There’s a trend I’ve noticed in education. Maybe you’ve noticed it too. Teachers are no longer teaching “students.” They suddenly find themselves teaching “learners.” What’s more, with this shift, many teachers find they aren’t even teachers any more, but have taken on the new title of “educators.”
Many times, it is easier to change what we call something and then point to it as innovation than it is to change what we do. One major issue with calling students “learners” one day and keeping them in the same classrooms with the same people doing the same things they were doing the day before is the ease with which the title change can be conflated with a change in what is actually going on. I could insist that people start calling me a male model tomorrow, but this would do little to attract the attention of agents, magazines, etc., if I didn’t also change how I live my life and what I deem important.
Such is the case with calling all people enrolled in a class “learners.” It’s aspirational, and that’s admirable, but changing what you call a thing means nothing if you don’t also change the way you do that thing. What’s more, changing what you call the thing can often mean a loss in urgency regarding changing how you do the thing.
Learning, on the other hand must be non-negotiable. It’s subtle difference, but a key one.
I don’t care if our students are learners, so long as our students are learning.
The latter is more difficult to put hands on, perhaps this is why we’ve settled for the shift in name and decided to qualify the earning of that name with passing scores on exams of questionable worth regarding how appropriate the name might be.
It seems to me, the better questions come from teachers asking themselves, “Are my students learning?” and following that question with, “How can I tell?”
Building on that, the best schools and teachers are the ones that help students ask, “Am I learning?” and following that question with “What am I learning, and how can I use it?” Exceptional schools move out of the way so that students can inform teachers’ professional practice through the identification of what they’re curious about and what they’d like to create.
These questions prove to be difficult because they bring with them the possibility of negative answers. Both teacher and student is liable to answer, “no” at any stage of the game. Such answers are invaluable and frustratingly so. They represent the necessity of re-evaluating what we’ve been doing, asking what isn’t working, and then building something new with the knowledge we might need to go through this whole process time and again as we move toward learning.
Calling a student a “learner,” represents no such problems. It’s hard to imagine a case in which a person would reject the label no matter the presence or absence of proof of its fit. Walk in to any classroom and ask a student, “Are you learning?” and you’re likely to get myriad responses. Ask that same student, “Are you a learner?” and it’s much more likely you’ll be answered in the affirmative.
Still, the schools we need are not schools where students proudly introduce themselves as learners to those passing through, but they are schools where those passing through have no doubt that the work, play, and creation they see are acts of learning.