Is there a difference between students and learners? This question has been rattling around in my brain for a while now. I began noticing that many people seemed to use the two words interchangeably as if they meant the same thing…but do they really? In looking through dictionary definitions I failed to find any clarity. Students are defined most frequently as people who learn in school. Most dictionaries do not define learner. Instead they direct you to the word learn and by so doing make the connection that learners are ones who learn. All of the definitions gave me the impression that learners and students were the same thing and that the words could be used interchangeably.
For me this just doesn’t feel right. These definitions seem to fall short of capturing the true essence of what students and learners are. So I’m back to my original question with the realisation that the definition needs to come from me and be rooted in my experiences.
In my mind a student is a person who is learning, typically in a formal environment or institution. Students are placed into grade classrooms, assessed and evaluated and moved on through the system one grade after another. When I think of students I think of books, backpacks, desks, rows, and order. Order in the classroom, order in the school, order in the system that is providing the education. Digging into my past experiences as a student in school I have many happy memories. I was a great student. I knew the “stuff” I was told I needed to know. I knew how to be successful because I could easily figure out what teachers wanted from me. I knew the game of school, what the rules were, how to follow them and could easily jump through all of the hoops. I could memorise facts, poems, information, formulae and then recall them for my teachers when asked to do so. I loved tests and exams because they allowed me to show how smart I was and almost always provided me with a chance to shine.
At the start of teaching I realised that I had a problem…my learning as a student was not always helpful. Knowing “stuff” didn’t matter, knowing “stuff” didn’t help the children in class learn it, knowing “stuff” didn’t help me become a better teacher. What I needed to learn was not the “stuff” but how to use it, adapt it, make it my own and more importantly, make it work for my students. From that day forward I needed to become a learner.
Now as a learner I want feedback not grades. I seek out opportunities for collaboration not competition. I am in control of my learning and pursue not only areas of personal passion but also areas where I need to grow to better support the learners in my classroom. This learning is not always orderly, in fact it is often very messy but it empowers me in ways that my learning as a student never did. As a learner my learning is not confined by a building, a time or a preset curriculum - it was set by me. This learning is relevant, authentic, engaging and extremely satisfying.
My inquiry is not over on this topic but I do believe that there IS a difference between being a learner and being a student. This difference appears to lie largely in who is in control of the learning and in the creation of understanding that transcends any one place and time.
A Small Achievement
A few months back we started using language development software (i.e. Rosetta Stone) with our student teachers. They can use this software in their language lab classes but they also have the opportunity to use the software whenever they want. At the start, it seemed students were not taking advantage of this opportunity but today I was happy to see its effect on the language skills of students - especially on those student teachers from rural locations.
In the morning, I had a class of English Language Teaching with the students – a lesson on Phonetics & Phonology. I gave them a chart of consonant & vowels sounds and asked them to pronounce these sound after listening to an audio; they pronounced these sounds without listening to the audio. They made hardly one or two mistakes in reproducing these sounds. They said they had learned all these sounds while working with the language software. In the exercise they had a lot of fun discovering various phonemes within words in order to create new words with the sounds because they were doing it for the first time, but at least they were familiar with the sounds.
A small, but important achievement.
What did you do at the weekend?
Technology presents us with amazing opportunities to re-design the way we teach and learn English. Mobile devices allow me and my learners to interact seamlessly with each other in formal and informal learning contexts. I also have learners from rural areas and they are not as much proficient in English language but somehow they are aware of the usage of mobile technology.
I encourage the students to create a personal visual story about their daily routine. They take a series of snapshots of different moments in their day- e.g., their alarm clock, a toothbrush, a cup of coffee, their walk to the shop….
They describe the actions to me, e.g., I take a shower and get dressed….. Most of the time, it also highlights different aspects of language that require input from my side.
For the next step, I ask them to record themselves speaking English and share it with friends, who can offer feedback. This is a great opportunity to practice pronunciation as well.
Using mobile technology in the classroom has turned the question, “what did you do last weekend?” into a personal story, as students share with other fellows what they did, where they went and how they felt.
Ms. Sumaira Latif
There are many people out there who are struggling to learn a second language. There are obviously a lot of programmes and products that cater to them. As most people embark on their language-learning journey, this very question comes to mind: “Should I learn a language solo or find a classroom/formal education option?” Everyone has a different learning style, some tending to be more well-suited to learn solo and some require more of a classroom setting. Knowing what type of learner you are helps greatly.