, and a math module. They do not. The result has been years of misleading talk about designing lessons for visual learners and kinesthetic learners, left-hemisphere learners and right-hemisphere learners. "Right-brainers will rule the future," declares Daniel Pink, former White House speechwriter and author of the popular book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.
Although such statements are likely meant as metaphors to suggest that those who can think creatively and emphatically will become increasingly important to businesses, they lock us into ways of thinking about brain function that reduce our understanding of the brain and, therefore, limit our ability to develop more effective models of education. This is the nature of powerful metaphors. At first, they capture our imagination and stimulate new ways of thinking about old problems; but eventually they capture us and inhibit newer insights. The left-brain/right-brain metaphor puts us into the very box out of which we encourage creative people to think. (top)
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More recent studies reveal that both hemispheres are involved in almost all cognitive tasks. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and other techniques like magnetoencephalography (MEG), we can now marvel at the cascade of neural activity that is associated with the reading of one simple word. Anders Dale and Eric Halgren have created a movie exploring the interplay of activity from different areas across the entire globe of the human brain during reading.
The more we recognize and understand the complexity of the brain, the greater will be our understanding of learning—and of the inevitability of differences in how people learn and how we might teach them.
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