My Experience Teaching a 14-Year Old Who Learns Very Differently From Other Children

A while back I read a short description of “cognition” in Psychology Today that said you can’t spell cognition without “cog.” Meaning, if we were to envisage our cognitive ability as a group of cogwheels, each cog would represent mental abilities such as reasoning, learning, memory, and many others that together create one entire system which allows us to function in society.

Knowing and understanding our own cognitive abilities is an important process in trying to solve many of the problems we face in life. Nonetheless, as it turns out, this axiom also holds true if you work helping people. The more you know about the person whom you are trying to assist, the more viable solutions you will be able to offer.

This particular notion became evident recently, as I was trying to make some teaching inroads with young Elizabeth, a 14 year old student who lives in Beijing, China. We work together online four times per week on subjects such as American history, culture, English literature and civics.

Elizabeth is the daughter of a high ranking hotel executive based in Beijing, to whom I advise on an array of business related issues having to do with personal advancement, planning, market development and cross-cultural communication. He recently asked me to coach his daughter, since she is about to enter a private school in the Seattle, Washington area since he feels she is not quite prepared for the experience she is about to face. While her English is quite flawless for someone from another country, she lacks knowledge in the subjects most American children her age take for granted.

Since teaching children is not exactly where the bulk of my experience lies, I was very hesitant at first, but eventually accepted. While it has been a rewarding experience, the reality is that this endeavor has been quite challenging. The biggest problem I have faced is; how do I motivate a teen?

Fortunately, a couple of nights ago as I laid in bed, one of those Eureka! moments flashed in front of me. Talking to myself, like I often do, I said, “give her the Multiple Intelligence Test. Let’s find out more about how she learns.”

The theory of multiple intelligences was created by Harvard developmental psychologist Howard Gardner in 1983. In it he divides intelligence into eight distinct ‘modalities’, rather than seeing our cognitive skills as dominated by a single ‘general ability’.

These modalities are:

  • musical-rhythmic,
  • visual-spatial,
  • verbal-linguistic,
  • logical-mathematical,
  • bodily-kinesthetic,
  • interpersonal,
  • intrapersonal,
  • naturalistic

For more information on the theory of multiple intelligence read:

An Aleternative Way to View Intelligence

By the way, if you wish to take a Multiple Intelligence Test, or administer it to someone else, you may visit these sites. Keep in mind that the following two sites offer tests that are completely free. Other sites charge for having access to the results.

Multiple Intelligence Test by Literacy.Net

Multiple Intelligence Test by Personality Max

The most important implication regarding this theory, is how it applies to the way we learn. It is an excellent tool for educators to use in order to create lessons that are more closely aligned with the abilities of the students.

The test only takes approximately 15 minutes to administer but the information you get back is extremely valuable. Elizabeth took the test yesterday and instantaneously, I received information about her that was both interesting and enlightening.

As it turns out she is dominantly bodily-kinesthetic, followed by musical-rhythmic and visual-spatial in the third position. This explained why I felt I was not getting through to her. I was basically speaking a language with which she was not in tuned. Sitting in front of a computer monitor listening to me lecture was just not registering in her brain.

Bodily-kinesthetic people learn through body movement! They also learn by doing or engaging in an activity in order to grasp a concept. They do not, on the other hand, learn through more traditional means involving sedentary activities like lectures, conferences, or reading a book. Basically, they need to get up and get involved in the action in order for the information to register in their brains.

The following is an explanation and some suggestions that educators can use to teach this group of students.

Her second dominant intelligence, musical-rhythmic, implies that she has outstanding musicality with great sensitivity to sounds, tones, and rhythms. Her ability to learn a song, play a musical instrument or even compose music is most likely well above average. Learning through music, poetry or through the sound of language is another way to get Elizabeth to learn.

Below are additional explanations and suggestions on teaching someone with strong musical intelligence.

Finally, her third dominant intelligence is visual-spatial, which implies she has outstanding visual and space related abilities. Typically, Elizabeth should respond strongly to pictures, graphs, maps and drawings.

Below is more information and suggestions on teaching visual-spatial learners.

The more I thought about the information I received about Elizabeth, the more I realized that a drastic change in my approach to teaching her was needed. Therefore, I began to put together a teaching plan with projects and instructions that would adequately address her needs.

Before going further, I must inform the reader that Elizabeth does take dancing lessons in school as well as private violin instructions.

Since one of the subjects her parents want her to improve is grammar, the first project I put together, is what I call The Relay Writing Game. In this game the two of us write a story similar to the way a relay racing team would run. I would create the idea for the story; she would choose the main image as well as any other subsequent images used. I would write the first sentence and she the second. I would continue by writing the following sentence and she the next. As we each take turns writing a sentence, I teach her grammar, vocabulary and composition.

The following is what we accomplished during our first day of this project.

Obviously, this is only the beginning. My challenge is now to create other projects that take into consideration her three dominant intelligences. I am thinking of teaching her American history through poems from such greats as Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and many others. I am thinking of accomplishing this by putting their poems into historical context.

Another idea is to have her create a dance routine about Mary Shelley’s classic Frankenstein. This project, while somewhat ambitious, will greatly help her with her knowledge of English literature.

If anyone out there in :”Hub-Land” has any ideas you would like to share, please send them to me. I’d love to hear from you.