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The Difference Between Learners and Students

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As academic standards shift, as technology evolves, and as student habits change, schools are being forced to consider new ways of framing curriculum and engaging students in the classroom. Project-based learning is among the most successful and powerful of these possibilities.

As both a planning and a learning tool, PBL challenges teachers to make new decisions about how they plan student learning experiences, while simultaneously empowering students to take a more active role in the learning process.

In this context of trying to make sense of exactly what progressive learning was, in 2009 I sketched out a graphic that visualized 9 Characteristics of 21st Century Learning, and recently created a follow-up framework, the Inside-Out Learning Model.

The four primary goals of this model of learning are:

  1. Authentic self-knowledge
  2. Diverse local and global interdependence
  3. Adaptive critical thinking
  4. New media literacies

Secondary goals include: purposefully leveraging the diversity of digital media, evolving the traditional definition of project-based learning, the role of play in learning, curiosity, and individualized learning pathways that are digitally curated and transparent to all direct and indirect stakeholders.

In the Inside-Out Learning Model, the idea is personalized learning by new actuators, the elimination of passivity, and full integration with responsive and authentic communities -- not coincidentally, these are also elements of PBL.

The Background

While watching all the ed reform trends come and go, one visual that has often intrigued me is a school that's literally been turned inside out.

This thought first occurred to me as a second-year teacher in rural Kentucky, struggling to clarify to the parents how their son or daughter was performing in the classroom. I found the letter grades incredibly misleading. Learners that were really making strong progress and "learning a lot" would often bring home Cs, while many "A students" would be doing just enough for that A.

And even then, these alphanumeric icons were simply describing trends and compliance, and expressed very little about understanding even as I shifted towards standards-based grading. With letter grades, an A represents complete and total mastery of content, while a B represents above-average understanding, and/or near mastery of content. C means average, and the idea of being "average" was jarring to students, but more so to parents.

C was a death knell, and many times even students with a B had some 'splainin to do, and few seemed to notice this as a problem. There was a need for parents in the classroom, while students needed to be out in the community.

Learners vs. Students

So then, we come to this idea about the difference between learners and students -- there definitely seems to be one.

Students hopefully learn, but the word "student" connotes compliance and external form more than anything intrinsic or enduring.

You might notice the "C students" silently piecing together the learning process for themselves -- internalizing it, throwing out what didn't work, struggling in spots, but all the while becoming learners. They'd rarely question grades or ask, "What can I do for an A?" Instead, they'd focus on the interaction between themselves and the content.

This startling contrast was nearly impossible to clarify for parents when they wanted to know "what was going on.” As a teacher, I wanted a class full of learners, but the grading process was giving me a lot of students who were learning to play the game. The problem, however, was not as much about letter grades and traditional academia as it was about the "form" of the school.

What do I mean by the "form" of the school?

  • Its physical layout
  • Its tone, from extracurricular programs to academic reputation, certificates, credits, and downright monstrous notions of "achievement"
  • The relative lack of diversity of its sources for academic and instructional content
  • The internal audiences for school projects
  • And most of all, the need for real interdependence between that school and the community it was funded by and built to serve

To move from students to learners -- well, there are probably dozens of ways to make a move like this, but somewhere on that list is using technology, project-based learning, and place-based education to truly turn a school inside-out.

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Ponder's picture
Ponder is a higher order literacy tool for inquiry-based learning

Interesting post! How necessary are grades? Would they stay in a totally revamped system, in which all the "forms" of the school were reinvented to support learning for learning's sake?

D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition's picture
D'Angon Academy for Language Acquisition
English learning summer camp for foreign children 9-12 years old

That's a great question. Terry's post does pose interesting potential ramifications. Grades may eventually become obsolete if we are to engage with learners instead of students - of course how do we measure academic advancement then? But then again is measuring it really needed if society changes to a learner mindset where the drive is different from current one.

kpalme12's picture

The Inside-Out Learning Model is a high ideal that I plan to implement in my own classroom, and I hope that my school and others would follow suit. As previously mentioned, however, if students should be expected to learn for learning's sake and not for grades, should we even have grades at all? The absence of grades could promote more relational and democratic learning. Students (or rather "learners") would not be concerned with "What is the minimum amount of work I can do to achieve the grade I want?" to "What do I want to learn, and how can I best demonstrate my learning?" With its community focus, Inside-Out would truly allow schools to benefit their communities and vice versa, rather than schools serving as an outpost of the federal government or some corporation. Students would not be labeled "deficient" on the basis of grades, and students who know how to work the current system would not get the advantages that keep them ahead and their peers behind.

One of the primary concerns of detractors of Inside-Out is that schools have no way of being accountable to the communities they serve without grades and standardized tests. How will parents know whether or not the school they are paying for (will tax dollars or otherwise) will prepare their children for the "real world?" How will employers know whether or not their interviewee would be an asset to the business? If schools were to implement Inside-Out, then parents would know that their students are prepared when their children become accepted to their desired universities (which, I might add, should also determine acceptance based on projects and performance evaluations rather than grade point averages and SAT scores) and are hired by companies who look at their work rather than their resume. Parents will also know that their children are prepared when they become active and conscientious contributors to society.

I would like to pose the following question: Without grades, what incentive will students have to learn in areas that do not interest them? Is it realistic to expect all students to be interested in all subjects simply because their teachers, without fail, present the information in the most fascinating way? Or should students not be expected to learn about things that do not interest them?

Alan Woods's picture

From the above article it is clear that today it is necessary to change the education system for the better future of students so that they can easily grasp the new syllabus.
Consign of the times

Zelwarrior's picture
I am a graduate student.

It is expected that students transition from passive to active learners. While students are young, they absorb instruction given to them. However, as they mature physiologically and mentally, a natural progression to actively engaging in instruction should occur.
Project-based learning particularly within groups is an activity that requires students to transition to active learners and initiate their own learning. Project-based learning engages students cognitively while increasing social skills and provides accountability among peers. It requires that learners monitor their own learning but also the learning process of others. This in itself promotes increasingly greater responsibility. Using media in project-based learning increases the likelihood of accommodating for more multiple intelligences; thus, making instruction more personalized. The addition of current technology sharpens learners' skills that are necessary as life-long learners. Furthermore, skills gained through project-based learning cognitively, socially and technically may be infused in other learning activities which promotes growth as independent learners.
Teachers will need to remain flexible in planning and assessments when their students participate in project-based learning. Hopefully, they should observe that the advantages of allowing students to take ownership in their own learning promotes motivation, growth in social skills and enhances cognitive skills. While this change in class instruction may initially increase teacher's planning, the benefits at the end of the project far outweigh the increase in teachers' planning time.

Monique's picture
Arts Ed teacher and MSED Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment student

Your post hits home with me for a number of reasons. As an Integrated arts educator, I work with traditional classroom teachers and their lessons and core standards to developed supplemental project based learning art projects. What I wholeheartedly believe is that with-in today's society there is no right and wrong answer. Yes, there is a foundation on which everything is built, but there can be many solutions to a problem. Art education and project based learning helps students learn to think critically and creatively. It also allows them to be learners and meet the problem on their level and push their foundations. So the letter grade doesn't become completely obsolete but allows students to be graded based on their potential and success and not just against the answer sheet.

This approach also helps to create communities in school and disrupt the traditional 'form of the school". When I teach my class consists of 6, 7 and 8th graders being in the same room at the same time. This allows the students to learn from each other and for a more integrated understanding of education. Instead of just learning what is mandated for 7th grade. They see what they learned last year, what they are learning now and what they will learn in 8th grade allowing them to tie it all together for a more comprehensive learning and personal understanding. There is much evidence to support that students learning through PBL do better on tests because they learn on a personal level. It really turns the classroom inside-out.

Inside-out learning is not an easy feat and teachers and communities really need to work together to insure it success. It is a vast change from tradition so it is understandable why there is hesitation on the matter. But you are definitely right in the PBL (successfully implemented) is needed to truly make an effective impact with Inside-out learning.

My question is how does the community guarantee that success? Many teachers I work with say "During the summer we were given information on PBL and told to implement it more, but with no real direction or understanding of it." We can't expect real success without full support from the community as a whole. We need to develop professional learning communities where all stakeholders work together sharing and reflecting on lessons, ideas and values to better prepare and support each other and the students.

Whitney Oltmanns's picture
Whitney Oltmanns
3rd grade teacher/grad student

I found your post extremely valuable as my school is trying to move towards a standard based report card. I would also prefer having a classroom full of learners, rather than students worried about achieving the same grade of the person sitting next to them. Students need to have authentic material which is meaningful for them to become a learner. With an increased use of technology and project-based learning I feel like this goal can be achieved.

Connie Bonar Greenberg's picture
Connie Bonar Greenberg
Intermediate level elementary teacher with a focus on math and science

Dear Terry,

Project-based learning is very effective. I've used it in my classroom for years. A portfolio of this work helped me become a Nationally CertifiedTeacher in 2001. It can take half the summer to plan a great project, but it's well worth it.
Take that people who complain about teachers getting summers off!

Project learning went something like this: What was it you wanted your students to be able to do. Once you figured out the "what", you designed the "how" they would demonstrate it. This would be the project itself. From there, the next step was to closely examine the project to determine the specific skills students would need in order for them to be successful. These skills needed to be taught. Only then, could the project begin. (Many of us now disguise the unholy "direct instruction" by keeping it to ten minutes and using active engagement e.g., games.) But I know you're familiar with all this.

Now, please forgive me for what I am about to say. None of this is directed at you or your ideas. It's just a glimpse of my reality. I'm in public education and I love it. Along with that, though, come many challenges. Any child who comes through our door, we will welcome with open arms and we will support this child throughout the day, especially if:

- your goldfish just died and you're sad,
-your mom and her boyfriend had a bad fight and you're worried,
- a parent is in jail and you're scared,
-a parent is getting out of jail and you're scared
-a parent is in Afghanistan and you're scared,
-your cat disappeared and you're worried and scared,
-you didn't get any sleep last night because your folks took you to a concert
-you're uncle's family has moved in and now you sleep on the floor and it's real noisy and you're crying because you are so tired
-your little brother is sick (brain tumor) and at the hospital and you're scared
-your parents are divorcing and you blame yourself and burst out crying a lot
-your big brother beats you up when no one's home. A neighbor tapes the abuse and it makes the local TV news.
-you don't want to go home because it's cold and you and your siblings have to stay in this ratty camper because the people your folks are staying with, until they get back on their feet, don't want you in their house (Mom brings out dinner and eats with you before going back)
-your mother joins a cult where you and many other children are kept in a farmhouse and you must always whisper so the neighbors won't hear you. Sometimes though you forget , and your back has scars from the whip. The police discover the cult after a little girl was hung out a window and suffocated because she asked for another drumstick. You come to our school, to my room. I am blessed.
-you are a happy and smiling girl who then becomes disheveled, dirty, quiet, and sad after an uncle moves into your house. And even sadder, you are a child with a young and inexperienced teacher who is afraid worse will come if she says anything. I hope you found it in your heart to forgive me. I will never forgive myself.

When Edutopia started, Terry, I was pumped. Finally, someone other than bureaucrats and academes would take a look at education and discover what we teachers already knew. We need time. We need time-especially at the elementary level. We need time!!

But you know what? The George Lucas Foundation, The Chalkboard Project, I could go on and on with the names of groups that got into the education field. Well, nothing happened. Nothing changed. Nobody figured it out. Instead, people at these places, many whom had never taught, told us how we should do our jobs.
"You need to change this."
"If schools really want to improve they need to download our latest software." "Teachers need to work harder, that's all."
"They're not educated enough. They need to take more classes!"
"Don't make education students have to take 2 yrs of methods courses. Just have 'em follow around a teacher for 9 months. They'll be experts!!"
And my personal all-time favorite:
"We need to run schools more like a business! That'll fix them."

You see? All we got was more of the same. Everybody's an expert on being a teacher. Why? Well, we all went to school. And we all had some lousy teachers. And boy oh boy, we sure like to go on and on about how lousy teachers are. And how anyone can be a teacher. How hard can it be? And so on and so forth. For years. And years.

And years.

And we teachers just keep on teaching, doing the best we possibly can with little support from the media, from communities, and even people we know.

I laughed at our state. Oregon decided teachers weren't taking enough classes so every district and every teacher has a load of paperwork to fill out stating that they took education classes and sat in on inservices and meetings. Why did I laugh? Because we were already taking classes. Districts provide extra money so we can take a class or workshop each year. It's in everyone's interests that we keep learning our craft.

Besides classes, teachers subscribe to specialty curriculum magazines so they can learn about the latest findings on how to teach their subjects. And many of us team up in the summer to work on curriculum. And we go in on the weekends and we stay late on school nights. We do all this because we want to become better teachers. We're always tweaking our lessons, and sometimes we have to throw our favorite projects out with the bathwater because there's been a curriculum change, or we've been moved to a different grade level, or a blend, or a split, or a different building. And that, too, is part of the job.

And so, we start again.

Terry, I'll try to keep your thoughts in mind when I welcome 35 8 yr. olds with their range of abilities, special needs, and languages into my 3rd grade classroom this September.

I'll try to keep your thoughts in mind as I scribble out my all-inclusive hands-on active participation lesson with the common core standard neatly written using an "I can..." statement. (Federal law states a teacher will treat each student as an individual and, therefore, teach each student at his or her own level in each subject area: math (arithmetic, algebraic relationships, measurement, fractions, geometry, and math problem solving), and the four language arts (reading, writing, listening, and speaking).Yikes!

I'll keep your ideas re: local and global interdependence in mind, too. It's easy to teach in all the subject areas. Just wish I had a longer daily prep. 25 minutes a day! It's a bad joke on the elementary teachers in our district. Hmm? What about before and after school? Well...

I'll keep your thoughts in mind as I sit through SIPs, IEPs, staff meetings (required weekly), inservices (required weekly), and committee meetings (not required to sign up, makes the D.O. happy, and it's kind of nice to get your say in once in a while.) Also, before and after school I'll answer parent questions, return phone calls, get a week's worth of homework ready for a student because their family always goes to Hawaii in October (airfare's cheaper.) Never mind that the student is a year behind in reading. I'll need time to get my copy work done, check off who finished their work, write a list of who didn't, try to find time to help the low math kids tomorrow--having to follow the school daily schedule is really limiting this way--correct work, go over my daily notes of who struggled in reading, figure out a lesson for them tomorrow, get the supplies for the lesson, check my teacher mailbox, figure out how I can skip the lesson I didn't get to today because there's no time to do it this week even though I think it's very important, take down old student work and get the new stuff up because the Grandparent's Day assembly is coming up, dig around the science closet because I need more magnets, check on the math program to make sure all the kids did their math homework for last week, and pick kids for classroom jobs....

Even if I could get half of this done, I know I'll be taking work home. So my solution? I'll come in early tomorrow.

Oh, and I'll keep your thoughts in mind regarding the use of media as the hall printer jams for the umpteenth time. Or that D.O. has deleted all my archived fusion pages from the previous year. Or that some teachers have more technology in their rooms than others but won't share. BTW, my kids have 3 things- an ipad and 2 old macbooks (one with a broken keyboard).

I'll keep your thoughts on grading in mind every trimester as I make pluses and minuses, etc., that denote whether a student meets, exceeds, nearly meets, or needs improvement on the CCCS we've been working on for the last 12 weeks. Talk about arbitrary. The one positive thing I'll say about grades-especially, in 5th- is many more parents will hold their kids responsible for raising those grades. Parents get upset if Junior is bringing home a D. The minus sign for "needs improvement" just doesn't carry the weight. Honestly? The
only way I ever figured out how to report to parents was to write a nice long letter at the end of the term describing what the child did well in each subject area, what s/he needed to work on in each subject area, and ways the parents could help. Ah, the good ol' days! That's when I had 18 or 20 students. That amount is doable!

And I'll keep your thoughts in mind.... Wait!! I forgot to mention fluoride. I give out fluoride to all the students whose parents signed them up for it. They're pills, so how hard can that be? Don't get me started, and no, I'm not the school nurse. Which makes me thing of the time I spend calling parents and reminding them I need the fluoride slip back whether they mark it yes or no. Oh! And I'm responsible for calling parents about sending back the last page of the student handbook--signed of course. And I need to check all the bus information for changes. I've had parental requests that look something like this: Send Junior home on the bus M, T, but W, he needs to wait and get picked up, and Th, he doesn't ride the bus but goes on the daycare van, and this F only, he can walk. Again, doable if you have 18 or 20 children.

I'll also try to keep your thoughts on project-based learning in mind as I take my 4 beginning of the year tests. 1. blood-borne pathogen protocols, 2. how to store and give medication along with the correctly written procedures (did I mention I'm not the school nurse?), 3. how to recognize the four types of abuse (phys., emot., neglect, and sexual) and how to report them, and 4. what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and how to report it.

So, as for your ideas, I've always been a firm believer in presenting projects which incorporate skills from many curricular areas. In doing so, the children will have a better understanding of how all these skills come together to make a greater whole and how we, too, are all connected. Along with successful completion come feelings of self-worth and pride. Students come to learn they are in charge of their education and therefore, their futures. They approach new learning and new problems with a can-do attitude. And right now, Terry, I'm thinking I've nailed the self-actualization piece you mentioned.

To close, we must understand one thing. Nothing will change until this issue of time is resolved. Thank you for letting me share.

Connie Bonar Greenberg

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Connie, thank you for sharing your experience with us. Poor Terry didn't know what he was getting into with this blog post, but we appreciate your comment because it speaks to the everyday reality for many teachers.

So thank you for the reminder. I hope you'll continue to be part of the discussions here on the site.

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