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The Power of Differentiation

Updated: Jan 31, 2020

Featured on Hong Kong Economic Journal (April 6, 2013)

In my last column, I wrote about the Power of Uniqueness – that everyone is created to be unique with a special mix of talent, gifting and destinies. In order to help a child succeed, we need to identify and celebrate his uniqueness.

And following from that, we must recognize the power of differentiation. Differentiation is the teaching style that is child-centred and tailored according to the needs of the child. If we truly believe that every person is unique, we must also recognize that every person learns in a different way.

Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligence suggests that everyone is intelligent but is intelligent in different ways – linguistic, musical, mathematical and logical, spatial, intrapersonal, interpersonal, kinesthetic and naturalist are the different ‘intelligences’ a person can have. In the same way that people are intelligent in different ways, they learnt best in different ways. People that are logical-mathematical most likely learn better when things are taught to them in a logical, systematic way. People that are bodily-kinesthetic are most likely to learn and remember best the things that they did when they were moving around. So, we must identify how a child learns best and be creative in the way we teach them.

Just a couple of months ago, I was doing a review to see how much my students remembered from the lessons over the years. As I asked different children, it was so interesting to see what they remembered from their last 3 years. Some remembered songs that they had sung about having self-control, some remembered having to melt an ice cube to retrieve a frozen coin inside in their lesson about perseverance, some remembered the team games they had taken part in whilst learning about cooperation and being a good team leader.

What it shows me is this – children all learn best in different ways. Some are visual learners and will remember the things you write on the board, some are kinesthetic learners where you have to get them moving or doing the task you want them to learn, others are auditory learners where you need to talk and explain things to them. Most times, people have a combination of learning styles but will have a primary one.

Parents with more than one child will know this best. I have spoken to parents where they feel like they mastered the art of raising their first child and then only to find that the same methods don’t work on the second. For example, they might have found in disciplining their child the naughty corner worked wonders on the first child but made no behavioural difference in their second. Or that one of their children could learn the multiplication table just by reading and reciting it but the other needed them to bring out the blocks to show how if two people each brought 5 blocks to the table, they would have 10. If these parents hadn’t differentiated the way they taught each child, it would have been a pity to see the child learning less than their optimum.

And this translates into teaching character traits and values. The problem is that in teaching character traits and values, parents often employ the method of auditory teaching – they talk to, lecture, nag and, perhaps scold their children. As effective as this may be for some, it may be completely redundant for others.

Take teaching perseverance to a child who gives up easily as an example, visual learners might remember the lesson best if you have them read a story about Thomas Edison and how he persevered in creating the light bulb. The kinesthetic learner might learn it best when you have him play a challenging team game and require his perseverance in winning the game. The auditory learner might learn best if you explain what perseverance means and how to apply it in daily life.

Or take teaching respect through table manners to a child as another example, visual learners might benefit most from reading a picture book about etiquette and watching others at a restaurant, the auditory learners might remember the manners you told them about as you were eating dinner together and kinesthetic, tactile learners might need a role play where they actually act out the manners they should have.

Of course, a variety of methods will always be most effective and these is a process of discovery of finding the primary learning method of each child. So as parents and educators, let’s differentiate for each child and see how it’ll make a world of a difference to them.


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