The Fish that Learned to Climb the Tree

Updated: May 18

Albert Einstein allegedly said that “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” It’s actually not certain that Einstein ever said this. But whoever did, clearly tried to make a point: not everyone is good at the same kinds of things, but the school system does judge every child by the same standard.


If we are not careful, children with a different set of talents than those taught at school will be left with low self-esteem. Yet Einstein the genius scientist – or whoever the quote belongs to – may not have been entirely right. Though the school system does disadvantage some children more than others, we must be careful not to blame this on these children. The idea that some children are more like “fish”, and thus inherently unable to climb trees, is pretty dangerous: it suggests that there are some things that some students will just never be able to do. But when a student struggles at school, the problem is not necessarily that they are not a “natural talent”. The problem may be, instead, that the child is not receiving the adequate support.


What kind of support is adequate for a child will depend. Some students encounter no difficulties at school, and the general support of daily lessons suffices to fulfil their learning needs. For some students however, this isn’t enough. It may be, for example, that the teaching style used by their teachers is not well-suited to them. Other students may lack the self-confidence to learn, and even others may just need more time to process the materials.


A common way to make sense of these differences in students is to distinguish between different “learning styles”. One classical way to distinguish between different learning styles, for example, is the VARK-model. Developed initially by Fleming and Mills (1992), this model discerns four types of learning: Visual, Auditory, Read/write, and Kinesthetic. The idea is simple: visual learners pick up things faster through visualising them, auditory learners process information best through hearing it, Readers/Writers learn best using pen and paper, and kinesthetic learners fare best with practical processes and applications. Of course, Fleming and Mills point out, most people will have a mixture of these learning styles, with some being more prominent than others. It can also be the case that a student’s learning styles may depend on the context: someone may learn languages better through hearing, whilst studying maths more easily when writing down what they need to learn. According to these theories, finding the right teaching styles for a specific student (and/or subject) may be the solution to their struggles. When a student prefers auditory learning, the best approach will be to talk them through things, conduct spoken discussions and interrogations. When a student needs a more visual approach, they will benefit from visual tools such as charts or graphs, and stimulating images.


The VARK-model, as well as other theories which distinguish different learning types, have received some criticism in the past few decades. Claxton (2008) and Vasquez (2009) have raised the concern, for example, that such theories are at risk of labelling students and restricting their learning. Once a student has been labelled as having a specific learning style, they argue, the student may only respond to certain approaches, and so become a less flexible learner. As Vasquez (2009) puts it, learning styles can thus function as “self-fulfilling prophecies”.


Yet, despite these criticisms, the main idea behind theories like the VARK-model remains valid. At the heart of these theories lies the idea that individual students have individual needs when it comes to learning. Whether or not we can label these needs into four or seven categories is not the point. The point is that we are all different. This may not mean that we should classify students once and for all in a certain category. Nor does it mean we should restrict our range of teaching strategies. What it means, instead, is that teachers should try to figure out which teaching strategies work best for an individual student, and show the student that many different ways of learning are possible. This way, the individual needs of the child are identified and met. Whether or not this happens using a pre-existing model such as VARK doesn’t matter in the end: the teacher may just as well use a trial-and-error approach to find out what works best for the student. All the student may need, for example, is just a slower pace.


In sum, it is undeniable that some approaches are more suited to some students than to others. This is a crucial insight. If we accept that a fish cannot climb the tree, we may feel forced to just accept that it will not flourish in school. When we take this point of view, we may think that the fish is just not made for school. But if we recognise the different learning needs of children, a much more optimistic picture emerges. If the fish receives the right kind of support, it too can climb the tree.


But how can we make this happen? Naturally, it can be difficult for one teacher to accommodate for all the different needs of every student within a class. This brings us to one of the main benefits or private tutoring: valuable time spent with a teacher who can adjust their teaching strategy entirely to the needs of the individual student. A good tutor will identify the needs of the student, and adjust their approach accordingly. Indeed, as the tutor gets to know the student better, they will be able to fine-tune their approach more and more. They may find that for some aspects of the same subject, a different approach works best: a student may remember new vocabulary best when rehearsing words out loud, but understand grammar more easily through writing exercises. The tutor can thus employ a mixture of teaching styles, entirely suited to the needs of the student. And suddenly, climbing the tree may not seem all that daunting.



1 Seminal article: Fleming, N.D. & Mills, C. (1992). ‘Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection’. In To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155.


2 Claxton, G. (2008). What's the point of school?: rediscovering the heart of education. Richmond: Oneworld Publications.


3 Vasquez, K. (2009). ‘Learning styles as self-fulfilling prophecies’. In Gurung, R.A.R.; Prieto, L.R. (eds.). Getting culture: incorporating diversity across the curriculum. Sterling, VA: Stylus, pp. 53–63.

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