Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

Students are People Too: Why Language Matters

An acquaintance who is a former teacher asked me the other day how to shift other people – including educators – toward tolerance for, if not an understanding and appreciation of, how students can benefit from informal, self-directed learning. She wanted one small thing that could help change the attitudes of people in her conversational circles.

So I suggested she look at her use of language and its power to make change.

To illustrate this, I shared with her a quote that’s been going around on social media recently by Sir Ken Robinson from his latest book The Element. He wrote. “…education doesn’t need to be reformed – it needs to be transformed. The key to this transformation is not to standardize education, but to personalize it, to build achievement on discovering the individual talents of each child, to put students in an environment where they want to learn and where they can naturally discover their true passions.”

After a quick read, I agreed with this statement. However, I pointed out to my friend that the wording of the last part of it is actually contradictory to the idea of major change. True transformation in education will not come from having “achievement” as a goal, nor from adults thinking they must create special environments for learning (i.e. schools) and inserting kids into them. Instead, it will involve acknowledging three things:

  • The world itself is a wonderful learning environment.
  • Kids naturally want to learn from birth (until adults bore that natural inclination right out of them).
  • Children don’t need to be coerced to learn if they are in control of the learning agenda, “true passions” or otherwise.

Now, I’m sure Robinson understands all of that. But his words are steeped in an academic brew – a tea that encourages the status quo of schools as babysitters, rather than educational and social transformation.

For instance, both Robinson and my friend used the word “student” when referring to learners. In popular usage, that word reinforces the hierarchy and division of power that is part of the problem with our current systems of education. It also interferes with an understanding of the natural, informal, self-directed exploration and learning that can take place in a school-free environment. So I suggest we consider avoiding the word “student” if we want to participate in educational change making.

Why? The dictionaries variously define “student” as a person who is enrolled in or studying at a school or college or who is studying in order to enter a particular profession. Synonyms include scholar, pupil, undergraduate, graduate, grad student, postdoctoral fellow; refinements include freshman, sophomore, junior, senior.

In some dictionaries, there is a secondary definition of the word “student” as someone who takes an interest in a particular subject. That definition could include informal learning. It could broaden learning past the expert-designed curriculum and toward the general acquisition of skills and insights. But it still separates learners into a group distinct from everyone else who is supposedly either teaching or not learning. We are all learners, all the time.

So I believe that life learners can create real change by using language that broadens people’s ideas about how knowledge is acquired, and that expands the definition of learning beyond instruction in schools.

The late philosopher and social critic Ivan Illich wrote in Deschooling Society, “Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school. Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school. But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools because sound common sense tells us that only children can be taught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to the authority of a schoolteacher.”

When our words help to prove the folly of that institutional “wisdom,” we will be contributing to an understanding that we are all students of life; to a tolerance of informal, self-directed learning; and to a transformation in the way we educate ourselves and our children that goes far beyond motivating students and retooling schools.