Approaches_Others_Variation Theory

Variation Theory


Marton and Booth’s Theory of Variation (1997) is drawn from the phenomenographical research tradition. According to Marton’s Theory of Variation, discernment of critical features occurs under systematic interaction between a learner and the thing to be learnt, and variation is the agent that generates such interaction (Marton, Runesson, & Tsui, 2004)


Phenomenography argues that individuals understand phenomena in the world differently because experience is always partial.

– each way of experiencing or understanding may be understood as part of a larger whole, the collective sum of ways of experiencing

– different ways of experiencing a phenomenon may be understood in terms of which aspects or features of the phenomenon are discerned, and not discerned, in people’s awareness of it.  

(Marton and Booth, 1997)


This requires teachers to engage closely with their students to grasp the variations in understandings and knowledge so they can take account of this diversity in structuring the learning activities in a lesson (Marton & Tsui, 2004).


Variation, therefore, is a primary factor in encouraging student learning.

– uncover the variations in an experience, and describes these variations as a finite set of categories

– identify ways to encourage students to discern another aspect of the information searching experience, an aspect they have previously not discerned

– structure the learning environment to ensure students experience the variations of the information searching experience


Variation theory sees learning as the ability to discern different features or aspects of what is being learned. It postulates that the conception one forms about something or how something is understood is related to the aspects of the object one notices and focuses on.


Classroom Implication and Teaching Strategies

The application of the Theory of Variation has become increasingly popular in Lesson Studies.


Variation theory argues that the most effective way to help students understand a concept is to focus on providing opportunities for students to experience variation in the features of the concept that they currently take for granted (Marton and Tsui, 2004).


Marton and Tsui (2004) specify four patterns of variation were proposed: contrast, generalization, separation and fusion. They form the kernel for discernment under variation.


–          Contrast is to discern whether something satisfies a certain condition or not, that is, whether something “is” or “isn’t”.

–          Contrast seeks to distinguish different and unlike things.


–          Separation is the awareness of critical features and/or dimensions of variation.

–          A dimension of variation is an emerging feature of a phenomenon which can take on different “values” while some aspects of the phenomenon are varying;

–          Separation is an awareness of part-whole relationship awakened by a systematic refined contrast obtained by purposely varying or not varying certain aspects aiming to differentiate the invariant parts from a whole.


–          Generalization is a variation interaction that is inductive in nature.

–          When the same invariant pattern appears in different situations under contrast and separation, this pattern may be de-contextualized.

–          Generalization is a purposeful contrast to explore whether an observed pattern can occur while certain aspects vary.


–          Fusion integrates critical features or dimensions of variation into a whole under simultaneous co-variation.

–          By fusing the separated-out critical features or dimensions of variation together, a whole concept may appear.


Key Works

Marton, F. & Booth, S. (1997) Learning and Awareness. New Jersey, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Marton, F. & Tsui, A. B. M. (2004). Classroom discourse and the space of learning, Mahwah, NJ, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates

Ling, L. M., & Marton, F. (2011). Towards a science of the art of teaching: Using variation theory as a guiding principle of pedagogical design. International Journal for Lesson and Learning Studies, 1(1), 7-22.