Every Child Learns Differently? Or Don’t They?

The phrase “every child learns differently” is often used to refer to a child’s learning style. Learning styles are generally divided into three categories: (1.) visual learners, who need to see it to know it, (2.) auditory learners, who need to hear it to know it and (3.) tactile/kinaesthetic learners, who prefer a hands-on approach.



While it is true that children have different learning styles, these individual preferences play a much smaller role than is generally recognised. In essence, all children learn the same, i.e. they can only learn if their educators — parents and teachers — follow viable and universal learning principles.

One can compare the above situation to eating. When people eat, like when they learn, they also have individual preferences. Some people prefer to eat with their hands, some with a knife and fork, while others prefer to eat with chopsticks. Some cut their food into small chunks, while others put rather large chunks into their mouths. Some chew their food very well while others do not allow much time for chewing.

However, the role that these individual preferences play in the eating process is relatively small. What really matters, however, is what all people have in common. All people (1) place their food into their mouths, (2) chew their food, and then (3) swallow their food. Without following these three universal steps, eating would not be possible. In the same way, learning is not possible unless one follows universal learning principles.

Learning is a stratified process

One of the most important universal learning principles is that human learning does not take place on a single level, but is a stratified process. You cannot teach a child to add and subtract unless you have first taught him to count. This would be quite impossible, and no amount of effort would ever succeed in teaching the child addition and subtraction.

This means that there is a sequence that is to be observed in teaching. Certain things have to be taught first, before it becomes possible to teach other things.

The problem is that this very important principle of learning is hardly noted in any of the present-day theories on learning. In fact, when this principle of learning is mentioned, it often happens by way of an en passant reference to discarded notions from the past:

Baldwin (1896) introduced the concept of a hierarchy of senses and proposed that sense perception ability varied from person to person. As we ascend Baldwin’s pyramidal scale we find that each capability rests on, and is chronologically and psychologically dependent on, all the capabilities below it (for example imagination, which could not act but for its predecessors perception and memory). This notion of training competencies hierarchically was the premise on which perceptual training and perceptual motor training were based.1When this principle is noticed, then its significance is often distorted by reductionist thinking such as, “Cognitive abilities develop in a sequential fashion that cannot be altered,”2 or, “Another prerequisite for reading includes a certain level of physiological development of the brain.”3

The stratified nature of learning is an age-old — but ageless — principle. This principle was already pointed out by Herbart (1776-1841), and it is based on the further principle that

One never . . . apprehends anything in isolation, but always in terms of one’s background of previous experience and learning. So the first consideration in properly organized learning would be to make sure that the learner had the right background.4

The ageless principle of repetition

As far as one can go back in history, repetition — also called rote learning or drilling — has been the backbone of successful teaching. But this is no longer the case:

The jewel in the crown of American pedagogy has long been Columbia University’s Teachers College. Its patron saint, and of American education more generally, is John Dewey, whose idea of school as engines of social change led his disciples in the 1920s and 1930s to define their task as replacing the rigid, the authoritarian, and the traditional with a school centered on the child’s social, rather than his intellectual, functioning. The child would be freed from the highly structured school day, from testing, rote memorization, and drill. Books were to take second place to projects, reading to “life experience.” Cooperation would replace competition; the emphasis would be on the group rather than the individual. The elementary school pupil would learn about here and now, his neighborhood rather than places in the far-off past. The school was to be a socializing institute where children learned through active experience.5One consequence of Dewey’s influence was that repetition, rote learning and drilling became swear words in education. Today this form of learning is considered to be “out of style,”6 “ghastly boring”7 and even “mindless.”8 “Having to spend long periods of time on repetitive tasks is a sign that learning is not taking place — that this is not a productive learning situation,” says Bartoli.9

We would like to ask the critics of repetition and drilling if they have a driver’s license. If they have, we would like to know how they got it? Did they just jump in the car one day and off they went? No, the fact is that they repeated over and over — drilled and drilled and drilled — the same actions up to a point where they became automated. Only then were they able to drive a car successfully. Why then, do they expect from children to learn successfully without repetition and drilling? Repetition creates confidence and builds a basis, a kind of springboard for them to conquer higher cognitive skills. One has to build that first and then branch out into “creative” and “critical” thinking and other approaches. They need a base for the higher functions. Today, however, children are required to think “critically” (a sacred cow in education) while they haven’t learned anything to think critically about. As Professor Roger Shattuck so rightly states, public schools in the United States — and elsewhere — have put the cart before the horse.10 Maybe what they really did was that they drowned the horse and burned the cart.

In recent years, neuroscientists have discovered that repetition is important in the “wiring” of a person’s brain, i.e. the forming of connections or synapses between the brain cells. Without these connections, the brain cells are as useless as batteries standing in a row next to a torch. Only when the batteries and torch are connected, can they make a shining light.

The thing that wires a child’s brain, say neuroscientists — or rewires it after physical trauma — is “repeated experience.”11 Without such repeated experience, key synapses don’t form. And if such connections, once formed, are used too seldom to be strengthened and reinforced, the brain, figuring they’re dead weight, eventually “prunes” them away.12

But mere repetition is not the end of the story. There must be enough repetition for a beginner learner. A beginner learner must start by repeating a limited amount of material many times over and over. Gradually, less and less repetition will be necessary to master new skills and new knowledge, as the following story, taken from Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education by Suzuki illustrates:

Since 1949, our Mrs. Yano has been working with new educational methods for developing ability, and every day she trains the infants of the school to memorize and recite Issa’s well-known haiku. [A haiku is a short Japanese poem, consisting only of three lines.] Children who at first could not memorize one haiku after hearing it ten times were able to do so in the second term after three to four hearings, and in the third term only one hearing.13This means that, if one systematically and regularly does repetition with a learner, it will gradually become possible for the learner to learn more and more with fewer and fewer repetitions. It is almost as if a “pyramid of repetition” has to be constructed first.

The importance of this “pyramid of repetition” is also seen in the learning of a first language. According to Dr. Beve Hornsby, it has been found that a child who is just beginning to talk must hear a word about 500 times before it will become part of his active vocabulary, i.e. before he will be able to say the word.14 Two years later, the same child will probably need only one to a few repetitions to learn to say a new word.

Without building this “pyramid of repetition” first, later learning will always be time consuming and prone to failure. Unfortunately educators have ignored this learning principle and have removed most of the repetitive work that used to form part of education for so long. With few exceptions, this change is seen as a step forward. Doreen Kronick, in her book New Approaches to Learning Disabilities, stated that we “overlooked what our common sense told us, which was that the poems that we had learned in school were useless for helping us to remember what we needed to buy at the supermarket.”15

It seems that people, like Kronick, who regard this as a step forward, are wrong. Maclean et al., for example, found that knowledge of nursery rhymes among 3-year-olds was a significant predictor of later pre-reading skills even after the children’s IQs and their mothers’ educational levels were partialed out.16 Even stronger evidence of Kronick’s wrong assumption is the “explosion” of “learning disabilities” all over the Western world.17 One of the reasons for this explosion is that repetition or drilling has been dropped out of the school system. As Kronick said — the memorising of poems would not help you to remember what to buy at the supermarket. What she does not realise — and many others too — was that by reciting and repeating these poems over and over we were building this pyramid of repetition. Therefore it was not useless at all!

Educators should take into account that the learning material, that children are expected to master, continually becomes more, and more difficult, year after year. Unless the teaching methods take note of this — and due to the removal of repetition or drilling modern-day teaching methods do not — it is inevitable that they will start battling, sooner or later. One can compare this to the story of Milo, the famous Greek wrestler from the sixth century B.C. He is said to have carried a calf on his shoulders every day from its birth and eventually to have carried the grown cow around the Olympic stadium. Like the calf inexorably grew and therefore became heavier and heavier, the learning material, that children are confronted with year after year, also becomes more, and more difficult. The fact that Milo carried the calf every day, however, made it possible for him also to carry the grown cow. The repeated carrying of the calf had a permanent effect on Milo. In the same way repeated learning experiences also have a permanent effect on the learner.

In regards to building a “pyramid of repetition” there are two very important factors that should be kept in mind: The first is that there is great individuality among different people, and even within the same person, in the amount of repetition required to learn something. The amount of repetition that is enough for one person, may not necessarily be enough for another. The amount of repetition that a certain person requires in mastering a certain skill, may not necessarily be enough to master another skill. Mrs. Butler might need ten lessons to master the skill of driving, Mrs. Brown might need twenty, Mrs. Lane thirty and Mrs. Jones forty. Mrs. Jones, who struggled to learn to drive, may, on the other hand, need only ten lessons to become expert at sewing. One should note, however, that Mrs. Jones was not diagnosed as “driving disabled” because she needed forty lessons!

Opportunities for application

The third important learning principle is that there must be opportunities for application. Even while a child is learning to master the fragmented elements of soccer, he can and should already be given opportunities to apply these skills in an actual game. In the same way, while learning to master the skills that form the basis of reading, a child can and should already be given opportunities to apply these skills in the act of reading.

An important point is that these three fundamental learning principles should be looked upon as a whole and should not be viewed in isolation. Any botanist will tell you the same thing: it is the whole of the amount of water, sunlight and fertiliser that will cause a tree to bear large, juicy fruit. If you only water the tree six weeks after you have hoed the fertiliser into the ground, you are bound to return to a withered tree.

1.) Kronick, D., New Approaches to Learning Disabilities. Cognitive, Metacognitive and Holistic (Philadelphia: Grune & Stratton, 1988), 6.
2.) Lerner, J., Learning Disabilities: Theories, Diagnosis, and Teaching Strategies (4th ed.), (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1988), 173.
3.) Lipa, S. E., “Reading disability: A new look at an old issue,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1983, vol. 16(8), 453-457.
4.) Mursell, J. L., Successful Teaching (2nd ed.), (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc., 1954), 210-211.
5.) Kramer, R., “Inside the teachers’ culture,” The Public Interest, 15 January 1997.
6.) Bremmer, J., “What business needs from the nation’s schools,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 19 April 1993.
7.) Bassnett, S., “Comment,” Independent, 14 October 1999.
8.) Dixon, R-C. D., “Ideologies, practices, and their implications for special education,” Journal of Special Education, 1994, vol. 28, 356.
9.) Bartoli, J. S., “An ecological response to Coles’s interactivity alternative,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, 1989, vol. 22(5), 292-297.
10.) Skube, M., “Professor out to put ‘learning’ back into education,” The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 12 March 2000.
11.) Nash, J. M., “Special report: Fertile minds from birth, a baby’s brain cells proliferate wildly, making connections that may shape a lifetime of experience. The first three years are crucial,” Time, 3 February 1997.
12.) Polaneczky, R., “How kids get smart: The surprising news,” Redbook, 1 March 1998.
13.) Suzuki, S., Nurtured by Love: A New Approach to Education (New York: Exposition Press, 1969).
14.) Hornsby, B., Overcoming Dyslexia (Johanesburg: Juta and Company Ltd., 1984), 43.
15.) Kronick, New Approaches to Learning Disabilities. Cognitive, Metacognitive and Holistic, 9.
16.) Maclean, M., Bryant, P., & Bradley, L., “Rhymes, nursery rhymes, and reading in early childhood,” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, vol. 33, 255-281, cited in K. E. Stanovich, “Learning disabilities in broader context,” Journal of Learning Disabilities, May 1989, vol. 22(5), 287-297.
17.) Kramer, “Inside the teachers’ culture.”

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