First, we called them “students.” That’s what we were called (never “pupils”) when we were in school, so it sounded right. But, over time, it smacked a little too much of “education,” and, after all, we were in “training.” But we really didn’t like “trainees,” so we tried “participants.” Feels better—more of an action word (participate). We went from student guides to participant guides. But still, it didn’t seem just right.

Somewhere along the way, we didn’t want to be called training anymore, and we rejected our own title of “trainer.” We eschewed training for “learning,” so it was natural that we would call them—the participants—“learners.”

Everyone’s a learner. Nothing really wrong with that; all of us learn. Our objectives begin with “The learner will…” and most of us use learning management systems. And those people, the ones who take our courses—in class or online—well, it’s a no-brainer.

Not so fast

What’s wrong with calling them learners? Because that’s not who they really are! CEOs don’t refer to their employees as learners. Customers don’t call their sales reps learners (and sales reps don’t call their customers learners). Front-line supervisors don’t gather their people together and begin meetings with “I want to thank all you learners for coming.”

Referring to people in training as learners, rather than who they really are—workers or employees, managers or executives, customers or suppliers, or any other role that is a more accurate description of what these people really do—tends to encourage a perspective that often fails to get beyond traditional training thinking. If we think of them only as learners, we might offer up only training solutions, even if we know better. Furthermore, when we only think of the people we work with as learners, we can lose sight of their real value to the organization. Nurses are learners, but they are, first and foremost, nurses. Same for engineers, salespeople, programmers, call center reps, marketing managers, shop supervisors and more.

Think differently

OK, when they’re with us, they are learners. And that’s important to us from an instructional design and evaluation standpoint. We want to know if they are learning, but our clients want to know if they can perform. In fact, performance (the result) is more important than learning (the enabler). So, should we call them “performers?”

No. Just call them what they are: scientists, soldiers, firefighters, teachers, designers, technicians, and pilots—you get the idea. When we do this, or at least when we think this way, it becomes easier to relate to them, to understand where they are coming from and where they’re going. Stop talking to SMEs about the learners and start talking about the network managers, or the carpenters, or the police officers, or the cafeteria workers. Your relationships with SMEs will improve almost immediately.

I admit I use the term “learners” all the time. It’s easy. Everyone knows what you’re talking about. What’s the problem; there are more important things to focus on, right?

Sure, but this is more vital than we think. When we focus like a laser on jobs and job functions, we work better. This distinction between student, participant, learner, and other terms we give those who use our services (some of us also call them “customers”) can be seen as just a silly semantic argument. But it’s not. It is a reflection of how we see the world and how the world sees us. And we all could use more of an advantage here. Labels matter.

And don’t try using a thesaurus to come up with a better term than “learner.” I tried, and what’s left is even worse. “Greenhorn,” anyone?