Monday, April 22, 2013

Learners NOT Students!

All of us are learners. Think about it. We were born curious and open to learning or we wouldn't walk or talk. It's just how each of us were made. Learning is part of us. We were not born students
-- we were born learners. Our first experiences of learning were through play and discovery.

The term "student" was first defined in the middle ages. 
1350-1400 - Middle English, alteration (influenced by Latin studre, to study) of studient, studiant, from Old French estudiant, one who studies, from present participle of estudier, to study, from Medieval Latin studire, from Latin studium, study.]

This is the 21st century not the Middle Ages. Learning is happening anytime, anywhere by anyone. Consider now that we are able to learn in different ways through different mediums with the expanded use of mobile devices.

Rethink what the term "student" implies.

All the references to student that we could find represent someone who studies or is being taught as part of an institution.

A student is someone who is learning when they  attend an educational institution. In some nations, the English term is reserved for those who attend university, while a school child under the age of eighteen is called a pupil in English (or an equivalent in other languages), although in the United States a person enrolled in grades K-12 is often called a student.Wikipedia's Definition

 In the Free Online Dictionary, student means:

1.  One who is enrolled or attends classes at a school, college, or university.
a. One who studies something: a student of contemporary dance.
b. An attentive observer: a student of world affairs.

How about calling students, "learners?" 

We would like to shake things up.  If you consider anyone who is learning at any age and anywhere a "learner," then you give the responsibility for the learning to the learner. Since the institution or anyone who is teaching students are accountable for the learning -- not the learners. That means the teachers are responsible for what the "students" learn. Doesn't this seem backwards?

Where is the incentive and motivation to learn if all the responsibility is on the teacher? Students don't own what they are supposed to learn. If you change the thinking behind the terms, then using the term "learners" makes more sense.

Think about yourself as a learner in and outside of school. Are you a student or a learner? If you interact with people, go outside, open a book, you might be learning something new. You are learning. You are self-directing that learning. You are a learner not a student.  Let's compare the terms:

A student...
  • learns in a classroom.
  • is assigned a task to do.
  • follows required objectives.
  • does the assignment designed by the teacher or curriculum.
  • seeks information for the assignment.
  • works individually or in a group depending on assignment.
  • earns a grade to reflect that they met the objectives and standards.

A learner...
  • develops their own learning goals.
  • monitors their progress in meeting their goals.
  • has a purpose or interest to learn something.
  • asks questions.
  • seeks information.
  • finds ways to collaborate with others.
  • wants to know something because they want to know it -- not for a grade.
  • is curious about life and never stops learning.

Here is a video illustrating the difference between a "student" and a "learner" titled "Student/Learner 1.0: "The Housewarming" produced by The Council on 21st Century Learning (

What do you think of the term "learner"?  What other ways would you describe a learner?

1 comment:

  1. Hi @plearnchat,

    I recently defended my MA thesis in education policy studies at the Centre for Cross Faculty Inquiry in Education, University of British Columbia. The main focus of my research was constructions of 'good teachers' and 'good teaching' in BC's '21st-century learning' (21CL) policy agenda ( In summary, I found that BC’s vision of 21CL masks a managerialist attack on teachers' work, and is best understood as a vehicle for aggravating a democratic deficit in education policy.

    With that said, @plearnchat, I feel compelled to challenge a few of the very problematic agendas that appear to be lurking within and beneath your post.

    To begin, I think it worth drawing attention to an inaccurate contextualization of ‘student.’ In the post above @plearnchat states:

    /A student is someone who is learning when they  attend an educational institution./

    This is categorically untrue. The etymology of ‘student’ might be more helpful than a free dictionary: A ‘student’ is ‘one who studies’. In other words, a student is a subject in relation with a teacher, and a teacher is a subject in relation with a student. Neither students nor teachers are limited to educational institutions. Many teachers aren’t even people. And many students have never attended any educational institution. I would suggest that this mistaken notion of ‘student’ provides a basis for misconstruing the purpose and design of public schooling.

    In my thesis I focus a great deal on learnification—the translation of all there is to know and say about teachers’ work into discourses of learning and learners. To explain in brief, learning is an individualistic concept, but the concept of education “always implies a relationship: someone educating someone else and the person educating thus having a certain sense of what the purpose of his or her activities is.” To further distinguish between learning and education, “one could say that the general aim of educational activities is that people will learn from them. But that doesn’t make education into learning; it simply says that learning is the intended outcome of educational processes and practices.” Learning is a “process term,” which is to say that it “denotes processes and activities but is open—if not empty—with regard to content and direction.” A consequence of learnification is that it becomes “difficult to articulate the fact that education is about relationships, and more specifically about relationships between teachers and students … [and] this helps to explain why the rise of the new language of learning has made it more difficult to ask questions about content, purpose and direction of education.”

    To further illustrate the toxic effects of learnification, it is helpful to highlight and contrast the relational character of ‘education’ and ‘students’ with ‘learning’ and ‘learners’. As Gert Biesta has powerfully argued, education is built on nested relationships and democratic values. Discourses of learnification, in contrast, are built on the consumptive practices of individuals – this is why learnification is so readily accommodated within neoliberal policy agendas (e.g., C21 Canada, Partnership for 21st Century Skills, etc.).

    Given these points, I feel compelled to categorically disagree with @plearnchat’s individualistic agenda and encourage educationists to affirm a social justice agenda while challenging and resisting any and all attempts to transform and commodify education as learnification.

    Tobey Steeves
    Twitter: @symphily


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