Teaching & Learning

Understanding Learner Variability

Understanding Learner Variability

Digital Promise wants to educate people about "learner variability." To that end, the organization recently published a paper to explain the concept and direct people to the use of the resources it has available through its Learner Positioning System (LPS) initiative.

Digital Promise is a nonprofit funded by government and numerous foundations and focused on spurring innovation in education to improve learning. LPS is a free, open-source, online tool for teachers and education technology developers that links the latest learning sciences research to practice to help both sets of constituents address learner variability.

In six concise pages "Learner variability Is the Rule, Not the Exception" describes how all students — those struggling as well as those thriving — differ in ways that "matter for learning," as learning scientists are discovering.

"Learner variability is the young person who lives in poverty or is learning to speak English and may not yet have the background knowledge to enable comprehension of a reading passage. Or, the student who already has the skills to excel at a pace beyond the curriculum and is bored because traditional methods of instruction do not engage her or meet her needs," the report stated. "It's the learner with working memory, decoding, or attention challenges who retreats into silence or acts unruly out of fear they will be asked a question they are not yet ready to answer. It also defines the student who excels at classwork but is devastated socially and emotionally in school."

Given that learner variability is part of each student, the report suggested, figuring out how to meet the needs of each learner requires educators to start working with learning scientists in building tailored "educational experiences, interventions and assessments." Those connections will in turn help change the design of classrooms and instruction. By starting with the assumption that variability exists among learners, "different decisions are made on how to create optimal environments to support learning," the report asserted. Digital technology, coupled with learning sciences research, can help. That's where LPS comes in.

The LPS initiative is intended for the benefit of educators, researchers and ed tech developers. The idea is to translate learning sciences research into factors to be addressed in supporting diverse learners in the classroom or product design and strategies for doing so. The factors and strategies are combined into learner models. Currently, three models exist: for pre-K-2 math, pre-K-3 reading and 4-6 literacy. The organization is also developing new models for 3-6 and 7-8 math.

For teachers, LPS makes research insights available for embedding into instructional practices. For example, in the "Reading PK-3" model, one strategy suggested for helping kids learn how to pay attention is to arrange the classroom to have "ample space" for everyone. Another is to allow them to exhibit what they know and can do in creative ways, such as by creating visual representations to show what they can't express in writing, while still targeting literacy skills.

For product developers, Digital Promise has created a self-assessment tool that calls up research-based strategies useful in guiding product features beneficial to different kinds of learners. It also gives grants to developers to encourage ed tech producers of early reading products to build in research-based supports that address the variability of all learners.

The "big takeaway," said Erica Lawton Weinschenk, project director of communications, "is if you do understand learner variability in the way it's defined in the paper, when you open the door to your classroom in September, you will see a design challenge — teaching, learning, environment, social-emotional learning, etc. — not a student problem."

The report is openly available on the Digital Promise website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.