The Woes of a Right-Brained Thinker: English Vs. Math

May 29, 2012
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Second grade started a chain of events that led to my severe aversion to math and subsequent passion for English. It began with my parents who were so overly eager to see me in class they didn’t wait in the office for me to leave for my doctor’s appointment. Instead, they stood in the doorway, all smiles, and watched in fascinated interest like children at a zoo, my peers and I playing the game I liked to call hope-and-pray-the-teacher-doesn’t-call-on-you-to-answer-the-question-on-the-flashcard. My teacher informed me in a syrupy voice that I could not leave with them until I answered a flashcard correctly.

Riiight. Like that would happen. I hadn’t answered right before, and I certainly wasn’t going to be able to answer now that my freedom depended on it.

I couldn’t spit out the answer to 8 × 6. (No, the answer is not 56. Nice try; we’ll go around again.) Nor did I compute 8 × 7. (No; that was closer sweetie, but let’s try again.) And by the third time around when I, slowly wilting under the expectant looks and stifled giggles, still could not answer 8 × 6, the teacher tossed me an disappointed look and granted my leaving, as if she were giving her puppy a treat, not because it sat on command, but because it tried and that really mattered.

But the embarrassing moments in my life related to my lack of skill in math, such as the previous one, can’t be the only reason I favor English over math, although, they are probably notable factors. Perhaps it has more to do with my way of thinking and the overall difference in the classes’ environments.

The picture my mind paints of the stereotypical English classroom is a room that has been customized with quirky posters and pictures, littered with haphazardly strewn books and piles of paper, while a math class is grimly reminiscent of a hospital ward with blank walls made to quarantine miserable children. But perhaps decorations are bit of a superficial way to judge how well I like a subject. After all, before 6th grade I learned all of my subjects in one classroom and had already decided by then that math would never be “my thing.” I believe it has less to do with the physical environment and more to do with the learning environment in each subject and how I react to them as a right-brain oriented person.

The dominance of the hemispheres in our brain effects learning, and I happen to be right-brain dominant. This does not mean exclusive use; it means that the right hemisphere is more commonly used because it feels more natural. When it comes to learning and the hemisphere, it’s all about preference and how “the characteristics commonly attributed to each side of the brain serve as an appropriate guide for ways of learning” (Hopper). I believe it may be my right-brained tendencies that make English classes so more interesting and easier to learn than math classes, because the abstract and verbal strengths of the right brain are more suited to my preferred way of thinking, while the orderly ways of left the left brain are more suited toward the standard ways of teaching in math classes.

Among the comparisons of the two hemispheres’ strengths are logical versus intuitive processing, symbolic versus concrete processing, sequential versus random processing and linear versus holistic processing. Right-brained students are not as dominant in logical, symbolic, sequential, or linear processing. Besides the fact that all of these simply sound like math terms in and of themselves, they all have to do with the way math is taught in most classes the majority of the time. For instance logical, sequential, and linear processing all have to do with order. Math classes are certainly taught in order. Teachers start at the beginning and go as far as can be gone by the time school is out. The material builds upon itself. If I don’t know the slope or distance formula, I can’t determine the area of a figure on a graph. In fact left-brained students are said to “use information piece by piece to solve a math problem” (Hopper) to make it easier to solve, especially when the symbolic processing helps them deal with mathematical notations. It makes sense that left-brain dominant students may enjoy math classes more, because it plays more into their strengths.

I was intrigued and more than a little validated when researching the differences in learning of right and left brained students, because things started making sense. I really don’t thinking in sequential or linear order often. Though I may not be predominately logical in my thinking, I am intuitive which seems to help in English classes in which I can find “coherence and meaning” (Hopper) in literature. During AP Literature this year, I found that I particularly enjoyed discussion of the books we read. We often tried to find an overall meaning or theme of the novel or the poem in discussion. Discussion that was not in a sequential order and sometimes not even orderly. It jumped from topic to topic as people thought of new ideas or concepts to bring up. A discussion-based English classroom seems more geared for students who are predominately right-brain oriented, because there is more freedom to use the right-sided random and intuitive processing that involves the “gut feeling” and the lack of rigid order.

As I stated earlier, math classes resemble hospitals to me. The teacher is the doctor, rambling on and on a long list of problems and complications. I am the dazed patient, struggling to follow along and praying to make it out alive. One reason math classes seem so dreadful to me is the unyielding syllabus that allows them to continue doing the same thing every. single. day. God forbid we have a snow day, because then the schedule is in shambles, and certain teachers tend to get hostile when that occurs. As if we asked God to make it snow and destroy their carefully planned schedule. And maybe we did, but that’s beside the point. The point is that there is a specific agenda. Do the lessons. Do some homework. Take a quiz. Take a test. Begin again. There is an obvious order to things that seems to pertain more to left-brained learner’s linear processing.

On the other hand, it is a commonly known fact that a syllabus in an English class is meant to be deviated from. Discussions are so great they must be continued. A short story that wasn’t on the schedule has to be read, because it ties in well to the last novel. The poetry unit is dragging, so the last few poems may be cut out to move on to something else. It’s natural. I like the natural flow of things. It may seem random, but it works for me, because it is not like the forced regimen of a math class.

Interestingly enough, the best grade I ever receive in a math class in high school was an A- in Geometry, which requires more right-brained orientation than other mathematics because it deals with more visual and abstract aspects like proofs and shapes. Most likely, I could process the information easier because it came more naturally for me. I didn’t have to shift gears as much to use the left side of my brain.

I may never earn an A- in another math class, but I can be comforted by my decision to major in English. While I don’t know what lies ahead, I know what went before: The embarrassment of not knowing multiplication; the struggle of learning to read clocks, to count money; shameless crying over pre-calculus homework. I can never go back and answer those questions right for my teacher in second grade or make myself learn things quicker, but at least now I know a little bit more about why those things happened and how I can become better at using right-brained strategies to make math a bit more palatable. However, they may never be needed, because I’m fairly certain I will never have to take a math class again, and in my head I’m doing a happy dance.

Works Cited

Hopper, Dr. Carolyn. "Study Skills Help Page MTSU." Study Skills Help Page MTSU. May 2012. Web. 27 May 2012. <>.

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