Should We Call them Students, Learners, Eagles, Scholars, Citizens or Something Else?

“When did everyone start calling students learners?” That was the question that came up in a recent conversation with a colleague. This is one of the questions that doesn’t seem exciting or interesting at first. Maybe it is just a shift in word preference, but the more I think about it, the more this question comes to represents important philosophical considerations in schools. In the end, I’m not convinced that our word preference matters, but our “why” behind the word choice definitely makes a difference.

In this essay on the Shrinking Aims of Education, David Labaree wrote:

The idea of education as learning is new. It was certainly absent at the birth of national systems of universal education. The strong consensus view in the history of education is that national systems of schooling arose in the long nineteenth century as part of efforts to establish the nation state (Tyack, 1966; Ramirez & Boli, 1987; Tröhler et al., 2011). The idea was to use schools to turn subjects into citizens, creating a political community by drawing all citizens into a school to provide them with a shared experience and create a level playing field. Learning the formal curriculum was secondary.

But if education is not primarily about academic learning, then what is it about? In addition to the goal of building a nation, consider some of the other outcomes of education that people over the years have found valuable. Most important is that education is the mechanism by which modern societies allocate social positions, making a person’s future status in large part the result of that person’s performance in school. As a result educational systems have become the primary means for both pursuing social opportunity and preserving social advantage. In addition, education can promote a wide array of other ends: personal enlightenment, esthetic pleasure, religious belief, critical thinking, open mindedness, tolerance for others, immersion in a culture, understanding nature, understanding society, figuring out how things work, cultural play, social engagement, personal fulfillment, spiritual growth, and so on. It can open up the world to young people, show them the possibilities for their future lives, and prepare them to construct social roles for themselves. Some of these goals involve learning; some even involve learning the formal curriculum. But most of them arise from the experience of education; from social and cultural exchange with students, teachers, and authors; from a variety of educationally structured activities in and around schools (pp. 8-9).

Following this quote, he cites others and makes the argument himself that a shift from the word “student” to “learner” parallels a change in the perceived narrowing role of school toward helping students reach learning objectives or meet standards. According to Labraree, the term “learning” minimizes the value of everything beyond the formal curriculum and the standards. To this point, the etymology of the word student traces back to the 14th century word “estudiant”, which some translate as as a scholar and one who studies. The word focuses upon being and doing, disposition and process; with a broader scope than “learner.” It is about who you are, not just what you do. Some argue that “learner” reduces the role. By making such a shift, policy makers and others have reduced their accountability efforts to competencies, standards, and learning outcomes. This certainly represents the dominant discourse in common media outlets, professional development efforts in schools, strategic plans from schools and districts, even private and public funding of school improvement efforts. They are zoomed in on measurable learning goals. Even something like “the achievement gap” is largely examined in terms of how one population performs on standards compared to another or a broader population. Less attention is given to the experiences, the school culture, and school life beyond standards, tests, and formal classes. And we see this with budget cuts and priorities as well.

Labaree argues that the use of the word “student” represents a time when “learning from the process of schooling” had greater regard.

…learning from classroom interactions about power and position, leading and following (Jackson, 1968); learning central norms of modern life (such as achievement, individualism, universalism, specificity) from the process of negotiating school routines and age-graded instruction (Dreeben, 1968); and learning from social interaction in groups such as athletic teams, school plays, and debate societies (Brooks, 2011). Even the literature of human capital theory is increasingly attentive to the economic value of such extracurricular learning (Heckman, 2000; Heckman & Rubinstein, 2001), but that element is missing from the accountability vision of education.

Some may well be able to trace the student/learner shift to moments in history when progressivism took hold in education, when fields like instructional technology (the parent field of instructional design) gained attention in schooling, and when behaviorism established deep roots in the modern system. He has a compelling case about reductionism in schools. At the same time, I’m not convinced that the philosophical distinctions between the word “student” and “learner” are as straight-forward as he seems to suggest, especially when we examine other developments and conversations in recent years. Consider the rapid expansion of learning beyond the school walls, amplified by the digital revolution. Consider work focused upon informal learning, peer-to-peer learning, the maker movement, the DIY movement, personal learning networks, lifelong learning, communities of practice, self-directed learning, and unschooling. These are developments in the age of the “learner”, a term often used to place the focus upon what happens with the student…in planned and unplanned settings, formal and informal. In fact, many developments like project-based learning and self-directed learning are pursued in opposition to the reductionism associated with tests and standards. These are movements that largely embrace a vision for education that also resists reducing school to standards and learning outcomes. It is within some of these same realms that we are likely to hear people refer to students as “learners.” Consider, for example, how this author contrasts students and learners in a helpful chart.

From what might be considered a more radical approach, others use a term like “learner” instead of “student” to represent that formal and informal learning experiences are not limited to the walls of a school, a specific school culture and climate controlled (even engineered) for certain desirable ends, or social norms of a traditional school setting. It is a resistance to school climate and culture that, according to critics, too often “produces” complacent, compliant, consumers; a resistance to an industrial age factory model.

We find that some prefer the word “student” in resistance to a reductionist, factory model of schools that places too much importance on producing students who meet the standards, while ignoring other important parts of the student experience. And we find that advocates for the word “learner” use it to champion resistance to some of the same things. Yet, many, like myself, who often use the word “learner” are doing so because we do not accept that the school does or should have a monopoly on the formative experiences, socialization, and development of young or old people. We accept schools as places with rich experiences and formal learning; but we do not accept their uncontested role in society of a citizen factories, gatekeepers of culture and proper socialization, or credentialing police who have the power to make or break a person’s chances of access and opportunity in life and society.

In the end, it matters less whether you call them students, learners, Eagles (like at Acton Academy), scholars, citizens, or just people. What matters is the “why” behind the word, the vision and philosophy for education (not just schooling).