(This post was originally published at eltjam.)
We now have young learners and very young learners, learner differences and learner profiles, learning styles, learner training, learner independence and autonomy, learning technologies, life-long learning, learning management systems, virtual learning environments, learning outcomes, learning analytics and adaptive learning. Much, but not perhaps all, of this is to the good, but it’s easy to forget that it wasn’t always like this.
The rise in the use of the terms ‘learner’ and ‘learning’ can be seen in policy documents, educational research and everyday speech, and it really got going in the mid 1980s. Duncan Hunter and Richard Smith have identified a similar trend in ELT after analysing a corpus of articles from the English Language Teaching Journal. They found that ‘learner’ had risen to near the top of the key-word pile in the mid 1980s, but had been practically invisible 15 years previously. Accompanying this rise has been a relative decline of words like ‘teacher’, ‘teaching’, ‘pupil’ and, even, ‘education’. Gert Biesta has described this shift in discourse as a ‘new language of learning’ and the ‘learnification of education’.
It’s not hard to see the positive side of this change in focus towards the ‘learner’ and away from the syllabus, the teachers and the institution in which the ‘learning’ takes place. We can, perhaps, be proud of our preference for learner-centred approaches over teacher-centred ones. We can see something liberating (for our students) in the change of language that we use. But, as Bingham and Biesta have pointed out, this gain is also a loss.
The language of ‘learners’ and ‘learning’ focusses our attention on process – how something is learnt. This was a much-needed corrective after an uninterrupted history of focussing on end-products, but the corollary is that it has become very easy to forget not only about the content of language learning, but also its purposes and the social relationships through which it takes place.
There has been some recent debate about the content of language learning, most notably in the work of the English as a Lingua Franca scholars. But there has been much more attention paid to the measurement of the learners’ acquisition of that content (through the use of tools like the Pearson Global Scale of English). There is a growing focus on ‘granularized’ content – lists of words and structures, and to a lesser extent language skills, that can be easily measured. It looks as though other things that we might want our students to be learning – critical thinking skills and intercultural competence, for example – are being sidelined.
More significant is the neglect of the purposes of language learning. The discourse of ELT is massively dominated by the paying sector of private language schools and semi-privatised universities. In these contexts, questions of purpose are not, perhaps, terribly important, as the whole point of the enterprise can be assumed to be primarily instrumental. But the vast majority of English language learners around the world are studying in state-funded institutions as part of a broader educational programme, which is as much social and political as it is to do with ‘learning’. The ultimate point of English lessons in these contexts is usually stated in much broader terms. The Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference, for example, states that the ultimate point of the document is to facilitate better intercultural understanding. It is very easy to forget this when we are caught up in the business of levels and scales and measuring learning outcomes.
Lastly, a focus on ‘learners’ and ‘learning’ distracts attention away from the social roles that are enacted in classrooms. 25 years ago, Henry Widdowson pointed out that there are two quite different kinds of role. The first of these is concerned with occupation (student / pupil vs teacher / master / mistress) and is identifying. The second (the learning role) is actually incidental and cannot be guaranteed. He reminds us that the success of the language learning / teaching enterprise depends on ‘recognizing and resolving the difficulties inherent in the dual functioning of roles in the classroom encounter’. Again, this may not matter too much in the private sector, but, elsewhere, any attempt to tackle the learning / teaching conundrum through an exclusive focus on learning processes is unlikely to succeed.
The ‘learnification’ of education has been accompanied by two related developments: the casting of language learners as consumers of a ‘learning experience’ and the rise of digital technologies in education. For reasons of space, I will limit myself to commenting on the second of these. Research by Geir Haugsbakk and Yngve Nordkvelle has documented a clear and critical link between the new ‘language of learning’ and the rhetoric of edtech advocacy. These researchers suggest that these discourses are mutually reinforcing, that both contribute to the casting of the ‘learner’ as a consumer, and that the coupling of learning and digital tools is often purely rhetorical.
One of the net results of ‘learnification’ is the transformation of education into a technical or technological problem to be solved. It suggests, wrongly, that approaches to education can be derived purely from theories of learning. By adopting an ahistorical and apolitical standpoint, it hides ‘the complex nexus of political and economic power and resources that lies behind a considerable amount of curriculum organization and selection’. The very real danger, as Biesta has observed, is that ‘if we fail to engage with the question of good education head-on – there is a real risk that data, statistics and league tables will do the decision-making for us’.
 2004 Biesta, G.J.J. ‘Against learning. Reclaiming a language for education in an age of learning’ Nordisk Pedagogik 24 (1), 70-82 & 2010 Biesta, G.J.J. Good Education in an Age of Measurement (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers)
 2012 Hunter, D. & R. Smith ‘Unpackaging the past: ‘CLT’ through ELTJ keywords’ ELTJ 66/4 430-439
 2010 Bingham, C. & Biesta, G.J.J. Jacques Rancière: Education, Truth, Emancipation (London: Continuum) 134
 1990 Widdowson, H.G. Aspects of Language Teaching (Oxford: OUP) 182 ff
 1987 Widdowson, H.G. ‘The roles of teacher and learner’ ELTJ 41/2
 A compelling account of the way that students have become ‘consumers’ can be found in 2013 Williams, J. Consuming Higher Education (London: Bloomsbury)
 2007 Haugsbakk, G. & Nordkvelle, Y. ‘The Rhetoric of ICT and the New Language of Learning: a critical analysis of the use of ICT in the curricular field’ European Educational Research Journal 6/1 1 – 12
 2004 Apple, M. W. Ideology and Curriculum 3rd edition (New York: Routledge) 28
 2010 Biesta, G.J.J. Good Education in an Age of Measurement (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers) 27