Variation Theory


Exploiting habits of perception to support conceptual learning

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … evolving webs of coherent interpretations
  • Knowing is … acting and interpreting (based on one’s history)
  • Learner is … a noticer and integrator (individual)
  • Learning is … construing, connecting, interpreting, weaving
  • Teaching is … challenging attentions and juxtaposing critical features




 Variation Theory is based on four key principles from Cognitive Science, namely that (1) the capacity of working memory is very limited, (2) every experience presents innumerable features that might consume one’s attention, (3) established collective knowledge tends to be well structured and reliant on highly specific “critical features,” and (4) humans are exquisitely attuned to change/difference. Variation Theory thus offers focused advice on supporting robust conceptual development through strategies for structuring tasks to make specific noticings available, for channeling learners’ limited attentions to critical features (e.g., systematic variation of the critical feature while holding all other features constant), and for supporting learners in making appropriate generalizations. Important principles of Variation Theory include:
  • Principle of Difference (Ference Marton, 2010s) – the noticing of a specific aspect of an object of learning is greatly enabled by encountering variations of that aspect against a backdrop of constancy
Important precursors to Variation Theory include:
  • Differentiation Theory of Perceptual Development (Eleanor Gibson, 1960s)– a theory of perception that describes it as an iteratively developed screening process, by which one learns to filter “noise” (i.e., distracting and non-useful information) while discerning essential characteristics of the experience


Relative to other educational theories, Variation Theory has a very narrow focus. For that reason, it tends to assume rather than assert key principles of learning – for example, the tenet that what one learns is principally conditioned by both what one already knows and what one is currently noticing. (Other examples are shared with various Embodiment Discourses). Variation Theory’s advice on channeling learner attentions is theoretically sound and empirically grounded. However, that advice is only useful if accompanied by rather sophisticated knowledge of the structures of concepts under study. It’s one thing to prompt awareness to critical features, and it’s quite another to do so in sequences that support sound construals.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Ference Marton

Status as a Theory of Learning

Proponents of Variation Theory often assert that it is both a theory of learning and a theory of teaching, given that it is grounded in principles of Cognitive Science and that it offers pragmatic advice for educators. Because it does not develop or extend insights into the complex dynamics of learning, we do not classify it here as a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

In our analysis, Variation Theory is principally a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

Variation Theory is gaining a strong foothold in some areas of educational research, particularly those associated with the STEM domains. Emerging results, coupled to its solid theoretical grounding, appear sufficient to assert that Variation Theory is a scientific theory.


  • Differentiation Theory of Perceptual Development
  • Principle of Difference

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Variation Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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