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 a “seat at the table.” We should align our language with the rest of the organization and reserve industry-specific terms for internal L&D discussions.
“Learner” signals ownership.
Saying “our learners” makes it sound like L&D is expressing ownership over people – as if they are under our control while they are engaged with our 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 …” We have no control over if they will learn or not. Yes, they’ll be exposed to information and hopefully challenged to apply their 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. Depending on your company culture, they may have 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 just use established labels when referring to people interacting with L&D (or any other) resources?
“Learner” misplaces the focus of our work.
It’s not about learning. It’s about doing. It’s about impact. 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 “attendee” (when attending a class) and “user” (when using provided resources) are more accurate and widely-understood. But, when in doubt, how about we 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? 🙂
JD Dillon is one of the most prolific authors and speakers in workplace learning today. He has spent 20 years designing learning and performance strategies for respected global organizations, including The Walt Disney Company, Kaplan, Brambles, and AMC Theatres. JD is the founder of LearnGeek and Chief Learning Architect with Axonify.