The use of the term learner as a synonym for student has grown in popularity among educators in recent years. While the precise origins of this usage are likely impossible to determine, the decision to use learner in place of student may be due to a couple of factors:

  • Learner underscores and reinforces the goal of the educator-student relationship—learning—rather than the respective roles played by students and teachers. Educators tend to use terms such as project-based learning and community-based learning, for example, rather than project-based teaching and community-based teaching—both of which could be considered synonyms. While this preference may seem arbitrary on the surface, it does appear to serve a semantic purpose: learning can occur in the absence of teaching, but teaching doesn’t occur without some form of learning taking place. I.e., learners can learn without teachers, but students are only students when they have teachers.
  • Similarly, learner updates the concept of a student, potentially distancing the term from the characteristics and connotations traditionally associated with the word student: students learn in schools, they sit in classrooms, they are taught by teachers, they are passive recipients of taught knowledge, etc. If the goal is to update traditional conceptions and perceptions of students—e.g., that they can learn both inside and outside of a school or classroom, they can learn independently or from adults who are not classroom teachers, they can take more responsibility over what they learn and how they learn, they can be young children or older adults returning to complete their education, etc.—then distancing the concept from preformed, limiting, or outmoded associations could be useful.

For related discussions, see learning experience, learning environment, learning pathway, and student-centered learning.

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