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Let’s ditch the dreadful word ‘learner’ once and...

Defend Truth


Let’s ditch the dreadful word ‘learner’ once and for all


Michael Workman is a retired educator who was most recently principal of St John’s Preparatory School and before that, principal of Carmel Primary. He has an M.Ed (Curriculum Theory, Planning, Development and Contemporary Issues in Curriculum Evaluation) from the former University of Natal.

I have never felt at ease with the word ‘learner’ because I have always associated it with the biggest catastrophe in South African education. 'Learner' is a loaded word that like a virus has metamorphosed over the years, an instrument devoid of any human qualities.

I have had a dilemma with the term ‘learner’, ever since it entered the South African educational arena in 1994. With the advent of Outcome-Based Education (OBE), there was relentless pressure from politicians for educators to develop a magic potion that would cure all the ailments of the past.

OBE became a suicide mission from its inception. “Expert” advisers from abroad were going to help implement OBE. Perhaps these experts should have been more knowledgeable about the impact the new curriculum was having in their own homeland before passing the ball into the hands of South Africa because when OBE was being introduced here, it was already failing in Australia.

One of the many reasons OBE failed was due to the overuse of educational jargon — such words as social constructivism, learners, facilitators, learning areas, co-teaching, collaborative learning, different theories of how knowledge is assimilated, and the list goes on.

This, for most of the teaching fraternity, was almost like entering a new career. For starters, social constructivism (SC) was going to be the underpinning theory of OBE. Almost all teachers in South Africa attended badly managed workshops, leaving them more confused than ever. Some teachers thought they had mastered what OBE was all about, but all that they were doing was group teaching. Many teachers had very little understanding of OBE and SC.

With the dawn of the new democracy in 1994 OBE was made mandatory by the state. There was huge applause and plenty of goodwill at this stage, and many schools dived in to support the government with bucketloads of enthusiasm, but limited knowledge. It was during this time that the word “learner” surfaced. An axiom which signified change.

However, I have never felt at ease with this word, because I have always associated it with the biggest catastrophe in South African education.

In retrospect, we should have been more aware of why OBE collapsed. Many teachers believe they are still teaching OBE even though it was replaced in 2005 by the Revised National Curriculum Statement (RNCS) and assessed using the Curriculum Assessment Policy Statement (CAPS) Furthermore, there is a total mismatch between RNCS and CAPS, which amounts to a malfunctioning educational system in South Africa. 

Historically, it is obvious that we never learn or cannot learn from our mistakes. This is why many schools seem to have lost their way, falling into more traditional paradigms of learning or to the other extreme, hermeneutic paradigms of learning.

Inasmuch as there is total confusion among all schools, most end up purchasing expensive models from other countries which do not relate in any way to the South African context. The term “learner”, which plays a significant role in OBE, was introduced into the South African educational system at more or less the same time as it was installed in Australia, New Zealand and Canada, among other countries.

Learner is a word taken directly from SC and unfortunately carries with it the baggage of the past. Notwithstanding, when applied to the South African context, it takes on a new meaning. Learner is a loaded word, that like a virus, has metamorphosed over the years, an instrument devoid of any human qualities. I sincerely hope that before South Africa starts looking at curriculum changes, that either “pupil” or “student” replaces learner. Semantics matters. I believe that certain words have the power to influence opinions of people. Learner is one of them.

The word learner is vague, implies a lack of values and is not child-friendly. Despite this, it still remains the chosen word in South Africa even though it is no longer valid or credible in other countries that have dipped their toes into OBE, only to discover that some fish bite!

Inasmuch as “learner” and OBE are so entangled, it is going to take ages to untangle them. On the other hand, the word, “pupil” is far more representative of a child. It is derived from both French and Latin. Without going into its full etymology, it is a combination of the centre of the eye and the student who is learning with a teacher in a caring environment. This is a perfect fit in that it places the pupil in the centre of learning in a nurturing, caring environment where values (caring for one another, tolerance, understanding, resilience and acts of kindness) are embedded into the “pupil’s” learning. Somehow “learner” takes the human out of being.

I believe the word “pupil” is the antonym of “learner”. A pupil sees school as a fun place to be. If one believes that the child should be at the very centre of the curriculum, then it makes sense that a “learner” belongs to a homogeneous group with only one intention — to achieve well on a set of predetermined outcomes, which have been standardised, while a pupil is an individual child who requires a nurturing and caring environment so that he/she can reach their potential in a supportive environment.

To paraphrase the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the “learner” always begins by finding fault, but the “pupil” sees the positive merit in everything. DM


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  • Indeed, it’s an ugly linguistic disfigurement. I first encountered the term “learner” as a synonym for “student” in the early 80s when I started working on a SAn gold mine. The title “learner official” was given to young men (at that time, women were barred) who intended following a career as a mine official, e.g., along an ore production management trajectory. Hence “learner official,” as in “bloke in training to become a mine official.” I didn’t much like the title then, and thought “trainee official” would have been much easier on the ear and brain.

    Amusingly, the title’s awkwardness was such that many people on the mine would speak of “official learners,” turning its meaning on its head.

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