We should stop using the term “learner” because …

Hello, my name is Learner ...

This is one of those standard L&D practices that just never felt right – even when I first got started working as a facilitator and instructional designer. Over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that our use of the term “learner” to describe anyone who engages with L&D stuff actually represents a problem within our industry.

Yes, I know it’s just a word, but simple terminology can carry considerable weight in the workplace. Words establish the tone for the way we interact with the organization. IMO we need to make several adjustments to the language we use within corporate L&D. For now, I’ll just restrict my argument to “learner.”

Here are 5 reasons we should stop using the word “learner” …

“Learner” isn’t used outside L&D …

When we use our own terminology with operational stakeholders and partners, we add a layer of separation – despite our constant desire to get closer to the business and earn the proverbial “seat at the table.” We should align our language with the rest of the organization and reserve industry-specific terms for strategic L&D discussions.

“Learner” signals ownership …

Whenever I hear someone say “our learners,” it sounds like we are expressing ownership over the person – as if they are under our control while they are engaged with L&D resources. Nothing inherently changes about a person when they use a job aid or attend a class, so why should their “title” change?

“Learner” implies they are learning …

This point is similar to those poorly crafted objectives that start with “In this course, you will learn …” No, they won’t necessarily learn anything. They’ll be exposed to information and hopefully challenged to apply improved knowledge and skill. However, we cannot guarantee that learning – an expressly internal and highly individualized process – will actually take place.

“Learner” is yet another label …

Employees already carry unique organizational labels. First, they are “employees.” Depending on your company culture, they may have unique identifiers based on department or role. For example, when I was with Disney, I was a “Cast Member.” With AMC, I was a “Team Member.” Starbucks employees are called “Partners.” Why not use established labels when referring to those interacting with L&D resources?

“Learner” misplaces the focus of our work …

It’s not about learning. It’s about doing. The term “learner” mistakenly puts the focus on the wrong desired outcome of our work. No, we shouldn’t call people “doers,” but we should use our language to keep the focus on performance – not learning.

So what terms can we use instead of “learner.” As I already mentioned, employees often carry organization-specific labels. Otherwise, terms like “participant” (when attending a class) and “user” (when using provided resources) are more accurate and widely-understood. When in doubt, just call people “people.”

What do you think about the term “learner?” Do you believe it delivers the wrong message to those outside L&D? Or am I making a big deal out of nothing? 🙂 

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  • LnDDave

    You’re definitely not making a big deal out of nothing. In the immortal words of George Carlin – “We do think in language … and so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language.”

  • EJ LeBlanc

    I agree with that last sentence, “When in doubt, just call people “people.”

    However, as a former English teacher, I gotta say, would you deny me the right to call those I taught students? I don’t think calling people learners – or even our learners – denotes any sense of ownership. Rather, it denotes a sense of relationship. In the same way, I would not say referring to my parents indicates any sense of ownership over them. But I am their son. Do they have ownership over me?

    Parents and children. Teachers and students. Leaders and followers. None of these indicate ownership. All of these indicate relationships.

    Ideally, these relationships benefit everyone. In the same way, I hope that the people who learn from our instruction, people who participate in our instructional and performance interventions to learn and improve, would not mind being called our learners.

    I close with one last example (nay, two!). I thank you, my readers, for the time you spent reading my words.

    • Great points and thanks for your response! I do believe “student” in an academic setting to be quite different as compared to “learner” in the workplace. There is a definite relationship dynamic as you prove, but I feel we typically overextend that idea with “learner.” What is the foundation of this relationship? When does it begin/end? Are employees really ever not “leaners” while in their roles? L&D tends to exclusively use the term (as opposed to the rest of the operation) and turn the relationship on/off based on limited criteria, thereby reducing accountability within said relationship. That’s why I prefer “participant” and “user” – it explicitly calls out the connection between what is being provided and consumed. Overall, I don’t mean to toil in semantics. But I do think its worth exploring the language we use and how it influences our relationship with and perception of those we support. 🙂

      • EJ LeBlanc

        I think of the term user fondly because of Tron and his user, Flynn. Not everyone thinks that way in programming circles. I recently read a post somewhere that said something to the same effect you’re making here, but about how we shouldn’t use the term “users”.

        I also think fondly of the people using my interventions. I know it’s been nice for me, because I’ve been to literally sit over the shoulder of Coast Guard pilots as they beta tested my e-Learning, and I’ve been able to go fly with people who had been involved with the e-Learning courses I made or daily used the dynamic, xml-based assessment forms I put together with them. I’ve been able to sit in the class where “my learners” told me they used materials and training I helped make in the field to stop bad guys and extract data from mobile devices to put them out of action. And those guys and gals are my learners. This is true even if I’m, most of the time, the nameless nerd behind the curtain working hard to make sure they’re able to do their jobs safely and well.

        You can call the people you’re serving – the people whose needs you are meeting – whatever you want. But I think of the people who take my courses as my learners, and I consider it a privilege to be their instructional designer and developer, whether they know I’m theirs or not.

  • Yes, yes, absolutely yes! But “participant” or “user”? These words have plenty of their own problems too. And more clinically accurate terms like “subject” or “target” have even worse connotations. If we’re gonna make some kind of linguistic pivot, let’s make it clearly better that what we have now. Great post, great topic!

    • Thanks! I will always favor language that aligns with the org culture every day vs specific moments in time.

    • Thanks! I will always favor language that aligns with the org culture every day vs specific moments in time.