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.