Finding the smart kid inside your child

Jerome was a 14-year-old stuck in sixth grade because he could not read. Teachers had him tagged as “trainable retarded”. But in the migrant labor camp where he lived, in a small Florida town, Jerome was a legend; an unbeatable chess champion.

His school psychologist, Dawna Markova, was puzzled by the paradox – dummies can’t play chess – so one day she went to the camp to watch him. She found his audience sitting on fruitboxes, utterly silent. Jerome paced back and forth, his eyes scanning the board. Then he made his move: “Checkmate!”

Markova realised his mind didn’t work in a way that fitted the traditional way teachers taught. So she taught Jerome to read using the same strategies he told her he had used to learn chess.

Markova had joined the growing ranks of educationalists who believe that many intelligent children who “fail” in school are actually being failed by teaching methods that do not match the way they process information.

Markova has made the new theories available to parents in her book: How your child IS smart: A life-changing approach to learning. She says, while it is usually assumed everyone’s mind operates the same way as the teacher’s, there are, in fact, several ways we can “think”.

She says children digest information at three different levels: conscious (where information is most easily absorbed), subconscious (where information is sorted) and unconscious (where information is integrated with what is already known).

As thoughts and information move from one level to another, they change form. The three kinds of processing are:

* Visual: seeing the outer world, inner visual images, and crafting what can be seen (reading, drawing, writing);

* Auditory: listening to the outer world, inner voices and sounds and expressing what can be heard (speaking, singing, chanting, music making);

* Kinesthetic: sensing from the outer world, inner feelings or body sensations, and moving or doing in the world (touching, actions, experiencing, crafting).

Markova says in everyone’s mind, each of these three perceptual channels is linked to one of the three states of consciousness, but the mix varies between individuals. Take, for example, remembering a telephone number: one will visualise it as if it’s printed on a screen in her mind, another will hear a voice speak the numbers in her mind, and a third will remember by holding the phone in his hands and actually going through the motions of dialling in his mind. Traditional teaching methods, however, are based largely on the auditory channel: teacher talking, child listening.

For the illiterate Jerome, the written world opened up when Markova taught him to read using the same kinesthetic and visual strategies he had used to teach himself chess. He told her: “I gotta be standing up and moving around. And it’s gotta be real quiet or I can’t think. Then I gotta look steady with my eyes at one thing, and one thing only, like the chess board, then I gotta close my eyes and see it in my mind, then I hear way inside my mind what to do.”

While Jerome moved with his eyes closed, Markova spelled words out loud, tracing them on his back or in his palm. He would say the words while he looked at them in a book. And the untrainable retard learned to read.

Scholto Bowen, deputy principal of Huntingtower School in Mount Waverley, has run courses to help teachers identify children’s learning styles. He says there has been much research in this area overseas since the early 1980s, but the strategies are just starting to filter through the Australian education system.

He says teachers need to understand that they might be unknowingly teaching in their own preferred style. “They need to move back and forth between all three styles in each lesson,” he says.

“I would estimate that 95 per cent of the problem kids out there are that way, not because of attention-deficit disorder or whatever, but because their learning style is just not being met. They have got to cope with incredible boredom (and) very often develop negative strategies to (deal with that).”

Learning can be difficult even for those who are not “problem kids”. Karen Ritterman, coordinator of the gifted children’s program at St Leonard’s College, Brighton, tells of a highly creative student who was a talented artist but found art history a nightmare. She could not navigate her way through great slabs of printed information.

Ritterman says, “We highlighted the main points about the French impressionists, but she didn’t know what to do from there. So we created a ‘mind-map’. We had the key point in the middle and all these little symbols that came off it.

“We drew muted colors over it, like the Impressionists had used, so she didn’t have to remember any words, just visualise the whole picture. She was able to reproduce that mind-map in the examination.”

The school’s head of science, Merrin Evergreen, has also used the multi-faceted approach, most notably in a Year Seven sex education lesson on menstruation. The students spent time labelling and coloring in the reproductive structures of both sexes, and then discussed their functions.

Then she took them down to the school oval, where they acted out the female cyle. Some were the fallopian tubes, others the uterine and vaginal walls. Everyone wanted to be the ovum, who was encircled by two other students and then released as the rest of the team shouted “Ovulation!” Then came ‘Menstruation!’, and after the ovum and uterine lining left the body, everyone cheered.

The experience taught them more than just the mechanics. In the following lesson, Evergreen was surprised when a group of usually “loud” boys gave a sensitive presentation on the onset of menstruation.

Other teachers have been startled by the intense creativity that can be unleashed when students are given free rein to process information in any way that suits them. Ritterman says one class at her school is studying Antarctica and students have been told they can do a presentation in any form. One is making a cake model of Antarctica; chocolate underneath, representing the earth, with white icing and a string of imaginative symbols for other elements. Three others are making up a song.

Says Ritterman: “The teacher was saying, ‘This is amazing! It’s like a runaway train, and I’m just hanging on the end’.” — How Your Child IS Smart, by Dawna Markova, Conari Press, rrp $26.95

Different learning types

Show and tellers

Natural persuaders who learn best through reading and light up when telling stories. Good students who shy away from sports.


Empathetic children who learn best by doing what they are shown and asking endless questions. Generally prefer working in groups.

Leaders of the Pack

Natural powerhouses who learn by teaching others. Though they have wide speaking vocabularies, they can have trouble reading and writing.

Verbal Gymnasts

Effective and articulate communicators whose words pour out in logical order. They love facts, history and ideas of all kinds, and have to talk to understand. Sports may be difficult.

Wandering Wonderers

Quiet Einsteins who learn best in solitude. Can learn physical tasks easily without verbal instruction. Can become overwhelmed by listening.

Movers and Groovers

Athletes who need to be allowed to use their bodies in order to learn – often called hyperactive. Reading and writing may be very difficult.

– Source: ‘How your child IS smart.’

First published in The Age.