Are they Students or are they Learners?

Art they being students or learners?

Flickr photo by Taro416

A while back I spent the day working with a group of about 150 educators who’d been brought together by one of their state’s regional service centers. I find it a particularly cruel thing to do, forcing a group of adults to spend six-hours paying attention to one person. So on this day, I decided to break things up a bit — and model an element of one of my ongoing messages, teaching in order to make yourself obsolete. I decided to by facilitating a discussion activity that I’d seen once and recently read about, but can’t recall the name of right now. The activity involved a continually shifting panel of experts from the audience, who could only answer questions, and members of the audience, who could only ask questions. I inserted my two cents worth only when I simply couldn’t help myself.

Out of that conversation came a goodly and completely predictable amount of push back. It was along the lines of, “I agree with everything that David is saying, and believe that this is where we need to be, but…” The “buts” were the typical barriers to retooling classrooms, including, but not limited to government testing, government testing, and government testing. But another area of concern that surfaced more than once was a reluctance to trust their students to take advantage of the tools and opportunities for learning that I was suggesting and demonstrating. There is a belief that students are lazy, intrinsically unmotivated, and willing only to use these empowering tools for shortcuts.

I’ve been noodling over this, trying to figure out the nature of this reluctance that the teachers and principals were referring to and the nature of their perceptions. Equally important is coming up with a language to describe the problem. What surfaced in my own thinking was that educators continue to think of their charges as students, rather than thinking of them as learners.

I spend a lot of time, these days, talking and writing about how we are asking teachers to redefine what it means to be a teacher — and, in all fairness, how difficult that is. I try to present myself as a master learner, suggesting that part of what teachers should be, today, is constant and resourceful learners — master learners. But perhaps a significant part of this exercise in redefinition should involve our students — an explicit remolding of perceptions of these youngsters, in order to fully shift the relationship between student and teacher, learner and master learner.

So let me see if I can distinguish between these notions of students and learners.


Relationship with educators
Students are employees, expected to obediently follow instructions.
Learners are citizens with a vested interest in the learning society.
Relationship with other “Students”
Students are competitors
Learners are collaborators
Obligation: Students are culturally obliged to work for the teacher & for compensation (below)
Responsibility: Learners are motivated by an understood and realized “value” in their work, especially when it is valuable to others.
Institution-defined grades and gateways to college (another institution) and a good job (another institution)
A sense of ongoing accomplishment that is not delivered but earned, and not symbolic but tangible and valuable — an investment.
Mode of Operation
Compliant, group-disciplined, objective-oriented, and trainable
Persevering, self-disciplined, group-, goal-and product-oriented, resourceful, and learning in order to produce and accomplish rather than simply achieving learning.
..with packaged knowledge and tools for recording packaged knowledge — prescribed and paced learning
..with tools for exploring a networked variety of content, experimenting with that content, and discovering, concluding, and constructing knowledge — self-invented learning
Measuring what has been learned.
Measuring what the learner can do with what has been learned.

One of the problems that I struggled with, as I was writing and ordering these qualities was that I wanted to put assessment, for the student, at the top of the list — and assessment, for the learner, at the bottom. For the student, assessment is king, in very much the same way that quality control is such a critical part of the manufacturing processes. But assessment, for learners, is much less obvious, and at the same time, it is much more integral to the learning. Assessment for classrooms of learners is the enormous amounts of qualitative data that is collected by the teacher (and other students) on a minute-by-minute bases.

Assessment is also, and this is what I find most interesting, not a “right” or a “wrong” — a check (?) or an X. It is a simple self-asked question, “Did that work?”


Author: David Warlick

David Warlick has been an educator for the past 40+ years. He continues to do some writing, but is mostly seeking his next intersect between play, passion and purpose, dabbling in photography, drone videography and music production.