Do all children learn differently?

1. No, they don’t

First of all, I agree with Emily Hanford’s tweet: our brains are much more similar than different.

The way I think about this is to ask myself whether evolution would be likely to create many, many millions of creatures who all, every last one of them, learn differently. 

Do all goats learn differently?

Do all birds learn differently?

All fish?

I suppose it’s possible evolution could have come up with such a scheme, but I’m not sure how, given natural selection, which works across populations, not individuals. 

Different children have different levels of background knowledge, different levels of ability, different levels of interest and motivation, different levels of executive function, different levels of learning speed . . . and those are just the differences I think of off the top of my head.

But the basic learning mechanisms are the same.


2. Yes, they do, sometimes

On the other hand, there certainly appear to be glaring, observable differences in how particular children learn.

What should we make of this?

Where reading is concerned, I’ve wondered for years how it is that some children “teach themselves to read.” I was such a child, and so was C. Agatha Christie, too.

I suspect that Andrew, who is severely autistic, belongs in that category, even though he had a lot of reading instruction at school. But our district used Edmark (I think that was the program title), which takes a strictly visual approach. He was never taught phonics that I know of.

And yet at an early age, he seemed to have picked up some phonics. 

I believe this because after 9/11 he spelled out “O S A M Y” in refrigerator letters on the fridge.

That’s a phonetic spelling of “Osama.” 

Not long after, he spelled out “S O M A L Y,” presumably a phonetic spelling of “Somalia.” I assume he’d somehow learned of the soldiers’ deaths in Somalia and was thinking about it. 

Now there’s a learning difference for you. A severely autistic child with all kinds of processing issues, not least of which was aural processing (C. once asked when Andrew was going to “learn to hear”), not being taught phonics and yet seeming to learn at least something about phonics anyway. 

How does that happen?

And isn’t that a pretty unique learning profile?

(Andrew, by the way, is killing it with Katie’s Sentence Weaver. It’s amazing. During his recent hospital stay — that’s a whole other story — he was characterized as “profoundly retarded” by staff in their official staff notes. He’s not profoundly retarded, but that’s what people see when they look at him. Yet he’s acquiring subtle knowledge of syntax that a person with mental retardation does not acquire (at least not naturally), and he’s acquiring it fast — faster than I’m acquiring French and Spanish syntax, I’m pretty sure. 


3. Implicit, explicit, positive, negative

I have no idea what’s going on with Andrew. He may actually be sui generis

Back to the broader category of “neurotypical” children who teach themselves to read, I assume such children are probably using implicit learning to pick up the patterns of phonics unconsciously as they’re being read to by parents. They don’t seem to be learning phonics, but they are.

Here’s Louisa Moats:

Indeed, the children who are taught using sight words actually learn through the same process as everyone else, but they do it in spite of the teacher and what they are being taught.

So here’s my question re learning differences: are there “learning differences” in the way particular individuals use implicit versus explicit learning? 

Can a person be better at one than the other?

Favor one over the other?

Might there be a “learning style” in this realm?

I have no idea, but since we now know that the two ways of learning are separate and distinct, it seems reasonable to ask whether such differences exist.

Bonus points: the one learning difference we have some real data on is a distinction between positive and negative learning. “Go” and “NoGo.

Some people learn better from rewards; others learn better from punishments.

(And ADHD meds affect this balance.)

Inside a classroom, that might be a tricky distinction to navigate.

4 thoughts on “Do all children learn differently?

  1. I have one child who is basically a hyperlexic pattern matcher extraordinaire — one of the ones who works out the phonics for themselves around age 2, just by being read to.

    And the other one has profound dyslexia, and had to be explicitly trained, four hours a day, five days a week, that symbols stood for sounds. (A particularly high IQ kid, too. The vocabulary portion of the test was 98th percentile, the decoding was 1st percentile.)

    Five years and six digits into Lindamood Bell later, he can read almost to grade level, but still with difficulty. But if you didn’t already know before you met him, he’d mostly pass as a sort of crappyish student. (Can only barely memorize facts, mis-orders or forgets instructions, the continued painful reading). On the other hand, he’ll understand the narrative and the themes and ask you questions that’ll blow your mind.

    So, dyslexia truly is a different way of learning, and scans have shown that different areas of the brain light up when they’re thinking/doing tasks.

    But that’s usually not what they’re talking about when they talk about learning styles for students.


  2. I have one child who is basically a hyperlexic pattern matcher extraordinaire — one of the ones who works out the phonics for themselves around age 2, just by being read to.



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