“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

A bit of an obvious quote but there you go. Names for things and people are fabulously powerful. There are certain terms for parts of society, for example, which if said or written (and no I’m not going to, not least because when linguists do put taboo words in things it’s mostly to make you sit up in shock) can lead to at the least a slightly disdainful look, or indeed rejection from polite society. Names are complex powerful social constructs which do lots of things. A simple one – my own name, Samuel (or at least that’s what the passport says), means something like God has heard, or at least it meant that in Hebrew. Now it’s just a name. My parents weren’t thinking of old testament prophets when I was born. It was just a name. I loathe my full name. Ghastly, makes you think of dependable old servants and the like. Sam is safe and normal.

Anyway, names. What do you call yourself? What’s your job. Gap fill exercise: “Hello, my name is … and I’m a ….”

Odds on you said teacher. Perhaps you toyed with practitioner or perhaps educator. But you would probably default to teacher.

So who else is in the room when you do your job? Gap fill part 2: “I taught a lovely group of … today.”

My money would be on student if you teach adults or teenagers, pupil if you teach kids, and learner if you were being very good and professional and call yourself a practitioner. This came up today at a presentation by one of our senior management team. During the formal, rehearsed part of the session he referred dutifully to learners. Then during the discussion that followed, he switched to students. Interesting stuff.

The thing is that learner suggests that they are learning regardless of the study and work involved, whereas student suggests hard work but with optional learning. The two things are not aspects of the same – you can study without learning (anyone done any health & safety training recently?) and you can learn without studying (the vast majority of language learners throughout history). The other thing is he switched from on to the other, suggesting that while he was delivering the pre-prepared speech, then he used the term learner as this is the done thing. I know this, I consciously have to make the effort to refer to learners in certain company. But as soon as he was thinking on his feet it was time to refer to student.

Now, this is not a criticism. At all. I was generally quite impressed, if anything. In fact, if you thought it was being detrimental to use the word student then I think that you are the one with the problem. My comment was just an observation about how we consciously have to rephrase out words according to fashion and fads. There is a whole other discussion about how and why terms become taboo, and this is a sort of distant cousin of that discussion. And actually I think the distinction between learner and student is interesting, although using the term student shouldn’t be frowned upon, as if they are in your class they are studying and therefore students. In fact I might even go so far as to say that studying is a much higher likelihood than learning. The word learner has caught on basically because it rather smugly says “I am but a facilitator of the learning process” whether that is true or not.

So what about teacher then? The definition would be “one who teaches” surely? So why the aversion to the term? I don’t mind it, not at all. Perhaps it brings back memories of Pink Floyd songs, mortar boards, the cane and detention. Perhaps not. Maybe the issue is around the verb “teach”. It’s an interesting verb, being intransitive, transitive and ditransitive (I teach; I teach English; I teach people English.) It comes laden with no end of negative perceptions, that it represents a model of education which sees the learner as an empty vessel into which new knowledge is poured by the bearer of that knowledge, rather than a model which sees the learner as an equal partner in the learning process, and one who brings their own experiences and life into the classroom, into which system is integrated whatever it is they are learning.

Perhaps it does. Perhaps teach is a bad word. But then educate is pretty much the same word but in Latin. It has the same connotations and relationships as well, including the Pink Floyd song. So an educator is just a teacher in a toga. Learning facilitator frankly makes me want to hit someone with a brick, as it sounds like someone has just swallowed a years’ worth of management training manuals. And the idea of “facilitating learning” suggests not that the process is equal partners with the learner and the teacher working in tandem, but rather that the teacher is in some way subservient to the learner. There are some who would say that the teacher should be subservient to the learning, perhaps, and that’s a very interesting discussion, for which I don’t have time now.

Then there is the word practitioner. For the first time I’ve sussed out what I don’t like about this word, and here it is: what is it you are practising? The answer takes us back two paragraphs to the discussion around teach and educate. So you practise teaching. So why not just call yourself a teacher? Claim the word back, as have many other social groupings for terms which some find derogatory, and realise that teaching is a vast, complex and wonderful process and learning happens as a result of this wonderful process. The term practitioner and especially skills for life practitioner (what? You practise Skills for Life? I should bloody hope so, Ms ESOL teacher) are just fudges used when we feel uncomfortable with the word teacher.

Trainer  is an interesting option – I know I use it mainly because the term teacher teacher sounds weird, although I have said that I teach teachers before. To refer to your students as trainees is somehow more comfortable, especially when several of them are your colleagues, and learner suggests a particular power relationship which you would specifically not want to have with your colleagues.

There’s the rub, of course. These terms, like so many others, are laden with decades and centuries of associations, connotations and so on which give the words power. But the problem is not the word, it’s what society sticks on that word. What we must do then is call ourselves teachers, but redefine what teach means. We should call learners/students whatever we like, by their names preferably, but remember that they can teach us many things, and as teachers we are and should always be learners. The day I stop learning about teaching, about language, about the job I do, is the day I stop doing that job. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: anyone who ever tells you they have nothing to learn about teaching is deeply wrong.

Of course, looking back to my first gap fill question, maybe you finished the sentence with manager 



  1. Interesting – I refer to learners (or try to; also prefer this to students as it feels more open to different ways of learning) but my learners refer to themselves as students. We give them a student handbook as far as I recall and one of the first spellings and nouns they learn is ‘student’. Does the college VLE use student or learner? I can’t remember. What about the new email system? Who is right?

  2. I don’t think there’s a right answer – just points of view. I know I tend to use “ss” as a shorthand – it doesn’t sound like much, but typing “ls” is harder. I think that I do tend to use the word “learner” when I have my professional head on – it would seem to be the accepted term, but default to “student”.

    I just checked the VLE and both “learner” and “student” occur – “learner voice” email address, “learner support”, but “student union, student email & student skydrive”. This is conjecture only, but it seems that there is a warmer, more caring connotation with the word “learner” but a cooler yet somehow more academic connotation for student (linked to HE which always uses the term “student”).

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