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Are there really ‘fast’ & ‘slow’ learners? Study could help all students succeed

Alina Adams | January 17, 2024

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A November 2023 report debunking “The Myth of the Quick Learner” prompted an outcry of disbelief online and led to a closer look at the original paper, “An Astonishing Regularity in Student Learning Rate,” published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a peer-reviewed journal.

The March 2023 paper asserted:

We found students to be astonishingly similar in estimated learning rate…. One may be tempted by everyday experience to suggest there is obvious wide variability in how fast different people learn…. Such differences may be alternatively explained not as differences in learning rate but as differences in the number of quality learning opportunities individuals experience…. Thus we can gain insight into whether student competence differences derive more from environmental opportunity differences or student-inherent learning-rate differences.

When I first read the above, I instantly thought of one of my own “everyday experiences.” When my sons were 8 and 12 years old, I won a private coding tutorial at my daughter’s preschool auction. I had intended it for my oldest son, a budding artist. I thought he might enjoy creating computer animations. At the last minute, I asked if my second grader could sit in.

The lesson lasted an hour. At the end, the instructor called me over and whispered, “Your older son understood everything I said. Your younger one really got it!”

My impression, as a result, was that in this particular field, my younger child had greater aptitude and thus learned faster. (He went on to teach himself multiple programming languages and began working professionally as a programmer in middle school.)

Yet, according to the study, having a “knack for math” or a “gift for language” is a myth.

To prove this, the researchers employed a methodology that included teaching a cross-section of students a new skill via “educational technologies (which) provide favorable learning conditions … including intelligent tutoring systems, educational games and online courses.”

Their conclusion was that learning is not a matter of faster cognition on the part of some students, but “differences in the number of quality learning opportunities individuals experience.”

This ran counter to my aforementioned “everyday experience.” My sons lived in the same household, suggesting few “environmental opportunity differences,” not to mention the same exposure to “quality learning opportunities.” Furthermore, if our household was indeed privileged to include an above-average number of “quality learning opportunities” that enabled my younger son to pick up coding at an accelerated rate, shouldn’t my first child — being four years older — have been exposed to a higher number of them and thus able to learn coding faster than his little brother? 

To answer such a question for any parent who has raised more than one child, the study’s authors clarify:

This debate comes down to whether learning rate per practice opportunity is relatively constant across individuals or whether it varies substantially…. Bloom suggested that “most students become very similar with regard to … rate of learning … when provided with favorable learning conditions”…. 

In other words:

Learners in more favorable conditions learn at a more rapid rate than those in less favorable conditions.

Perhaps, even though we thought we had raised our two sons in a very similar manner, our oldest — rather than benefiting from an extra four years of “quality learning opportunities” — had instead been the victim of our four years of amateur parenting. His younger brother, on the other hand, reaped the benefits not only of having more experienced parents, but also of being exposed to our interactions with the oldest, thus only appearing to be more advanced because, at age 8, he’d been adjacent to learning opportunities meant for a 12-year-old.

On the one hand, as someone who has spent decades insisting that all American children are capable of doing much more complex work than the system currently offers them, I am thrilled that this study agreed:

Our evidence suggests that given favorable learning conditions for deliberate practice and given the learner invests effort in sufficient learning opportunities, indeed, anyone can learn anything they want. This implication is good news for educational equity — as long as our educational systems can provide the needed favorable conditions and can motivate students to engage in them. 

On the other hand, as someone who has spent decades advocating to unshackle grade level from a child’s age and allow all students to learn at their own pace, I am terrified that the wrong lesson will be drawn from this study. That those who seek to shut down, or, at least, water down, gifted-and-talented classes and accelerated education will use it as proof that there is no such thing as a quick learner; ergo, there is no need for programs that meet their needs

When I mentioned my fears to my husband, a math and physics teacher and alum of such NYC “gifted” schools as Hunter College Elementary and Stuyvesant High, he reframed my concerns.

“No,” he said. “This is actually good news. This study proves that students come into a classroom with different levels of background knowledge.”

And differences in “background knowledge,” as the study confirms, is precisely what produces the “differences in learning rate.”

“Background knowledge is something that can be measured,” my husband went on. “Which means it can be used to place students in the appropriate learning level for them.”

If this report is accurate and learning speed is determined purely by what a student already knew coming into a fresh task, then we can ditch labels like “gifted” and “slow” and focus solely on what any individual needs in order to learn. We can provide everyone with the “needed favorable conditions.” We can ensure that all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, can learn the same material. Good news, indeed!

But will that be the lesson that those who make education policy draw? Or will they simply see the headline dismissing the concept of a “quick learner” and double down on the current “one size fits all” schooling model? Will they continue teaching each student in exactly the same way, not taking into consideration “background knowledge”… or anything else? That would be bad news. For everybody.

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