work together

Image courtesy of Alexander Staubo

In my first year of living in Lithuania, I had one of those embarrassing moments when you think you understand something, but you find out that you were completely wrong. One day, I was in my apartment getting ready for work when my phone rang. Not recognizing the number, I answered in Lithuanian even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to take the conversation much further without slipping into English. The lady on the end of the phone spoke very quickly making it difficult for me to determine if she was speaking in Lithuanian or Russian. I thought I heard the word for Russia, so I simply told her that I didn’t speak Russian. There was a pause, she repeated the same thing, only a little slower and louder. Again, I thought I heard the word for Russia, so I repeated what I had said, only slower and louder. This time there was a longer pause followed by three simple words in Lithuanian: DOOR, KEY, NOW! It was in that moment that I realized that I had misunderstood the word for ‘in the cellar’ to be ‘Russia’. The difference is only in the intonation, so I applaud myself for at least recognizing where I went wrong. The story ends with me slinking down the stairs to unlock the cellar door for the property manager and her three (now laughing) plumbers who had come to fix the water main. I, for some unknown reason, was one of only three people who had a key for that door.

Later that day, I told my English students about it and they had a good laugh. No harm done and my students felt that it was okay to make a fool of yourself from time to time when learning a language. This event demonstrates how semantics can be important and not just an academic exercise. Sure, there are times when we get caught up in ‘political correctness’ to the point that it becomes almost laughable, but for the most part, choosing the correct term for something can make a world of difference.

In preparation for my upcoming session at the TESL Ontario conference, I was re-reading one of my favourite books on the use of technology in the classroom, E-Learning in the 21st Century: A framework for research and practice by D. R. Garrison and Terry Anderson (2003). I read the book for my MA TESOL, but I consult it quite often when giving seminars or consulting on technology in the classroom. In the chapter Teaching Presence, Garrison and Anderson start with an explanation on what they call the differences between learner-centred and learning-centred education. To be honest, I have always interchanged those two terms without thinking much of it, but the authors argue that there is a fundamental difference in the responsibilities of the teacher and the students. They assert that the term learner-centered “risks marginalizing the teacher and the essential value of the transaction in creating a critical community of inquiry.” They go on to state that “re-assigning responsibility and control to the learner violates the intent and integrity of the educational experience to facilitate a critical and constructive learning process.” These are powerful assertions to be making and almost makes you believe that these two authors are of the opinion that we should continue with a more teacher-controlled classroom, but that would be an incorrect conclusion. Garrison and Anderson are simply advocating for a shared responsibility between the teacher and the learner. They believe that the teacher is responsible for “identifying relevant societal knowledge, designing experiences that will facilitate critical discourse and reflection, and diagnosing and assessing learner outcomes.” It is a “transactional balance” between all of parties involved in the process.

After reading that, I wondered if others saw these two terms in the same way as Garrison and Anderson and I was surprised to see that most people use the terms interchangeably. I say surprised because, after a bit of self-reflection, I can see that learner and learning actually mean something completely differently when centred is removed. To me, learner identifies the individual and shows how we are focusing on the individual. This is good. I think that we need to see each other as unique and special. We come from different backgrounds, experiences, and have a different knowledge base. We need to be doing things such as needs analyses so we can target areas of difficulty for each student. The problem is that the term learner fails to include the whole community. There are others involved in this process including the rest of the class, the teacher, the school, and society in general. The term learning identifies the spectrum of those connected to this learning process. It also is a present participle which labels it as ‘in process’. it is active, alive, moving.

Another person who sees these two terms as different is Dr. Kumaravadivelu. In his book Understanding Language Teaching: From Method to Postmethod (2006), Kumaravadivelu claims that there are three categories of language learning: language-centered tasks, learner-centered tasks, and learning-centered tasks. These three groupings show where the learners’ attention are focused: on the form of the language, on the function of the language, and on the meaning and use of the language. While the terms are different in use from  Garrison and Anderson, the principle remains the same. Change in term leads to a change in focus.

I know there are many who would say that what Garrison and Anderson are saying with learning-centred is the same as what they would call learner-centered, but I believe that there are many who misinterpret the term because of the word learner being focussed on the individual. Our society is becoming more and more self-centred and I don’t think we need to be adding to that by putting more emphasis on the individual in the classroom. We learn together, or as Garrison and Anderson call it, a Community of Inquiry.


Garrison, D. R. and Anderson, Terry. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century: A framework for research and practice. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Kumaravadivelu, B. (2006). Understanding language teaching: From method to postmethod.   Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

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