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Learner Variability and the Dynamic Mind

At the heart of personalized education lies the concept of learner variability, which refers to the unique factors in a student's life that impact their ability to learn.


Envision the mind as a dynamic landscape, its features constantly reshaped by life's relentless stream of experiences. This metaphor illustrates the essence of cognitive development – a process that is profoundly individual, reflecting a mosaic of personal histories and environments. Recognizing learner variability allows us to appreciate that each student's cognitive landscape is a distinct blend of valleys and peaks, carved by their unique encounters and challenges. This understanding is crucial in crafting educational approaches that move beyond one-size-fits-all solutions. It guides educators to foster a nurturing and adaptable learning environment that respects and responds to the intricate and varied topographies of each student's mind.



Colorful brain exploding with colors and learning.


Who We Are Depends On Where We’ve Been

Cognitive Echoes of Past Environments

All the experiences in your life – from single conversations to your broader culture – shape the microscopic details of your brain. Neurally speaking, who you are depends on where you’ve been. Your brain is a relentless shape-shifter, constantly rewriting its own circuitry – and because your experiences are unique, so are the vast, detailed patterns in your neural networks. Because they continue to change your whole life, your identity is a moving target; it never reaches an endpoint.


Throughout the extended period of our youth, the brain undergoes a process of refinement, continuously trimming its neural pathways to better adapt to its surroundings. This natural adaptation is clever, ensuring the brain is well-suited to its environment, yet it carries inherent dangers.


Should a child's environment not meet the basic standards—where they receive the necessary care and attention—their neurological development may be impaired. This was the unfortunate reality for the Jensen family from Wisconsin.


Carol and Bill Jensen adopted three siblings, Tom, John, and Victoria, at the age of four. These children had spent their early years in dire conditions within Romanian orphanages, which severely affected their cognitive growth.


Upon their departure from Romania in a taxi, Carol Jensen realized the children were speaking in an unrecognizable language—a makeshift dialect created from a severe lack of social interaction.


Over the years, the children were able to grow up and live a healthy and productive life, thanks to the loving and nurturing environment given to them by their parents.


The children have scant memories of their time in the orphanages, unlike Dr. Charles Nelson, a Professor of Pediatrics at Boston Children's Hospital, who recalls his 1999 visit to these facilities with clarity. He was appalled by the sight of young children confined to cribs, devoid of any sensory engagement, with a single caregiver for every fifteen children. These caretakers were instructed to withhold affection, leading to an environment of strict routine and emotional neglect.


This neglect manifested in what Dr. Nelson termed "indiscriminate friendliness," where children would gravitate towards any adult for attention, despite having never met them—this behavior is often linked with enduring attachment disorders.


Disturbed by these observations, Dr. Nelson initiated the Bucharest Early Intervention Program, studying 136 institutionalized children. His research revealed significantly lower IQs and neural activity in these children, demonstrating the critical need for emotional and cognitive stimulation in brain development.


Yet, the study also offered a glimmer of hope: children moved to nurturing environments at an early age showed remarkable neurological recovery. The findings illuminate a fundamental truth about the human brain: it is not a static organ but a dynamic entity, continuously sculpted by the interplay of biology and experience. The concept of neuroplasticity lies at the core of this understanding—it is the brain's incredible capacity to reorganize itself, forming new neural connections throughout life in response to our interactions with the world.


The remarkable neurological recovery observed in children moved to nurturing environments early in their development is a testament to this plasticity. When the brain is met with positive stimuli, such as affection, stimulation, and learning opportunities, it has the ability to repair and strengthen itself, even after periods of severe deprivation. This adaptability is not just a survival mechanism but a powerful indicator of growth potential.


This story comes from The Brain: The Story of You by David Eagleman.



Learner variability refers to the unique factors in a student's life that impact their ability to learn.


Blueprints and Beyond

Many species arrive in the world with innate predispositions, their DNA laying the foundation for instinctual behaviors. The biological architecture of their bodies and neural pathways are meticulously mapped out by their genetic code, governing their actions and innate behaviors. Consider the innate response of a fly to flee from shadows, the instinctual migration of a robin at winter's onset, a bear's compulsion to hibernate, or a dog's instinct to guard its owner; these are all ingrained behaviors.


However, the human brain presents a unique case. At birth, it possesses some inherent functions—such as breathing, crying, feeding, a fascination with faces, and the capacity to acquire language nuances. But unlike their animal counterparts, humans are not born with a fully formed neural blueprint. Instead, genetic instructions provide a basic framework for neural connections, with experiential learning from the environment refining and completing the circuitry.


This remarkable neuroplasticity—the brain's ability to mold itself to its surroundings—has empowered humanity to thrive across diverse habitats on Earth and even take initial steps toward colonizing outer space.


Sculpting the Mind

The development of the human brain in childhood bears a striking resemblance to the meticulous artistry behind the Crazy Horse Memorial. Just as this grand monument is being carefully sculpted from the Black Hills of South Dakota, poised to become a colossal tribute to the Oglala Lakota warrior, Crazy Horse, the young human brain undergoes its own form of sculpting.



Crazy Horse Memorial in the rock face.


In youth, our brains are not defined by the growth of new neurons, but rather by the intricate connections these neurons form. From birth, an infant's brain rapidly begins to forge synapses at an astonishing rate, absorbing sensory experiences like a sponge. By the tender age of two, a child's brain is a thicket of over a hundred trillion synapses, twice as many as in an adult's brain, mirroring the expansive scale envisioned for the Crazy Horse Memorial.


However, just as the Memorial's design is subject to careful revision, not all neural pathways in the developing brain are permanent. Through a process akin to an artist chiseling away marble to reveal a statue, the brain begins to prune away half of these synapses. This neural pruning, which shapes the brain's very structure, is akin to revealing the figure of Crazy Horse from the mountainside, each stroke removing excess rock to expose the intended form beneath.


Synapses that are frequently used are reinforced, while those that are not fade away, similar to how the details of the Memorial will emerge more clearly as excess stone is removed. The 'use it or lose it' principle governing synaptic pruning suggests a parallel in educational philosophy: rather than constraining learners within the narrow confines of purportedly fixed learning styles, we should encourage the development of a diverse array of learning pathways.


As we marvel at the sculpting of the young brain, an organic masterpiece of neural connections, we must acknowledge that its formation is not a static process but a dynamic journey of constant shaping and molding. With that, we should sculpt educational experiences that reinforce a multitude of synapses, fostering a holistic cognitive landscape. The concept of fixed learning styles should be reimagined as flexible learning preferences that adapt to each learner's variability, emphasizing the brain's capacity to grow and change.



Learning Styles Don’t Exist

Dispelling the Learning Style Myth

Over 90% of teachers worldwide believe learning styles determine academic and career success. Despite the widespread belief among educators in the efficacy of learning styles, research, including insights from the American Psychological Association, suggests there is no substantial evidence to support the notion that tailoring teaching to these styles improves educational outcomes. This sentiment echoes the critique presented in Katie Novak's article, "The Lochness Monster, Yetis, Big Foot, and Learning Styles," where she likens the belief in learning styles to the belief in mythical creatures—it's a captivating idea, but ultimately unfounded.


Novak points out that, while people may have learning preferences, these do not equate to fixed learning styles. This is a crucial distinction in the educational sphere, where flexibility and adaptability are key. My own experience of assembling a toy kitchen for my kids is a testament to this.


The Toy Kitchen Conundrum

On a sunny weekend, I found myself facing the ultimate test of patience: assembling a toy kitchen with instructions that seemed to have been crafted as part of an elaborate practical joke. The steps were as clear as mud and twice as thick. It was supposed to be a straightforward task, but the manual had other plans, with diagrams that resembled abstract doodles more than any form of helpful guidance.



Kids playing with a toy kitchen.


Not to be outdone by a booklet that might as well have been written in hieroglyphics, I turned to the modern oracle of knowledge—YouTube. There, a hero in a DIY apron had laid out the path to victory with a clarity that the cryptic manual refused to offer. I juggled between the two, the video filling in the vast gaps left by the written word. The manual alone was a comedy of errors, but combined with the video, it became a duet of instructional clarity.


With a screwdriver in one hand and my phone in the other, I navigated the assembly process—a dance of stopping, rewinding, fast-forwarding, and pausing the video, while cross-referencing the hieroglyphic manual. The result? A toy kitchen that, despite all odds, stood firm and has survived three young kids.


This mishmash of learning resources wasn't just effective—it was my saving grace, proving once and for all that when it comes to learning, it's not about sticking to a single supposed 'style', but rather mixing and matching until the job is done.


With poorly written instructions as my guide, I was compelled to seek additional resources. By employing both the written directions and a video tutorial, I utilized a mixed-method approach, proving that successful problem-solving often requires diverse strategies. Had I been confined to a 'learning style,' this task might have proved impossible, underscoring Novak's argument against labeling students and instead, promoting an educational approach that recognizes and utilizes their cognitive variability.


Situational Learning Strategies

The myth of learning styles is much like trying to navigate through a city using only one street. While some may have a preferred route, it doesn't mean they can't reach their destination in other ways if that path is blocked. Imagine tagging someone as a 'visual learner'—what happens on the day they forget their glasses? Does their capacity for learning shut down? Of course not! The teacher would adapt, perhaps by providing verbal instructions or engaging the student in a tactile activity.


Consider a student typically labeled as an 'auditory learner,' whose experiences across different classes reveal the multifaceted nature of learning preferences.

In a botany class, instead of engaging with a lecture on photosynthesis, this student is drawn to the hands-on examination of leaves and flowers, eager to peer through a microscope and see the intricate details of plant cells—indicating a shift towards a tactile and visual learning experience.


In a geometry lesson, theorems and axioms spoken aloud lose their appeal as geometric shapes and puzzles on their desk beckon. The student finds clarity not just through auditory explanations but through the act of manipulating angles and constructing figures, discovering that active, kinesthetic engagement brings abstract mathematical concepts to life.


These instances underscore the notion that learning cannot be confined to rigid categories. What these examples show is a single student's learning journey through different subjects, where the preference for learning modality changes based on the context, challenging the idea of fixed 'auditory learning' and instead highlighting the dynamic nature of how we learn.

Learner variability encapsulates this energy. Just as a chameleon changes its colors to match its environment, learners adapt their strategies based on the context. It's a recognition that we are not static beings who fit neatly into boxes; we are complex and multifaceted. Our brains aren't wired to only learn in one way; they're capable of incredible flexibility. Our moods, physical states, and the nature of the material itself can all sway our learning preferences from one moment to the next.


Thus, the notion of fixed learning styles falls apart under the weight of our innate variability. Just as a student without their glasses isn't incapacitated but simply needs to adjust their approach, so must educators remain fluid, ready to offer a spectrum of learning experiences. To honor learner variability is to acknowledge that the best learning strategy is the one that works in the moment, and that strategy is as changeable as the weather.



Little girl sitting at a desk confused and flustered as she reads a book.


Remove Barriers

Navigating Educational Roadblocks

When planning a road trip, we expect to encounter certain disruptions along the way, such as traffic jams, construction zones, or unfavorable weather conditions. By anticipating these potential issues, we can devise a strategy that allows us to reach our endpoint without significant delays.


In the realm of education, similar obstructions can impede a student's journey toward learning objectives. Like the well-prepared traveler, educators can predict and minimize these educational roadblocks with strategic planning. Identifying potential challenges within the curriculum, evaluation methods, teaching approaches, and educational materials is essential in equipping students with the competencies they need to become adept learners.


Learning barriers are the stumbling blocks where students might falter within a lesson or task. These barriers are not one-size-fits-all; they differ among students, across subjects, and with various activities. A key strategy of Universal Design for Learning is to acknowledge and plan for these barriers in advance. This involves crafting flexible educational experiences and environments that adapt to the needs of all learners, rather than attempting to retrofit students to pre-existing conditions.



Imagine tagging someone as a 'visual learner'—what happens on the day they forget their glasses? Does their capacity for learning shut down? Of course not!


Brewing a Barrier-Free Experience

Starbucks does an amazing job at understanding learner variability by removing barriers. At the heart of this company’s philosophy is the belief that everyone should be able to enjoy their perfect cup of coffee, no matter their preferences or restrictions. It's not just about offering a wide range of options; it's about creating an environment where barriers are actively identified, addressed, and removed.


For example, the coffee shop provides sugar-free syrups for those who are diabetic or watching their sugar intake, and dairy-free milk alternatives like almond, soy, and oat milk for lactose-intolerant or vegan customers. This ensures that health restrictions don't prevent anyone from enjoying their favorite beverages. Likewise, anyone has access to these options, not just those with specific dietary restrictions.


Furthermore, the coffee shop is designed with accessibility in mind. The counters are at an appropriate height for those in wheelchairs, and the layout is spacious enough to navigate easily. They also offer a mobile ordering service for those who may find the in-store experience overwhelming or challenging, such as individuals with social anxiety or mobility issues. Again, everyone has access to these accessibility features, not just a specific group.


The staff are trained to be attentive and responsive, ready to meet unique needs, whether it's understanding the importance of getting an order exactly right for someone with allergies or being patient with someone who takes a little longer to make a decision.


By recognizing and responding to these needs, the coffee shop isn't just serving coffee; it's nurturing a community where everyone has their place, and every need is valid and catered to. Just as a UDL classroom works to ensure that no student is at a disadvantage, this coffee shop sets a standard for inclusivity and accessibility, ensuring every customer walks out the door with their day a little brighter and their coffee made just right.



Inside of a cozy coffeeshop.


Addressing Barriers

Adhering to learner variability by removing barriers is central to creating an equitable educational environment. When planning lessons, educators should focus on the core takeaway for students and offer varied paths to reach these goals. This strategy can reduce obstacles and deepen understanding. Reflect on potential hindrances to learning objectives and integrate appropriate tools and resources from the start.

  • Curriculum Limitations:

    • Provide materials in various formats such as audio books, large print, or digital text to accommodate visual impairments or reading difficulties.

  • Assessment Methods:

    • Utilize oral presentations, project-based learning, and portfolios to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge in diverse ways.

  • Language Barriers:

    • Offer glossaries and language support services.

    • Allow the use of translation tools for non-native speakers.

  • Socio-Economic Factors:

    • Ensure access to necessary technology and internet connectivity.

    • Provide a quiet space to study by keeping schools open after hours or offering at-home resources.

  • Social and Emotional Barriers:

    • Integrate diverse cultural perspectives into the curriculum.

    • Promote inclusive activities.

    • Foster a classroom environment where every student feels acknowledged and included.



Learning barriers are the stumbling blocks where students might falter within a lesson or task.


In our pursuit of educational excellence, it is paramount to recognize that learner variability is not a hurdle to overcome but a resource to embrace. Like a skillful barista who crafts a unique coffee experience for each customer, educators must blend a rich variety of teaching methods to suit the distinct palate of each learner. By dismantling barriers and championing inclusivity, we create a sanctuary of learning where every student has the opportunity to thrive. As we navigate the ever-evolving landscape of education, let us be guided by the understanding that the strength of our educational system lies in its ability to adapt to the ever-changing contours of the human mind. In celebrating the diversity of our learners, we not only remove barriers but also pave pathways to a future where education is not just a privilege but a journey tailored to the boundless potential of every student.

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