What's the difference between taking a course and being a learner?

What's the difference between taking a course and being a learner?

Welcome to our guest blogger, Jim Stauffer.  Jim is an adult educator in Whatı̀.

As I contemplated Adult Learners’ Week this year, I recalled some of my own failures and successes at fulfilling the trust adult learners place in me when they come to the Community Learning Centre. 

Once again the writing of revolutionary educator, Ivan Illich,* came to my mind.  He accused schools of teaching students to “confuse the process and substance” of education. To paraphrase him, we fail to distinguish between taking a course and being a learner.

We often assume that everyone who attends school, at least an adult who chooses to do so willingly, goes there to learn.  I'd like to point out that some people, especially adults, choose to go to school because they want to take a course. 

Both are good and valid reasons to enrol in school; they might even happily overlap.  But we get into all sorts of trouble, both as students and as educators, if we assume they are the same thing.  So here is my only-partially-tongue-in-cheek, not-totally-objective, and in-no-particular-order guide to help us figure out the difference.

  1. If I am most concerned with getting the right answer, I am taking a course.
    If I am not satisfied until I understand how the darn thing works, I am a learner.
  2. If I want to know what I need to do to pass, I am taking a course.
    If I get excited because something in class touches my "real" life, I am a learner.
  3. If my motivation is to get the certificate, I am taking a course.
    If my motivation is to become better at something I love doing, I am a learner.
  4. If I attend classes because I can't get an excused absence, I am taking a course.
    If class is so interesting that I don't want to miss anything, I am a learner.
  5. If the best part of the day is going home to my family, I am human.
    If you wondered what that has to do with anything, it's just my whimsy intruding.
  6. If I only spend time studying what's assigned, I am taking a course.
    If I get side-tracked investigating new ideas that aren't directly related to assignments, I am probably a learner.
  7. If I only discuss my studies with the instructor and others in my class, I am taking a course.
    If I can't shut up about what I'm studying, if I bring it up with my family and friends until they get tired of it, I am definitely a learner.
  8. If the most important part of my writing is punctuation and grammar, I am taking a course.
    If the most important thing in writing is communicating what's on my mind, I am a learner.
  9. If my biggest accomplishment is passing the test, I am taking a course.
    If I can't wait to put my knowledge into practice, I am a learner.
  10. If the class is too easy for me, but it's required in the program or job, I might just be taking a course.
    If I just want to be in school even though the course content is too difficult for me, I still might be a learner.
  11. If I am afraid to make a mistake, I am taking a course.
    If I give myself the freedom to try-fail-try again, I am a learner.
  12. If I lay awake at night worrying about my grade, I am taking a course.
    If I lay awake grappling with the subject, I am a learner.

*Illich, I. 1971. Deschooling Society. New York: Harper & Row

-- Jim Stauffer

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