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Learner Variability

It’s no secret that today’s workforce is more diverse than ever. Technology, globalization, and immigration are connecting people from different places, cultures, ethnicities, and more. Society is placing more emphasis on DEI—diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’re examining our systems to pinpoint and correct instances in which one size does not fit all, and in some cases, fits only a select few.

What many of us have believed instinctively and philosophically—that every person is unique—is now backed by neuroscience. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), we now know two fundamental truths about the brain and learning:

  1. Learning is variable. Every brain is unique in the precise way that it engages with learning.[i]

  2. Variability is plastic. The way each brain learns changes with experience and context.

A series of black and white brain scans laid out in a grid

fMRI has shown us that every brain is unique

Looking at these truths, we are left with two obvious conclusions. The first is that one-size-fits-all approaches to teaching don’t work because all brains are different. This makes sense because people have different levels of expertise, different perspectives on learning, and even different levels of confidence in their own ability to learn. They also process information differently, at different speeds, at different levels of complexity, and sometimes through different sensory inputs.

The second conclusion we must face is that we in L&D cannot possibly design for all that variability. We can’t design 30 unique learning experiences for 30 different people, especially when we may not even know how they differ. After all, you may not know all or even any of your learners. Further, even if you did know them, critical aspects of their variability might not be readily apparent. For example, a study in 2019 found that roughly 30 percent of the professional workforce has a disability, but less than a third disclose that information and usually only then because the disability is physical and hard to hide.[ii] This means it’s likely that one in five of your learners has a disability and you won’t know it because they won’t tell you.

Laying out all of this visible and invisible variability, we’re faced with a quandary. How are we supposed to effectively anticipate and design for infinite variability in order to best support how each person learns? The answer is we can’t. That would be like a tailor trying to make clothes that perfectly fit people she’s never met, let alone measured. It’s impossible, but it’s also looking at the challenge in the wrong way.

What if, instead of trying to be tailors, making learning opportunities for people we can’t truly know, we created environments where people could tailor the learning to themselves? Just as a tailor knows which dimensions affect fit the most, we can anticipate where variability might significantly affect learning and provide flexibility and support in those areas so that people can make their own adjustments.

That’s what Universal Design for Learning is all about – building our learners’ capacity and providing the right conditions so that they can act like expert learners, ones who are:

  1. Purposeful and motivated

  2. Knowledgeable and resourceful

  3. Strategic and goal-directed.

I like to say that expert learners have both the will and the skill for driving their own improvement. Our job is to provide them with what they need – capacity, context, and common cause – so that they can grow and thrive. They win, their teams win, we all win.

In future posts, I’ll discuss how we develop that capacity and context, including the mindsets necessary to do this work. I hope you’ll keep coming back.

[i] Meyer, Anne, et al. Universal Design for Learning: Theory and Practice. 1st ed., CAST Professional Publishing, 2014.

[ii] Jain-Link, Pooja, and Julia Taylor Kennedy. “Why People Hide Their Disabilities at Work.” Harvard Business Review, 3 June 2019.,

James McKenna

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James McKenna

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I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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