Is there a difference between students and learners? This question has been rattling around in my brain for a while now. In fact it started almost 2 years ago when I read this amazing post about learners and students by David Warlick. I began noticing that many people seemed to use the two words interchangeably as if they meant the same thing…but do they really? In looking through dictionary definitions I failed to find any clarity. Students are defined most frequently as people who learn in school. Most dictionaries do not define learner. Instead they direct you to the word learn and by so doing make the connection that learners are ones who learn. All of the definitions gave me the impression that learners and students were the same thing and that the words could be used interchangeably.
For me this just doesn’t feel right. These definitions seem to fall short of capturing the true essence of what students and learners were. So I’m back to my original question. With the realization that the definition needs to come from me and be rooted in my experiences.
What is a student? In my mind a student is a person who is learning, typically in a formal environment or institution. Students are placed into grade alike classrooms, assessed and evaluated and moved on through the system one grade after another. When I think of students I think of books, backpacks, desks, rows, and order. Order in the classroom, order in the school, order in the system that is providing the education.
Digging into my past experiences as a student in school I have many happy memories. I was a great student. I knew the “stuff” I was told I needed to know. I knew how to be successful because I could easily figure out what teachers wanted from me. I knew the game of school, what the rules were, how to follow them and could easily jump through all of the hoops. I could memorize facts, poems, information, formulas and then recall them for my teachers when asked to do so. I loved tests and exams because they allowed me to show how smart I was and almost always provided me with a chance to shine.
When I became a teacher I realized that I had a problem…my learning as a student was not always helpful. Knowing “stuff” didn’t matter, knowing “stuff” didn’t help the children in my class learn it, knowing “stuff” didn’t help me become a better teacher. What I needed to learn was not the “stuff” but how to use it, adapt it, make it my own and more importantly, make it work for my students. From that day forward I needed to become a learner.
What was different? As a learner I wanted feedback not grades. I sought out opportunities for collaboration not competition. I was in control of my learning and pursued not only areas of personal passion but also areas where I needed to grow to better support the learners in my classroom. This learning was not always orderly in fact it was often very messy but it empowered me in ways that my learning as a student never did. As a learner my learning was not confined by a building, a time or a preset curriculum it was set by me. This learning was relevant, authentic, engaging and extremely satisfying.
My inquiry is not over on this topic but I do believe that there IS a difference between being a learner and being a student. This difference appears to lie largely in who is in control of the learning and in the creation of understanding that transcends any one place and time.