Why do we overestimate the importance of differences?

//Why do we overestimate the importance of differences?

“For a difference to be a difference, it must make a difference.” William James

We’re all different. Obviously. Just like snowflakes, human beings are all special, unique and entirely individual. But like snowflakes, maybe those differences aren’t as important as we might sometimes like to think. When it snows the difference between individual flakes is irrelevant. For all we have our very own permutations of DNA, the fact our physiognomies are broadly similar means we behave in broadly similar ways. Of course we have an infinite variety of differences in ability, but the way we learn is surprisingly similar.

You doubt me? Well, you’re not alone. Apparently 90% of teachers continue to believe that children conform to particular learning styles and that teaching must account for these different styles if it is to be effective. The idea that we’re all either visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learners and we can only really be expected to learn when instruction is tailored to these specific needs is codswallop. We might well have a preference for seeing, listening or doing, but if we believe that the best way to learn the shape of a map of Australia is to listen to a description of it, that the best way to learn how the piano is just to bash away at the keys, or that we should learn to play tennis by watching Wimbledon, then we’re very clearly and sadly wrong.

Despite our beguilingly different abilities everyone will best learn the shape of a map by being shown a picture of it just as everyone best understands data by being shown visual representations of it. No one will best pick a musical instrument through unguided experimentation; it helps everyone to be taught the principles of musical notation and then to practice performing set pieces. There may be some gifted individuals who pick up the basics of a sport by watching others perform, but everyone benefits from having movements and techniques deconstructed and modelled. And, perhaps more controversially, there may be several methods for teaching children to read but systematic synthetic phonics is most effective in the overwhelming majority of cases.

Although there’s a mass of research thoroughly debunking the idea that pandering to pupils’ preferred learning style is in any way useful, the theory endures. But why? Because our brains work in very similar ways, we all have the tendency to fall victim to the same cognitive biases. Possibly part of the appeal is that we want to believe our failure to learn is due to teachers failing to teach us effectively: if only they could be bothered to understand the way in which we learn, all would be well. But I also think we cling to ideas like Learning Styles because we want to believe our differences matter more than our similarities. This tendency also makes the need to differentiate for the needs of all pupils seductive, but maybe we’d be better off accepting that despite their differences, pupils learn and forget in fairly predictable ways.

Consider the differences in the way the atoms of different elements behave; despite these differences all conform predictably. Atoms of different elements might take on energy at different temperatures, but they’ll all change state from gas to liquid to solid at a particular temperature. Physicist Carl Weiman argues that rigorous eduction research is not so very different to ‘hard’ science as some might want to suggest. Good science has the power to make useful predictions; if research can be used to inform our actions then it is useful. It’s unnecessary to accurately control and predict how every student in every context will behave or learn, just as a physicist has no need to control or predict how every single atom will behave in a physics experiment.

Similarly, although children are all unique, they are predictable. Children may respond in an infinite variety of complex ways to teachers, but all children respond better to high expectations, attention, respect and routine. There may be differences in our capacity to hold information in working memory, but anything that occupies anyone’s working memory reduces their capacity to think. We may all learn at different rates and in subtly different ways, but the spacing effect and the testing effect seem to apply to everyone.

Our differences are a delightful distraction. As the cliché goes, how dull it would be were we all the same. But our similarities have predictive power and allow us to anticipate how most, if not every child will respond in the vast majority of cases.



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  2. andrewsabisky November 5, 2014 at 3:47 pm - Reply

    as someone with a differential psychology background, this is a little bit painful to read, but I can’t argue too much. Before everyone jumps on David – “how dare you say all kids are the same!” – he is not saying this at all; he’s arguing that cognitive universals are more important than differences (which are real & large) when it comes to the everyday nuts and bolts of teaching. For the kids I teach this is certainly true; out of the 11 kids I’m working with at the moment (all for Latin or Greek), 10 out of the 11 are taught in more or less the same way – the differences in the lesson structure and content are of degree, not kind. One has excellent working memory but very poor long-term retention, and this requires some adjustments. Small n, of course – it would be interesting to compare to others’s experiences.

    This is essentially the counter-argument to the latter half of G is for Genes; yes, nobody could or should really dispute the genetic basis of individual differences in personality and learning capacity, but so what? The logical connection between behaviour genetic research and a personalized curriculum is simply not that strong (as a number of reviews pointed out). The other problem is that a truly personalized curriculum may not scale well, both in terms of the financial demands but also because of the demands on teacher cognitive capacity and time.

    • Chris Parsons November 23, 2014 at 8:39 am - Reply

      I also completely agree with David and you Andrew. I think another problem with the notion of a ‘truly personalized curriculum’ which you mention at the end of your comment, is that, although all children (all of us in fact) have a need for some recognition of our uniqueness, we also have a powerful need to be seen and treated like the others and to run along amidst the rest of the pack. We can also learn a lot from the experiences of each other if we are striving towards the same outcome along a similar enough path.

  3. […] don’t Exist’ video?’ But still the idea persists, as David Didau points out here. In which case, it is probably sensible for us to ask the question: […]

  4. Peter Blenkinsop (@ManYanaEd) April 5, 2015 at 6:55 pm - Reply

    I am not sure you are right when you talk about the bit about atoms and heat.

  5. […] We are, of course, unique, just like snowflakes, but this rather obvious observation causes us to over-estimate the importance of our differences.  Aaronovitch’s suggestion is that technology will allow the kind of personalisation […]

  6. Mary-Joy Klein November 5, 2015 at 4:29 am - Reply

    I have been involved with teaching for many years and in some ways I agree strongly with this point of view. In a class we have children that are similar enough to have the class learn with the same lesson and not have to think that if the class has children with diverse learning styles.

    I think that teaching requires a sensitivity to engage all of the children. That in teaching we want to spark the desire to learn new information, and develop new skills and to practice the skills to get the learners to become excellent.

    You know the old adage, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink.”

    The premis that seems to be propotredbhere s that you can forget about different learning styles and have successful lessons. This I do not think is possible in that the children, learners, must be able to get a handle on what they must learn and must practice in ways that the children will absorb and internalize what they are working on.

    So, I do not think tha most classes, especially large classes will be properly taught without consideration of different learning styles, and consideration of basic skills levels. If all the learners can be involved in the same lesson and work at their own level ( because they can only work up to their maximum ability, but cheat and fail to meet their own level) then the lesson is good.

    When the kids are bored or scared of failure, or feel like the lesson does not appl to them the teacher is wasting time.

  7. […] Why do we overestimate the importance of differences? November 2014 […]

  8. […] Why do we overestimate the importance of differences? November 2014 […]

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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