Thursday, 10 December 2015

When is a learner not a learner?

Being in the 'learning' world I'm probably as guilty as the next for referring to people as learners, but it's time to set the record straight; learners is a misnomer at best and a wildly inaccurate term we really should stop using.

Firstly there's the theory of pervasive learning much like I shared in my last post (The Accidental Learner) if learning is something that's pervasive or ever present then being a learner is a given, we can easily replace learner with person and we're sorted.  Learners are just people and not a special type just because we label them as such.  If we have a course with people enrolled we tend to call them learners, but actually they're just people on the course, call them students if you will as that's a far more accurate term if we must further define someone on the course.  Call them participants if you must, but learners is a little misleading...

Secondly just because we get people to our learning material that does not guarantee that the desired learning has taken place. Yes yes, I know you're thinking learning objectives and valid testing will do this, but I'm not so sure it does at all.  The vast majority of summative testing is knowledge based (by now you may know of my opinions of knowledge and so we're often testing recall which is not the same as really learning something.  But even testing based on higher levels of taxonomy like synthesis is relative.  The testing takes place, achievement verified, but unless there's an ongoing way of measuring what's occurred, what's been learned for the test may not be 'retained'.  Learning is shaping rather than a discrete and measurable event and we're all learners if you will.

'Learners' with bad attitude are not learning (or at least not learning what we want them to learn).  If a learner with a bad attitude takes part in an activity, chances are they won't get the desired learnings from it.  If someone has an open and positive attitude and takes part in any activity (even one they're not scheduled for) the chances are they will get something from it.

Okay, the crux of the problem is not really the definition of learners but the definition of learning itself.  What is learning materials after all?  We expose people to resources and activities and they complete (or not) those.  A lot of what we do is training, some is education and teaching, a bit of instruction but calling it learning is dependent not on the teacher/trainer/instructor but the 'learner'.  We've become a bit PC with our definitions so we (self-included) tend to lazily opt for learning as a cover all.  If what we do is broadly 'learning' then what people taking part are is broadly 'learners' - but we should recognise that it's lazy, it's an approximation and often wrong. 

But all of that's okay actually.  I can live with learning and learners in their broadest sense, but what really drives me loopy is when we try and sub-categorise that to the nth degree. If we recognise and live with learning and learners as a broad term cool, but if we then invent new categories; self-directed learners, lifelong learners or even competent autonomous lifelong learners (for real today this was used in #pkmchat) to add accuracy to our inaccuracy it becomes silly.  It's like measuring a big distance with a 30cm ruler and then giving the answer to 4 decimal places.  The 'accuracy' is both misleading and... err.. inaccurate.

So people, learn and live, if you must call yourself learners do so (for what else would you be... breathers?) but don't define what type of learner you are beyond that, just recognise that alone is enough of an approximation.

Disagree? Cool, let me know...