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Some Thoughts on Learner Variability


With all the attention being paid to the differences between learners and the need for differentiation, it is also important to remember that, intra-learner variability can be just as perplexing as inter-learner variability, especially for the learners involved.

It is easy to oversimplify what students bring to the learning process. This is an A student. There is a B student. One is a strong learner. Another is a weak learner. He is bright. She is slow. They are lagging, etc.

Few learners are that consistent. If there is a truly average student, he or she has never been in one of my classrooms!

When I was in high school, I had a strong aptitude for language. Learning a new language was comparatively easy for me. But put me out on the sports field and it was another story. I have poor depth perception. I failed the practical test in archery (getting a C for the term because I got an A on the written test). And playing softball or tennis – with those balls moving toward me at a speed I couldn’t gauge – required incredibly intense effort (and luck!). But I found another outlet for athletic endeavor and that was dance.

I was fortunate. I was able to understand better than most why learning experiences were so different.

In The End of Average, Todd Rose brings home the idea that each individual brings strengths and weaknesses to every academic experience (and, indeed, every life experience). If I have strong perceptual skills and weak memory skills, my experiences in the classroom will be very different from a student with weak perceptual skills and strong memory skills. But it may not be obvious why.

In fact, uneven cognitive skills can be just as stressful, sometimes more so, for a student than having more consistent but less strong learning skills.

When a student has really strong skills in some areas and weaknesses in other areas, but doesn’t know what they are or what the likely impact is, some learning experiences will be easy and some will be difficult, but the student usually can’t predict which will be which! Inexplicably, some things will be easy, and some will be hard. Some types of math problems will be obvious and others totally obtuse (pun intended). Some language tasks will be super hard, but others will flow like the rain off a duck.

These students typically experience a lot of frustration and anxiety. Teachers and parents may tell them, “Come on, you’re so smart. You should get this.”

Let’s take one cognitive skill as an example – cognitive flexibility (or flexible thinking). This skill is essential in determining when we need to change our approach to a problem, but also in shifting between mental processes.

Say you have a student who reads amazingly fluently, but stumbles when they come to a word they have never seen. And who can power through any math problem you given them until they get to one where all the operations and solution approaches they have learned don’t apply. For this student, these challenges will probably seem “unfair.” They are used to succeeding in most reading situations and most math situations, but suddenly both are perplexing.

While there may be a common underlying cognitive processing reason for this difference (in this case, cognitive flexibility), it is not obvious to the student – nor to their teachers – and that often causes him or her to doubt their ability altogether. Every learning situation brings uncertainty and, therefore, stress. Success seems like a matter of luck rather that something to which effort and strategies can be applied.

Now imagine that this student can be helped to understand the relative weakness of their cognitive flexibility (compared to memory, attention, and reasoning skills). Imagine that that student now has tools to strengthen their cognitive flexibility and strategies to compensate while they are building weaker skills.

Now learning situations will be less unpredictable and certainly less stressful. And talk about students taking responsibility for their own learning!

If you have a child/student that you suspect may have uneven learning skills and would like to explore how the situation can be addressed, click to schedule a free phone consultation.



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