Don’t try this at home

Today I was reminded how differently unschoolers view learning compared to almost everyone else, including many traditional homeschoolers.

Someone on an email list to which I belong posted a link to a project titled “Different Heads”, in which children in school were instructed to fill out two worksheets and then create two pie charts based on the results.  The person who posted it thought that it might be interesting for homeschoolers to try it, as well.  While I’m sure they had good intentions, for me it was a stark reminder that such projects have nothing to do with real learning.

The purpose of the exercise was to get the kids thinking about the two different sides of their brain; the “academic side and the away from school side”.

The what?

It was also to get them to use “25 cent vocabulary words”.


I have a big problem with this type of exercise because it perpetuates the myth that the left side of the brain – the “academic” side – is only used at school, whereas the right brain or “away from school side” is for fun.   And fun is not part of school.  (Ok, on that I agree.  School is not about fun.)

The worksheets the kids are asked to fill out prior to creating the two pie charts detailing the left and right sides of their brains contain things like this:

“I am a(n) [insert 25 cent adjective] Reader/Writer.

What percentage of your academic brain likes Language Arts?_________ “


“I am a [insert 25 cent adjective]  [label or noun for your leisure/recreation]

What percentage of your recreational brain is devoted to this first activity?________”

The kids spend 10 minutes with the worksheets in class, but then are told to take them home and finish them.  Have the parents help too!  Then create a poster showing – in creative fashion, of course – the two sides of your brain!  Exclamation points are NOT optional!

The actual worksheet instructions read like this:

This assignment’s BIG idea: For this task, you will acknowledge that you have two brains: an academic one and a leisure/recreational one. You need to show us how things are prioritized in both sides of your brain with this by quantifying them with percentages or fractions. Then, using your knowledge of strong adjectives, you will craft sentences that help you explain each portion of your brain; a visual (clipart, drawing, sticker, photograph, etc.) must accompany each sentence you write.

This assignment’s final form: Your teachers will be showing how they approached this task, but the rule here is practice your creative freedom because we want to see what that looks like from you as an individual. The final product has to stand for you, representing who you are at school and who you are away from school. Your final product must fit on the large piece of construction paper your teacher gives you. Your first name and last initial must appear on the front of the poster. These posters must be complete and ready for the laminator this Friday. Turn it in on Thursday and you will receive a Magic Buck.

Do a good job on this! These final posters will adorn our team’s hallway for—at least—the first half of the school year, letting the other teams know who we are.

You will acknowledge that you have two brains.  You must represent who you are at school and away from school (and never the two shall mix, apparently).  Your final product must fit on the paper you are given.  Complete them by Thursday and get a “Magic Buck”(?)   Do a good job.   Bring your parents and show them where your brain is hanging on the hallway at school!


Guys, this is not learning.   This is not an examination of right brain/left brain.  It is not an exercise in thinking about thinking or even in developing an advanced vocabulary.  It is not a way for the kids to get to know each other better.    It is a “make work” assignment and has nothing to do with the way the brain actually functions or who these kids really are.

What about a person who loves golf and has to judge the angle on a particular shot?   What side of his brain is involved in that activity?   A chef needs to quadruple a cupcake recipe (after first figuring out how many people will be fed and how many cupcakes to offer each of them) and then decorates each with an intricate display of flowers made of icing.   Left brain or right?    How about a photographer using f-stop settings and exposure times for different effects?   A skier who decreases wind resistance with her stance and her equipment?   A skateboarder timing his jump at just the right moment?   A baseball player trying to increase his on base percentage?   A child building a pyramid from Lego and trying to make it a regular polygon (even if she doesn’t know what those words mean).

There is no such thing as only using the “academic” side during “school” activities and only using the “non-academic” side during “leisure” activities.    Saying that there is creates a bias. (Because those using only their right side must not be doing “real” work, since the right side is for leisure – right?)

The two sides of the brain work together, all the time.  They are not two separate operating systems.  In fact, the American Psychological Association revealed that teens who are mathematically gifted do especially well on questions in which both the right and left sides of the brain are engaged.   So much for the “academic” vs. “away from school” brain idea.

If you truly think it’s interesting and want to talk to your kids about the two sides of the brain and the various functions each side controls and how they work together,  mention its relevance one day while sewing, or cooking or playing soccer.  (But don’t be disappointed if they don’t seem very interested.  They might remember it on another day and ask.   Then again, they might not.)

Want your kid to have a better vocabulary?   Use the words yourself, read out loud or let them read on their own.  Don’t demand the use of “25 cent vocabulary words” on a poster.

And here’s a thought about getting to know each other better.   Rather than making pie charts, how about talking to each other?  Inviting a group to the park?  Or, I don’t know, maybe ask a few questions and listen to the answers.

That’s living and learning in a true sense.   The kind that doesn’t evaporate when the project is finished or the school bell rings.

The kind you remember and enjoy and pass on because you love it, and not because the worksheet read “Do a good job on this!”


3 comments on “Don’t try this at home

  1. Al says:

    Yup. Thanks, Amy. I can’t even READ that kind of school instruction stuff anymore. It makes me ill.

  2. I love reading posts like this. It reminds me not to fall into the old way. This is only our second full year of homeschooling and we’ve made great progress away from the traditional way. My children tell me regularly they love the way we do school. That says it all. Thanks for writing this. 😀

  3. Lisa Nalbone says:

    Yes! Great post. I think this idea that “the academic side” or learning only takes place in school when a teacher tells you what do is really the big idea we must change -especially for kids who are in school.

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