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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