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“Raising a Left- Brain Child in a Right-Brain World” Review

A few days ago I checked out Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School by Katharine Beals from the library.  If you have previously read my post: It’s the Teacher Not the Curriculum that Makes a Difference then you know that I very strongly believe that Dr. Beals is misrepresenting the Balanced Literacy movement, and is unfairly bashing Constructivist math.  I checked out her book from the library out of idle curiosity. 

As a personal philosophy, I do not believe in “flaming” people or ideas over the internet.  So I have deleted the original review I wrote about this book yesterday and today am going to try again!

My heart goes out to all parents whose children are struggling in school, both academically or socially, but blaming the current pedagogy in today’s public school system is not the answer.  Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World unfairly portrays teachers as being loyal to dogma instead of the children they have dedicated their careers to.  I say all of this as a person who has a family history of ASD.  I’m also a former teacher who worked her butt off to make sure that the Aspie children in my classroom received every special accommodation and service that could possibly help them. 

Yes, maybe children with social issues would do better in traditional classrooms from the 1940s, but those teaching models would not prepare students for the modern world.  Despite what Dr. Beals claims, STEM careers require communication and collaboration.  Do engineers create digital cameras in isolation?  Do cancer researches conduct private experiments and then keep mum about their findings?  In my opinion, gently encouraging students to become better about sharing their ideas and thinking can only help them in the long run.

Finally, I’d like to point out this book’s lack of footnotes or a bibliography.  If Dr. Beals is going to repeatedly criticize current educational theories (that I support because they are research based), she should at least have the academic discipline to back up her claims to the contrary. 

It’s the Teacher NOT the Curriculum, that Makes the Difference!

I recently came across a blog called Out in Left Field whose author espouses the polar opposite of all my views on educational theory.  Katharine Beals, PhD, rails against Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math in particular. Here are links to my own views on why I love Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivist math

Katherine Beals takes shots at Bill Gates whom she describes as being misguided, misinformed, and possibly having Asperger’s Syndrome.  She also rails against Stanford University professor Keith Devlin, also known as “The Math Guy” on NPR. I haven’t read any of Professor Devlin’s books, but I now want to read all of them!  I’m not so sure about Dr. Beals’s book Raising a Left-Brain Child in a Right-Brain World: Strategies for Helping Bright, Quirky, Socially Awkward Children to Thrive at Home and at School, but I might try reading it anyway just to fairly consider a point of view so opposite than my own.  (Note: if you have a child on the Autism spectrum, this book would be of a lot more interest to you.  Read the reviews on Amazon, and see why.)

Out in Left Field bugs me for a variety of reasons; she blasts teachers as sometimes being too stupid to teach math, she thinks academics often don’t know what they are talking about, she implies that many mathematicians are cowardly for not speaking up against Reform Math, and she repeatedly professes a belief that rote learning of traditional algorithms is the best way to create mathematical thinkers.  But what really bothers me, is Dr. Beals’s general thesis that Reform Math and Balanced Literacy Instruction are B-A-D- Bad! 

Teaching with a point of view is not bad, not mater which pedagogy you choose.  I could spend the next fifteen minutes telling you why I support the particular education philosophies she hates, but that would be a waste of time.  What I know, is that it’s not the curriculum that helps children learn, it’s the teacher

If you give me a group of well-fed, middle class Kindergarteners from moderately stable homes I will teach them to read.  If you me a Whole Language curriculum.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Phonics Based program.  I will teach them to read!  If you give me a Balanced Literacy program.  I will teach them to read!  Magic pedagogy is not creating readers, good teachers are.

Educators have to teach whatever curriculum the school district hands them.  Good teachers deliver the curriculum as instructed, and then use common sense.  They see that little Johnny over there is going to be able to read by seeing a new cereal box in front of his breakfast bowl each morning.  Great!  Let’s make Johnny some patterned books.  Little Suzie over there?  She really needs more phonics.  Bring out the phoneme cards.  The reason I like Balanced Literacy Instruction is that it includes both.  Teachers have to be flexible!

Now, if you give me forty third graders coming back and forth from Mexico, sleeping next to refrigerators, scared by roving pit-bulls on the playground, no working smoke-detector in my classroom, a principal who downloads pornography in the middle of the school office, no support services whatsoever, and then fail to give me my first paycheck, I’ll give you my 110% best but I can’t make any promises.  Even if you give me a phonics based program like Open Court, I might not be able to teach all of those children to read unless you, the community, give me some help.   I’m a teacher not a miracle worker.

When I was teaching math at a Constructivist Charter school and I had kids who said, “I’m going to solve this subtraction problem in the traditional way,” and started to borrow and carry, that was just fine with me.  It wasn’t okay with all of the teachers at my school, but I was fine with certain kids using traditional algorithms when they wanted to.  Kids who have trouble verbalizing, kids who can think faster than they can write, kids who don’t do well in group learning situations… these are students that good teachers make common sense accommodations for. 

Good educators teach in ways that accommodate the differentiated learning style of each student.  Some kids are going to need to be taught algorithms as a life-raft they cling to.  Other kids will become the high-schooler in Academic League who can just look at the question and know the answer.  It is unfair to force any one style of learning on all of your students, but it’s not bad to lead into instruction with pedagogy to provide framework and support.  As far as pedagogy goes, I think Balanced Literacy Instruction and Constructivism have a lot to offer.

P.S.  Ironically, both Dr.Beals and I love Story of the World.  🙂