Learner Variability

What is the one constant in education today? Well, it varies.

Something I’ve spent a lot of time on lately is learner variability. This focus grew out of my interest in supporting social emotional learning. In learning about supporting student’s emotional health and incorporating practices and strategies to encourage social-emotional growth I began looking carefully at many aspects of teaching including Universal Learning Design (UDL), mental health and wellness, and learning science. These three things really underscored to me the importance of understanding the inter-relationship between all areas of a person and their combined impact on overall learning. For example, when teaching my class about the finer points of presentation skills, we talk about stress and how giving an oral presentation can be very stressful. That conversation leads to a whole lesson on the fight, flight or freeze response. Stress can make us forgetful, it can undermine our confidence because of some of the physical symptoms (sweating for example), and put us into a survival state tailspin. We learn that the physical symptoms of stress are caused by increased adrenaline (the stress response), and we talk about good coping strategies so we don’t have to feel beaten by a simple presentation. This one lesson really displays how mental wellness plays a significant role in being able to perform well in school. And there are so many other scenarios!

Image of the brain and its systems

Consider all the things our students come to school with every day:

  • Poverty​
  • Learning to speak English ​
  • Lacking background knowledge​
  • Boredom and disengagement​
  • Trauma​
  • Color, ethnicity, or gender making you susceptible to stereotype threat​
  • Working memory, decoding, or attention challenges ​
  • Devastated socially and emotionally in school​

All of these factors can affect our ability to learn. Here is a case in point: background knowledge. Natalie Wexler, in her article How Testing Kids For Skills Can Hurt Those Lacking Knowledge from Mindshift, outlined a research study whose goal was to determine to what extent a child’s ability to understand a text depended on their prior knowledge of the topic. Students were directed to read a text about an inning in a baseball game and move miniature wooden pieces on a board to reenact what they read. The findings showed that

  • Knowledge of baseball made a huge difference ​
  • Knowledge made more of a difference than supposed reading level ​
  • Kids who knew little about baseball, including “good” readers, all did poorly. ​
  • Kids who knew a lot about baseball, “good” and “bad” readers alike, all did well. ​
  • “Bad” readers who knew a lot about baseball outperformed “good” readers who didn’t.​

In another study, researchers read preschoolers from mixed socio-economic backgrounds a book about birds, a subject they had predetermined the higher-income kids already knew more about. When they tested comprehension, the wealthier children did significantly better. But then they read a story about a subject neither group knew anything about: made-up animals called wugsWhen prior knowledge was equalized, comprehension was essentially the same. 

Background knowledge makes a significant difference, yet many of our testing systems don’t take background knowledge into account when assessing reading level. It is these kinds of revelations that impacted me to learn more and try to close those gaps for my own students.

Understanding that all these factors – or variables – impact how a child learns and that every child has a different mix of factors is big. Bigger still is the revelation that those factors can change for an individual throughout their life, even throughout their day! Anyone who has had grade nine boys last period of the day will attest to the fact that the variables for learning in last period vary greatly from first period!

So if we start with the assumption that there is a lot of variability among learners in each classroom, we will make different decisions about how to create optimal environments to support learning. Burgeoning learning sciences research, coupled with the flexibility and precision of digital technology, present a new opportunity to design learning that is responsive to learner variability. When we understand learner variability in this way, classroom challenges become a design problem, not a student problem.​

I’m sure you can understand how looking at all the interconnections and how to design and re-design the learning environment and teaching strategies felt pretty overwhelming! How can I address them all, for each child? How can I cover everything a child needs and be cognizant of all these factors at the same time? Happily, I discovered the Learner Variability Navigator by Digital Promise through my association with HP Teaching Fellows and it has solved my feelings of being overwhelmed and laid out a path to address all these learning needs.

Digital Promise is an independent, bipartisan non-profit and was created with the mission to accelerate innovation in education to improve opportunities to learn. Working at the intersection of education leaders, researchers, and technology developers, they strive to improve learning opportunities for all and close the Digital Learning Gap.

Digital Promise embarked on a rigorous examination of the learning sciences to offer factors and strategies for how learners learn in specific content areas. The result of this research is the Learner Variability Project, and more specifically, the Learner Variability Navigator.

The Learner Variability Navigator is an open-source, completely free online resource for educators “which translates the science of learner variability into easily accessible learner factor maps and strategies to improve educational product design and classroom practice.” The Navigator has defined four pillars – Content, Cognition, Social and Emotional, and Student Background – to provide a framework of Learner Factors for specific domains.​ The domains, or models, include Math at three levels (grades PK-2, 3-6, and 7-9) and Reading and Literacy at 3 levels (grades PK-3, 4-6, and 7-12).

Pillars of the Learner Variability Project

Factors in each model present the science of learner variability by identifying the factors that are critical to learner success at the particular stage being looked at and subsequently outlines the strategies to help you purposefully support each learner. For example, below are the factors for Math at PK-2 level (left) compared with Grades 7-9 level (right). Notice student background factors remain unchanged while math mindset is an added factor in social-emotional learning at the higher grade level. You’ll notice other changes between the numeracy and mathematics pillar and the cognition pillar specific to the level.

Math factors at PK-2 and Grades 7-9

Likewise, the reading and literacy factors vary between grade levels. Being a high school English teacher, I focused in on the Literacy model for grades 7-12. What impressed me at first glance was how, when hovering over a factor, others would become highlighted instantly revealing that there are intricate connections between them. Below is a picture of the results of hovering over sleep. You can see how safety, self-regulation, attention, long term, short term and working memory, among other factors, are all connected. You can imagine, as I did, how many permutations there must be and how adversely affected so many students must be. That was an intensely powerful realization.

Literacy factors grades 7-12

Beyond realizing these connections, the Navigator allows educators learn about each factor with a summary sheet and then to go into a deep dive of learning with further resources, research and related assessments that can be used to give teachers an idea of the needs of any student or whole class.

All this is extraordinarily valuable, but it gets better. The other major part of the Navigator is the strategies section. This is where you can find strategies to support the factors that are highlighted. Again, a summary of the teaching strategy is provided but unlike the factors, the strategies then give specific in-class example of the strategy in action via a short video, another short video highlighting educational technology that focuses on and supports the strategy, and further research and examples, all of which is based on learning science and educational research to ensure the strategies are proven to be effective. This is where I found I could really see how to support students’ wide array of needs and not feel like it is “just one more thing to do” but an embedded part of the learning.

You can watch me in the following short video give a walk-through of the Learner Variability Navigator on the @SELinEDU Speakers Series hosted by Matt Pearsall, Community Manager for Committee for Children and the Social-Emotional Learning in EDU group.

Another very helpful area of the Navigator to utilize is the Learning Needs Explorer. The explorer allows you to select key factors you want to focus on. These choices then produce a listing of strategies that support those factors. You can save these factors and strategies to a Workspace. The workspace, saved by inputting your email address, is shareable so you can collaborate with colleagues. Alternatively, you can share the link to the workspace to have it remain view only. I created a workspace for Understanding Contemporary First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Voices, a new English course I was planning for this fall. The process of selecting the factors, diving into the strategies and annotating my choices in the workspace was a rich and valuable learning task that helped me solidify multiple areas and ideas into a unified whole. You can view my workspace here: Signature Workspace: Lynn Thomas

Using the Learner Variability Navigator has been a powerful and effective professional development activity for me helping to knit together a variety of threads. I remember having a moment where everything seemed to click. So often we feel we are expected to teach “one more thing” in order to support SEL or cognition or background, etc. Working through the Navigator and creating my workspace allowed everything to coalesce and for me to see that it is all one. It is about the WAY I teach the curriculum and that was a eureka moment.

You can find a quick one-page guide here Using the Learner Variability Navigator to further assist you in your own learning adventure with the Learner Variability Navigator.

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