There is a distinct difference between the terms student and learner, and it goes much deeper than a simple vocabulary exercise.
Redefining “learner” requires a shift in attitude on the part of all of us in education. Teachers, especially, must recognize this difference and make adjustments in their classrooms to help create a community of learners.
A number of characteristics set learners apart from students. The more you understand these characteristics, the more you can move away from the confining classroom systems and settings that only work for students, and create places that better nurture the learner.
Learners are self-directed
The problem with students, when they are presented with a system or curriculum, is that they only have two options: comply or rebel. They either go along with the structure that has been placed around and in front of them, or they fight it–and mark themselves as “failures” in the eyes of those who created the system.
The learner can do neither. When you create your own path to achieve your own goals, there is nothing to comply to, nor is there anything to rebel against. Certainly, there is success and failure, but any failures lead to adjustments and reflection. The responsibility for the learner’s path falls on the individual’s shoulders, not on a broken system.
Learners are unrestricted
“Student” is a far-too-confining term. Being a student happens in a school setting, during a school day, with all the other limits that schooling has. The activities for a student happen in school. Even most so-called “field trips” are just school transported on a bus somewhere else. And homework? Most of it is just school work sent home because we ran out of time in school.
Learners, on the other hand, aren’t confined by a bell schedule. Learning goes with them where they go. Yes, technology has made this much easier in the past few years. But more important are the skills and attitudes that learners haul around with them.
Being curious, asking questions, tinkering and making, persevering, reflecting. These characteristics need to be encouraged and nurtured by educators–in the classroom and at a system-level–to finally get our young people to become that overused mission statement phrase: lifelong learner.
Learners are self-motivated
So many of our students have figured out how to play the game of school. They jostle and strategize their way to the golden grade point and the set of letter grade badges so they can unlock the next achievement in the game (the next grade level, a diploma, a scholarship, etc). And the criteria for those earned points or grades were largely handed to them by someone else. In playing the game, students are completely motivated by outside factors.
Learners, though, are propelled by what stirs them from within. They play off their own learning styles and their interests to experience the world. They are guided to set their own benchmarks and have a vision for themselves, and draw a map for how to get there.
Educators are often threatened by this idea because it sounds like a teacher-less setting. Quite the contrary. Teachers, as the “most experienced learners” in the classroom, need to guide, encourage, cajole, and re-direct learners as they move forward on their individual path. As a matter of fact, it is the essential teacher who helps the learner understand their own learning style, guides the individual in creating their own learning path, points the learner to the right resources for exploration and inquiry, and teaches and models how to self-assess and reflect.
Of course, creating such an environment for learners is not an easy task, with all the mandates, movements, and testing that crowds into a classroom. Yet, it is imperative to move past all that to prepare our young people to continue learning, long after they leave school.
How can educators, with all the outside influences, create an atmosphere in their classroom that encourages and nurtures learners?