Learner vs Student

by Beth Knittle on October 3, 2010

I have been thinking a lot lately about what makes a good student as compared to a good learner.  Are they the same? Can they be the same? Are they inherently different?

From personal experience I was a leaner but not a great student, in middle school and high school.  I gave it my all in the classes I loved and read about those topics outside of school. I learned more then was expected or explained in class.  I still read and learn about science and history.  If it was a subject area I was not crazy about I barely did enough to get by.  That may speak more about my motivation then my learning or student skill set but as I grew older I became much better at following directions and jumping through hoops. As an adolescent, not so much.

As a teacher I had students who were very good at school.  They completed assignments, copied notes, passed tests, and ended up with good grades.  But I am not sure they remembered much beyond the final exam.  It all seemed superficial.  Likewise I had students who hardly ever completed assignments, barely passed tests, could never find their notes and their grades reflected this.  But these same students could hold a lengthy conversation about what we were learning or about things they were learning outside of school such as; computer programming, music, or a foreign language. They were learners but they were not students.

Now I work with adults. I support teachers as they adopt and adapt to new tools (software & hardware) in their classrooms.  I find there are still learners and students.  The learners search for information on how to use the tools, play around with them and experiment in the classroom.  The students wait for a training session or workshop, attend them, complete assignments but there is not a significant change in the use of the tools.  There are always exceptions to this as some get started in the workshop but once exposed to the tools they take off and continue learning on their own.

From a professional development stand point I do not need to worry about the learners.  I need to expose them to the options and guide them to resources.  It is with the students I must focus my attention.  How do I motivate them to continue to use and explore the tools? Is motivation the difference or am I missing something else.  How do we turn good students into learners?

Update: David Warlick has written a post about learners and students, well worth a read.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Kim White October 3, 2010 at 8:01 pm

So well stated!!! As I reflect, I was a student for most of my life. It has only been recently I feel I crossed the threshold and have become a learner. How to help others cross that threshold is a perplexing question, to which I am not sure there is an answer. I have been trying to think of an analogy for this dilemma, and this is the best I could come up with. What is the difference between a chef and a cook? Most of us can cook relatively well. We can follow a recipe and create, with consistency, a very palatable product. There are not as many “chefs” out there. I’m not sure there is a book or course which transforms a cook in to a chef in 12 easy steps. The chef has a “sense” or “feeling” for the correct blend of seasoning and flavors. It is more of a passion, than a skill. At this moment, I feel the same way about students and learners. I am not aware of a 12 step course or program which will turn students in to learners. Learning is more a passion, while being a student is a skill. So to answer your question with a question; can we turn good students into learners?

Sandra Hall November 3, 2010 at 6:25 pm

As I read your post it really had me thinking about my student. I truly believe that with the short time we have to teach the students the curriculum it is like teaching a 12 step program. I think that many of our students really learn only what is necessary to past the test. But I still have faith in educators abilities and the fact that there are a few out there that really enjoy learning. To answer the question can we turn good students in to learners? I not only believe so I know so.

Danielle August 23, 2013 at 3:57 am

As I reflect on this post and the comments, I am thinking about why I too was a student all through my education and why now I feel I am much more of a learner. I think part of the answer is in the 80’s we only had one source of information (well maybe two if you count the TV) but the teacher was the only one that had the knowledge. Today, thanks to technology, if I want to learn about something I can google it. This did not exist and I think that is why we had so many students. Today, schools should be set up to have teachers as learning facilitators and children as learners. Excellent post, thanks for giving me something to think about….

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