Students vs Learners, Dept.

I’ve always been irritated by the term “learner” when the word “student” , in my opinion, would do just fine. I brought this up on Twitter once and received a sharp retort from someone who said “learner” is used in psychology. And knowing that I was firmly in the camp of Kirschner, the Dutch education professor who holds that minimally guided discovery learning does not work, said “Kirschner uses the term”.

So I checked with Kirschner, and indeed he does use the term and told me the following:

“I use “learner” as I do work in formal, informal and nonformal areas. A student is – by definition – a learner in a formal setting. There is a curriculum, there is an intention to learn (we hope) and it is closed with a recognized diploma. In informal settings, the first two are often the case, but the third is not the case. In nonformal (think of a museum, reading the paper) none of the three. As a result, ‘student’ is too specific. That’s often why I also choose instructor above teacher. In Dutch ‘lerende’ en ‘leerkracht’.”

This all makes sense and I have no disagreement with what Prof. Kirschner wrote. My objection to the word “learner” in education dialogues, however, still stands because the language is hijacked to carry with it the ideological baggage of the education progressives and reformers. A TEDx talk by math education professor David Coffey does a better job illustrating this. In his talk, Coffey distinguishes between the two by stating that a “student” relies on the teacher “teaching by telling” rather than constructing his or her own knowledge, is concerned with testing, and holds that the traditional model of teaching is a “maintain” approach, rather than a “sustainable” one, to throw further jargon onto the educational fire.

Group work and project-based learning is key. If you don’t learn from the context of a project, then you are simply memorizing and obtaining a shallow version of knowledge rather than “deep understanding”. The word “learner”, when used in the educationist arena carries with it the typical mischaracterizations of traditional teaching, and promotes the PBL, student-centered, inquiry-based model as superior in every regard.

Having said all that, I hasten to add that there are reform-minded teachers who do an excellent job teaching and maintain a proper and effective balance between traditional and reform modes. But I’m reminded of what math teacher (and my mentor) Vern Williams has said about this:

“I have always stated that if a reform minded teacher produces competent, intellectually passionate students, they will absolutely escape any criticism on my part. But the opposite seems never to occur. Regardless of stellar results, the traditional teacher will always be criticized for being a self centered sage on the stage, controlling student learning and running a draconian classroom. Their students may be the happiest most accomplished students of all time but the teacher will never be good and pure until they cross over to the reform side.”

All that said, I will continue to use the word students when I mean students.


8 thoughts on “Students vs Learners, Dept.

  1. It seems the more the progressives like to change things, their intentions carry even more labels and definitions that they try to impress upon their audience, leading to a much narrower thought process. So what would the educationists prefer we call kids that are learning soccer? Or baseball? No longer called “players”, are they also called “learners”? And should we also insist on learning type behaviours on the field where coaches now stand on the sidelines, observing group interaction, so kids can figure it out themselves, rather than let the coach teach them? Or lead them? Better yet, why not do that in the pool? The “learners” can just jump right in along one another, and figure out how to swim in a group format, rather than obtain explicit, direct instruction from the trained swim coach…you know, the one who spent hundreds of hours learning specific skills, so they could actually teach something.

    This whole business about teachers being lifelong learners and being passionate about their job…as a parent I really don’t care about any of that. My only concern is that you educate my kids. That is why I pay my taxes – to fund a system that is SUPPOSED to work. Passionate or not, just do your job. As for the revolving door of definitions and labels, I can’t keep up. But after a lifetime of being called all sorts of names, I can assure you the one thing that is abundantly clear to me, is that we need very strong one on one guidance in the classroom, or in the workplace, if we are ever going to learn anything significant.

    Just my two cents.


  2. I totally agree with you. Learner, in the context of a formal education system, seems to imply that student driven/student centred education is the best approach. This is a rather bizarre concept when there are 30 learners, who are required by law to be there, and 1 adult ostensibly organizing/facilitating the learning.
    The use of learner in a completely self-directed fashion and in an informal setting is fine.
    This endless talk of students as ‘learners’ and teachers as ‘learners’ smacks of ‘group-think’ and is phoney, jargon and inaccurate.


  3. In our full inclusion K-6 school, they started calling what they do (or don’t do) differentiated learning rather than differentiated instruction. They want to define teaching as a process that works automatically, as in “trust the spiral” or trust the engagement. They seem to think that all they have to do is to lead the horse to the water. Then again, it’s less than that. They want students to struggle and to develop grit, so they make things difficult on purpose. “Find the water!” They “facilitate” the process but that often means putting the students in charge (of bad direct teaching) and becoming potted plants on the side. Meanwhile, the academic gap grows with parents and tutors doing real teaching and ensuring results. Direct teaching happens in most high schools, so what’s different in K-6?

    This educational fuzziness is now their only turf (not like English, biology, or math in high school) and ironically, they are all taught this directly and learn it by rote. How many times have we heard the rote nugget that traditional math (which they don’t understand) just teaches rote algorithms that don’t include any understanding. This argument has now evolved into the cute use of “math zombies” who apparently can get good grades without any level of understanding. We never see any proof that a top-down, conceptual understanding/inductive approach does a better job – even given the extra time needed for their slow and tedious approach that can only cover a few topics. We never hear about how the rest of the topics get covered. Is this supposed to be best process for students who did not do well in K-6? Rather than fix a systemic problem in K-6 education, we get poor solutions by teachers who think the problem is defined by what walks into their classroom. If the process is supposed to work automatically (research shows), then don’t look at the teachers or curricula or assumptions for the problem. Just force the tracking out of the school, point to those students as successes, and then blame the rest on parents, poverty, peers, and IQ. And then they fight against urban parents who want to send their kids to choice schools that set higher individual expectations and don’t trust the spiral. The public schools will lose all of the students who cover their pedagogical asses. Yes, let’s move public education into the 21st century by breaking the stranglehold of the monopoly.


  4. I think that some of our K-6 school’s “slight” improvements over the last 12 years have to do with a takeoff of state testing. It forced them to accept some sort of responsibility. It’s not that the testing set high standards. It was more that the slight improvements were easy to get, even with Everyday Math. However, the goal of education is not the incremental raising of some below proficient overall mean score when there is a systemic problem. It’s to provide the maximum educational opportunities for individuals. CCSS institutionalizes this failure by officially defining K-6 as a NO STEM zone where PARCC defines their top level “distinguished” as a 75 percent chance of passing college algebra – no remediation. This goal officially starts in Kindergarten. Their incompetent solution is to claim that students can take summer math classes or double up math in high school. That completely lets K-8 schools off the hook and allows many schools to claim that algebra in 8th grade is not really necessary. Meanwhile, the skills and knowledge tracking goes on hidden at home and allows educational pedagogues to feel warm and fuzzy when they point to those students as successes. This is the meme that I began to get when my son was in K-6 – that parents were supposed to be teacher helpers and not just “turn off the TV and model a love of learning.” The very simple solution is to ask the parents of all of the 8th grade algebra students how they helped at home and with tutors.

    In music, students have band and chorus at school, but many also have private lesson teachers who do the hard work of pushing and developing basic skills, tone and knowledge starting from about 5th grade. Those students fill the first chairs and All-State groups. Our state’s public school music teachers (part of MENC) hold a Solo and Ensemble Recital each year that auditions and selects the top 14 performers. When they first started, they listed the high school (MENC) teacher next to the name of the performer. This was soon replaced by the name of the school and the name of the private lesson teacher. They are the reason why those students got there and they ALL had private lesson teachers. If you look at El Sistema in Venezuela, you will see that ALL kids can get private music lessons starting from the earliest grades. They all have the same teaching and opportunities to audition for the regional and state orchestras. They have proven over about 40 years that they can take kids from the barrios to Carnegie Hall and the BBC Proms in one generation – less than 20 years. Too many educators in the US think that this is at least a two-generational process. They just hope that little Urban Suzie can be the first in their family to get to the local community college with no remediation even though she might have the brains and drive to get into MIT. El Sistema could work for any subject. The key is that it offers real differentiation and the support to develop individual skills and knowledge starting at the pre-school level. It’s not so much that traditional K-6 education in the US was so great. It was that modern educational pedagogues went in the completely wrong direction. They just don’t get it. Mastery of skills and content knowledge forms the base for everything. They are not just “mere” and “superficial.” There is no magic top-down engagement, student led, and inductive road to success. Unfortunately, it’s all that K-6 educators are directly taught.


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