Cultivating Learners

Is your class roster full of students or learners? Is there a difference? Yes, and a critical one. For me, “student” is mostly a title, often associated with a young person, most frequently in a classroom setting. It designates the individual as an attendee of a school rather than an employee. One doesn’t have to do anything to be a student.  If a person listed on the roster shows up, but does nothing, that person is still a student. Likewise, if a teacher does not plan lessons that engage that person and motivate him or her to actively participate, that person is still a student in the class. And even if one participates in some way, that person may still be a “student” but not truly a learner. We often see “students” who view the content as a grade to be achieved rather than concepts to be understood and applied within and beyond the classroom. They measure their success through point totals and GPA rather than through evidence that they are able to engage in authentic and purposeful use of the content and skills.

I think that as educators, we are striving for learners. Being a learner requires more active involvement and engagement in the subject matter from both the teacher and the learner. A learner has no age and no singular place of learning. A learner actively seeks knowledge and the means to act upon it, within and beyond the classroom. Students have a set curriculum and the goal is typically a score or letter grade. Learners may or may not also set one goal as a specific grade, but they go beyond that to make broad, interdisciplinary connections and actively seek more information or other means to practice and develop their skills. Learners accept that it is possible to learn from failure and improve their understanding and skills; students merely accept the “failure” and hope the content won’t come back again later.

When it comes to languages, learners acquire and use language meaningfully rather than limit themselves to memorizing vocabulary lists and verb forms. As a result of experiences that provide opportunities to examine the products, practices and perspectives of peoples of the world, learners move past generalizations and stereotypes to build and exhibit true interculturality.

In considering the characteristics above, the distinction between students and learners isn’t just important for the learners. It is critical for the teachers as well. In order to design instruction for learners, teachers must shift their practices so that their learning experiences allow learners to seek knowledge, go beyond the confines of the scheduled content area (and the classroom walls) to seek, make and understand connections and implications, and to use their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. Seeing the individuals in our classes as learners rather than students can help educators refine the learning experiences they design and implement so that they require learning rather than the passivity and complacence sometimes associated with being a student. 

Sadly, I haven’t quite found the answer for how to accomplish all of this. As I continue my 23rd year in education, here are some shifts I have seen in my own practice that I think are headed in the right direction, even if I am not “there” yet (have I mentioned that I’m not the teacher I want to be when I grow up?).

  • Focus on learning rather than grades. Learners demonstrate proficiency with the content or they don’t. And if they don’t, they are able to get support, complete additional practice and re-assess when their knowledge and skills have improved.
  • Remember that less is more. Using the proficiency guidelines outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012), I came to realize that my learners don’t need all of the elements of language that are proposed in many curriculum materials for learners each year. Using the proficiency guidelines as my roadmap, I honed in on what is essential for novice learners vs. intermediate learners, and adjusted what we explore, learn, practice and evaluate at each level to better correspond with what one can realistically expect of novice and intermediate users of the language. I “teach” far less than I used to, but my learners are communicating more effectively, with more people around the world, and on a broader range of topics.
  • Increase the focus on and use of authentic materials so that learners see the relevance of the work we are doing. Authentic materials can also be very motivating because learners can see that they are making progress in understanding the language. Such materials also provide great, contextualized and culturally authentic models that inform learners when they themselves begin to produce language.
  • Get beyond the book and the “curriculum” and immerse your learners in the content. Try BreakoutEDU. Do a Google Expedition with virtual reality viewers (find a list of available Expeditions here). Design a multi-media lesson rich in authentic materials using a tool such as TES Blendspace and then share a link to that lesson to native speakers so they can interact with your learners through the “commenting” feature. Invite guest speakers into your class in-person or via Skype. Or do a “Mystery Skype” (or a Mystery Google+ Hangout) with your students and a class somewhere else in the world.
  • Teach and assess for communication, not points. It doesn’t matter how many points a student has earned in course. What matters is whether or not the learner can actually use the language. Understanding this will automatically shift how we teach, how learners practice, what and how we assess, and how we provide feedback and eventually grades. I’m not interested in creating students who earned enough “points” to get an “A” in my course but can’t use the language…and we have all seen situations in our careers where this happens. Some teachers assign points for behaviors that have nothing to do with applied skills or knowledge: extra credit for bringing in Kleenex, points for practice activities that may or may not have been copied, etc. If someone earns an “A” in a language class, that person, and the community, have the right to expect that he or she can actually function well in the language, as appropriate for his/her level of proficiency. When someone has an “A” and can’t demonstrate the established learning targets for the level of language completed (or of any content area, for that matter), it is actually unfair to everyone, but particularly unfair to the learner, who has been set up to fail in the “real world” when others call on them to use the skills for which they theoretically earned an A. 

One final note as I continue to refine my own understanding of the distinction between students and learners: I try not to plan lessons. I prefer to focus on designing learning experiences. For me, that lens puts the emphasis on learning and the learners and helps me design for active engagement and authentic application of language and skills rather than covering the curriculum.

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