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Tips for building right-brain skills for 21st century thinking

By Jennifer Skuza

As we explore what it takes to thrive in the 21st century, it is hard to ignore the growing amount of literature that suggests the right side of the brain is needed more than ever. Right-brain abilities - artistry, empathy, design, big-picture thinking, creating something that the world didn't know was missing -- are hard to outsource or automate and in high demand in workplace and community settings. Left-brain abilities -- the logical, linear, analytical, spreadsheet kind of skills -- are important but not sufficient for success.

So what does this have to do with the field of youth development? The answer is that it is directly related.

Our field plays an important role in helping young people to gain 21st-century learning skills and abilities to thrive in a global world. Here are some tips for building right-brain abilities through the learning environments found in youth programs.

Critique the learning environment

With youth take time to critically reflect on the types of activities in the program. Ask age-appropriate questions that informally assess the learning environment, such as "How are we learning?" "Does this program promote right and left-directed thinking" and, if so, "How?" "What do we need more of, less of, or the same?" Make time to pause, reflect and adjust.

Cultivate creativity in design

Do youth have a role in the design of their learning experience? Promoting this role can tap the natural curiosity, creativity and imagination that youth possess by fueling their motivation for learning.

Create stories

Listen to youth as they tell their stories. Then, work together to create a collective story about the program that allows youth to see them themselves as part of that narrative and an important force in moving that narrative forward. This provides an opportunity for youth to develop big-picture thinking skills and to see how their contributions matter.

Do not interrupt

Youth have the ability to concentrate; they simply need space and time to do it. So, avoid interrupting their concentration with misplaced questions such as "What are you learning", "What are you doing?" and "Why are you staring off to space?" Wait for them to come to you. I know this is a hard one, but giving youth space to concentrate will reinforce their natural tendency to learn, while building autonomy.

Play more

Play allows children to use their creativity while developing their imagination, dexterity, and physical, cognitive, and emotional strength. In youth-driven play, young people practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.

Dig deeper

An important thing for one to learn is the capacity to recognize embedded assumptions and challenge them. So encourage youth to discover their assumptions in life, challenge premises, and bring false premises to the surface. Use reflective methods such as reading, writing, dialogue, discussion, role play and simulations. This can be a liberating experience of discovery that not only builds critical thinking skills but also artfully creates new meanings in life.

Build empathy

Empathy is commonly defined as identifying with and understanding another's situation, feelings, and motives. Build empathy into everyday programming by modeling it, reinforcing it among relationships, and encouraging this avenue over snap judgments or apathy.
The environments in high-quality youth programs are ideal for fully engaging youth in whole-mind thinking by learning through what interests them. Think about your own practice. What right- and left-brain directed skills do you use in your everyday practice and how do they influence the work you do?

Jennifer A. Skuza, PhD, assistant dean

You are welcome to comment on this blog post. We encourage civil discourse, including spirited disagreement. We will delete comments that contain profanity, pornography or hate speech--any remarks that attack or demean people because of their sex, race, ethnic group, etc.--as well as spam.

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  1. Jennifer, thank you for this blog article. I think it's very easy to forget how important it is to give people time and space for creativity. And having very young children myself, I understand more now how play is a natural part of the learning process, not just for them, but for me as an adult. I learn a new skill at work by playing around with it--whether it's learning a new computer program, or figuring out how to sustain a youth program over time. I think the difference for adults is that often we do that "playing around" under pressure, which tends to suck the element of fun right out of it. However, given the space to figure something out without a looming timeline, without artificial interruptions, and in an environment that allows a certain freedom to make and learn from mistakes, the "work" transforms itself into a learning opportunity and an enjoyable, satisfying experience. That said, I think I use both right- and left-brain skills in that learning process of figuring something out. So I wonder, do the tips for nurturing those left-brain skills really differ that much?

  2. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for a great blog.
    Could you expand on your first paragraph and offer some tips on communicating why left brain skills are not sufficient? I was recently a part of a table discussion during the annual Minnesota Urban 4-H Partnership Event. Participants discussed the challenges they faced in communicating the impact of youth programs focused on developing 21st century skills in a way that is meaningful to funders, school administration, or other relevant systems. Essentially, we grappled with the ways in which to communicate the return of investment on and the public value of youth programs aimed at developing 21st century skills. I am curious to hear your thoughts on this.

  3. Jennifer to use a real world experience to your article, Jody Koubsky (4-H Program Coordinator) and I just completed a 6 session series on Robotics. The last session we invited parents to attend. It was interesting to watch the parents want to jump in and try to solve the problems for the youth. Giving youth time to experiment and help them achieve without solving for them is process that I think many adults will struggle with. Your article really connected with what we just experienced in Pope County. So, I think one challenge for the practitioner is to nurture parents along the way to help reinforce the practice at home. Do you have other examples of a story board process to collect those impactful stories?

  4. Hi Jessica –
    I am glad you brought up the importance of play for both young people and adults. In some ways, play boils down to having the space to create and imagine; it looks different for everyone. But too often play is only associated with younger children and its value can therefore get minimized in the lives of people who are older (including older children and youth).
    Your statement about adults having a tendency to “play around” with news ideas, but doing so under pressure, is very interesting. It’s related to the budding literature on this topic and emerging workplace practices that are calling for dedicated time for “creativity and innovation” for employees – such as carving out 1 day a month for employees to work on developing any creative idea and then sharing it back with the organization. I am also thinking about how “playing around under pressure” relates to older youth too. It has implications on the habits we form and more.
    You bring up an interesting question about nurturing the left brain abilities and how different it might be from tips shared in this blog. It is a good question for us all to reflect on and consider the implications in our practice.
    I really appreciate your thoughtful insights.

  5. Hi Joanna –
    One of the main arguments here puts forth the notion that the period of left brain dominance, and the information age that it produced, are giving way to a new way of working and being in which right brain abilities are being called upon more than ever. It is not to say that left brain abilities are not necessary. They are. But the right brained abilities are no longer viewed as merely “soft skills” that have a sort of “nice but not necessary” ring to them. Rather they are essential abilities that are critical to the workplace, student life, community growth and so forth.
    I am curious about your thoughts on the role that youth work can play here. I am also very interested in knowing more about the table discussion you were a part of and the tensions that your group addressed. Please share more. Thanks for being a part of this online conversation.

  6. Hi Brian –
    You share an interesting observation. Sometimes in adults’ well-intended rush to give youth answers and to provide an efficient learning experience, they deny youth the vital opportunity to explore long enough to find out the answers for themselves. It also robs youth of developing a skill called “practiced endurance” which is a form of persistence that comes with experience and can help youth to develop the ability to focus at will.
    To me the building of a collective story is one of the most powerful things that can be done to help youth build “big picture thinking skills” and to see how their contributions matter. For instance, creating a story about the genesis of a 4-H club that youth are in how it developed over time by including interesting historical elements about the forces, events etc. that shaped it – can be very compelling. It especially gets interesting when youth begin to see themselves in that story and how they play important roles in it. They also then begin to see how they have a role in the club’s future.
    Creating stories can be done in many ways. Here are some ideas that I have in mind:
    - Conduct a group history project whereby youth sort through historical artifacts about something the youth are involved in now and use those findings to create their story
    - Invite youth to interview elders that they associate with and use those experiences to build a personal narrative or group narrative.
    - Name and reinforce the role of historian in a youth group, club or program and rotate that responsibility among youth are interested in doing it. Work with youth to make this a meaningful role.
    - Create the story by using cartoons, anecdotes or themes that are threaded though a story (like music, personalities, leaders/followers, families, eras ...)
    - Retell the current story and continue building it with youth. Do this often enough that it becomes a part of the group and avoid the trappings of being overly repetitious, preachy, or pedantic.
    I think it is also important to document the story. Here are some ideas
    - Use digital storyboards or some other form of graphic organizer to illustrate a story
    - Use video or movie-making applications
    - Build timelines
    - Invite youth historians to record elements of a story and create the story as a group
    - Use photographs, video clips, or audio excerpts
    - Build stories online using creative templates
    - Write the story and keep adding pages and illustrations
    What ideas do you have, Brian? Thanks for being a part of this online conversation and for sharing your experience.

  7. This blog post's timing couldn't be more right on! I was also part of the discussion at Joanna's table on Tuesday and the conversation also raised a call to action: We (those of us in the field of youth development, practitioners, educators, researchers, etc.) are familiar with the meaning and importance of 21st century skills but how do we communicate it with parents? policy makers? How do we stay away from calling them "soft" skills (they sound less important). If we had to explain to a parent who has never heard the term "21st century skill", how would we explain it and how would we put them side by side with other left side skills.
    The day this blog came up, I was also driving between UROC and Coffey Hall and Laurence Steinberg (brain researcher) was on NPR talking about brain development and risky behavior in adolescents. It was a very though provoking conversation. Here is the link to the audio and other important points from the discussion:
    Thanks again Jen for a great post.

  8. Jennifer,
    Thank you for your list of ideas. I guess as I have been thinking about this I could also see a mural created and added to as the youth think about their experiences. This would be a fun and very visual way of capturing their reflections. I think it would also be important to involve the youth in the beginning on how they would like to capture their reflections of the experience. We have also be using video for youth to conduct interviews with their peers. This process really involves the youth in writing questions and going and conducting the interviews during the program. This has provided huge benefits as we modify and deliver programs.
    This has been and enriching conversation. Thank you for this article and the conversations.

  9. Hi Brian -
    A mural is a great idea - it is so visual and public. It sounds like the youth are well on their way to creating their story. It has been fun exchanging ideas with you.

  10. Hi Josey -
    Thanks for joining the conversation. Yes - when the phrase "soft-skill" is attached to right-brain abilities, it has a tendency to diminish the value of creativity. Like you, I’d like to see us make a shift in placing value to whole brain abilities.
    You raised critical questions about how to explain 21st century learning skills and how to show their value. Using research-based examples, cases and illustrations can help with this matter. For instance, I am reading a book titled The Happiness Advantage. It is all about happiness and how happiness can lead to success. So what could be “softer” than that? The author though does a very effective job of putting forth his research and implications using everyday language and lots of examples that have meaning in people’s daily lives; in my opinion he makes the reader stop and think about the value of some “soft” skills. So back to 21st century learning skills … I think it is important that we as a field continue to build research and scholarship in this area but also build public dialogue on its implications and value.
    Thanks for posting the Laurence Steinberg NPR resource.

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