What is Learner Variability and Why Does it Matter?

Much has been written, debated and discussed what learning variability is, but what is it and why does it matter? Let’s take a look at different perspectives of what it is and then decide why it matters. We will begin with the most succinct perspective from the Learning Variability Project:

“Learner variability is the rule, not the exception.”

– Barbara Pape, Digital Promise

Learner Variability and Identity

Learner variability should be seen, understood and honored as a personal asset! - Kathleen McClaskey

In a previous blog on Identity, we introduced the Empower the Learner Profile where a learner can share their variability about who they are, how they learn – strengths and challenges, and what they aspire to be. Learners are able to express their personal preferences and needs in learning along with their interests, talents, abilities and aspirations and what beliefs they may (or may not) have about themselves based on their unique advantages and adversities in their life. It matters when a learner can share their story as this can become the first step that opens the door for validation where they are seen, heard, valued and belong.

Learner Variability and the “Myth of Average”

In Todd Rose’s Tedx Talk  “The Myth of Average” in June 2013, he describes why there is no such thing as an average learner. He also points out that four percent of dropouts in the US are intellectually gifted. That comes up to 50,000 minds each year who don’t fit in the average model. How much of this is bad design? We design learning environments for the average learner. We call our system age-appropriate, but it is not. Learners vary in many dimensions of learning.

Each learner has a jagged learning profile where they have strengths and challenges in their learning. Why does this matter?

If you design learning for
the average,
you design it for nobody!

And from his Project Variability, Rose states that…

“…even though we have the most diverse population in the world, we are unable to exploit this natural advantage in human capital.” 

The average hurts everyone. Designing average destroys talents in two ways:
1. The existing educational environment can not challenge learners as it creates an environment where they become bored and sometimes dropout. 

2. It means that your challenges will make it harder for you to see your talent.

How Learner Variability Impacts Learning

Let’s take a look at what the science of learning and development tells us about Learner Variability, its principles and how it impacts learning.

PrinciplesHow it impacts learning
We learn best when our unique advantages and adversities are identified, acknowledged and understood, with systems for supportive response and action plans.
Developmental StateWe learn best when our experiences align with where we are developmentally.
Learning DifferencesWe learn best when our unique learning needs are identified, and resources and skill development are aligned with those needs.
Adapted from Transcend, Inc. Designing for Learning Primer, 2019.

To support Life Experiences:  Learners experience both advantageous and adverse life experiences alongside systems of privilege and oppression. Adverse childhood experiences (ACE) have an especially harmful impact on learning and can be toxic to cognitive, social, emotional, and physical development. It is important that these learners are understood and that they receive consistent and responsive support with trusted and caring adults.

To support Developmental State: When learners enter school there are vast developmental differences: socially, emotionally, cognitively and physically. What is important here is to respond flexibly to reach all learners in these unique developmental zones. Most important, is to help each learner to understand and respond to their own development. 

To support Learning Differences: Understanding one’s learning differences is critical if we want to help each learner to develop the skills and practices to support learning challenges and enhance learning strengths. This comes down to a learner’s identity so that they know and understand the strengths and challenges in how they learn so they can take action around their learning. The “Empower the Learner” Profile is that key tool for each learner to use so they can become self-aware of who they are, how they learn and what they aspire to be. 

Why Learner Variability Matters

Learner variability is a term to describe all learners who enter the classroom who bring with them a unique constellation of strengths, challenges and experiences, both good and bad, that matter when it comes to learning. And when the school environment can be responsive and inclusive by helping each learner develop skills and practices around their learning and personal development, then equity in learning can be realized by every learner.

Educational equity means that every learner has access to the educational resources to develop skills and practices to support and enhance their learning for each moment in their education across race, gender, ethnicity, language, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, family background and/or family income. (Adapted from CCSSO.org educational equity quote.)

Remember this…

Honoring Learner Variability = Belonging


Council of Chief State School Officers, States Leading: Promising Practices Advancing the Equity Commitments 2019,

Learning Policy Institute & Turnaround for Children. (2021). Design principles for schools: Putting the science of learning and development into action.

The Aspen Education & Society Program and the Council of Chief State School Officers. 2017. Leading for Equity: Opportunities for State Education Chiefs. Washington, D.C.

The Myth of Average: Todd Rose at TEDxSonomaCounty

Todd Rose: Variability Matters.

Transcend, Inc. Designing for Learning Primer, 2019.


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