Essays on Technology and Culture

Left Brain/Right Brain – You Need Both

A dear friend of mine is an public school art teacher with decades of experience on the job. She’s been bemoaning the push in public education towards what she describes as “left-brain” thinking—a focus on hard knowledge, facts, and skills over creative, “right-brain” thinking, the sort she excels at and teaches. [1] While much can be said about the miseries of the public education system in the United States, standardized testing, and its effects on students, that’s far out of my realm of knowledge. I think of my friend’s complaints in the terms of a technology essayist, and she’s on to something.

There’s a huge, aggressive, push to teach people to learn programming. It’s enough so that, even President Obama insists “Everybody’s got to learn how to code”. Never mind that that there’s jobs in technology that don’t require writing a single line of code. Programming is one of those skills that’s viewed as extremely “left-brain”: logical, linear, and direct. It often is. It’s also, often, something that requires huge amounts of creative thinking, problem solving, and “right-brain” style thinking. The best programmers are often ones who have wild, creative ideas and try to build them with the tools at hand—or making their own, new tools.

I’m not trying to write a polemic against learning to code. It’s a polemic that learning to code is not enough. Programming is a great way to empower people to create new, innovative things, stuff more innovative than writing the latest front-end to another miserable sharing economy service, built on around a pre-existing framework. Without education that teaches children both how to write code, and how to think creatively, they’re only getting half of the tools they need to make awesome things. Coding is a tool. The way you use it is what matters, and only with creative, “right-brain” thinking can you find new ways to apply it.

Far beyond just programming, being able to think creatively is essential to solving the problems that face humanity. The ability to create new ideas and implement them, is what has the greatest chance to save our species from itself. It’s hard to quantify the success of creative thinking, and harder to teach. The best tools we have to teach creativity and problem solving are things like art, music, and creative writing. [2] It’s a form of education that is hard, if not impossible to quantify, and that’s what makes it so easy to ignore, and to cut from our education budgets. Doing so is dangerous, and sells our futures short.