Let's leave 'learner' tag to the buzzword brigade

18th September 2009 at 01:00
Comment: Sheila Dainton

In nursery they're children, then pupils and, after that, students. Then comes the problem of what to call these people in education with expanding waistlines, silver hair and bags of experience. What label to tie around their necks? Parents? Grandparents? Grown-ups?

In the politically incorrect days of yesteryear we might simply have been called people, but these days that doesn't quite fit. Amid the current fashion for coining original language that leaves the John Humphrys of this world spluttering over their cornflakes, an irritating little word has found its way into our vocabulary. It is called "learners" - and it's everywhere.

So what has happened, and why? No one, it seems, is entirely sure. Some say it is merely a passing fad, others that the word shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning, and yet others that it is the sort of power word that makes a certain type of manager feel important; "me manager, you learner".

Those in the know blame the adult education funding system. In order to satisfy data-gatherers, the so-called "providers" of learning - and that includes everything from 50,000-student supercolleges to the local branch of the Workers' Educational Association - need to "deliver" certain numbers of us learners every year. Straight down the production line. Just like that. Tick the box and plonk. Call me old fashioned but it seems an odd way of going about things that really matter.

As a 60-something who just wants to do her bit to support adult learning and attend the odd class, the thought of being part of a target-driven national delivery programme manipulated by "drivers", "levers" and other management jargon makes me shudder. As the authors of the Nuffield 14-19 review point out, the Orwellian corporate language borrowed from industry that now dominates education only detracts from more important questions: what is education for? Why engage with learning? What does it mean to be human?

As for being dubbed a learner, what is it that grates? Some might call it snobbery but it is more than that. Others suggest it is a middle-class ploy to avoid any obvious links between learning, earning, rolling your sleeves up and getting your hands dirty.

Surely between us we can find a better word - better in the sense that it is more accurate and less patronising - to describe the many thousands of mature adults who enjoy attending classes, studying together, exploring texts, sharing thoughts and ideas, persevering and learning for the sheer joy of it. What is wrong with "students", or even, for that matter, "people"?

Of course, there are more important things to worry about. Decent public funding for so-called "informal" adult education would definitely top the list. But before letting go, we need to remember that the people who continue working their socks off to translate the increasingly hollow rhetoric of lifelong learning into a legitimate reality bring with them a wealth of wisdom, experience and talents. They do not take kindly to the current fashion for Buzzword Bingo, or to the arid, utilitarian language of targets, outputs and performance.

It is time to reclaim the richness and complexity of the language of pedagogy and to re-engage in serious discussions about the nature and purposes of lifelong learning.

  • Sheila Dainton, Branch secretary, Workers' Educational Association (Petersfield).

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