Eight Ways To Think About Your Learners

Your users, students, children, friends, new hires or even you.

It’s a winter morning. Jess has traveled in the cold to be in front of us. She sits arms folded, we have 40 minutes. She has something to learn and we have something to teach. If we don’t succeed we’ll have wasted both our efforts. Worse, Jess and those relying on her could be very ill prepared for the future.

So how do we begin?


Jess is a learner. She’s also fictional, but she could just as easily have been your users, students, friends, new hires, children or even you. Jess as a learner has a need, conscious or unconscious. As educators, teachers, instructors, coaches, whatever term we identify with, we can supply that need.

Our approach to Jess’s learning has direct implications on our success and this starts from the way we think.

Because the way we think changes how we act, how we treat people and how we make our explanations.

The way we think influences what we believe our role is and what the end goal for learning is.

So what are possible approaches for learners like Jess?

To answer this, I had conversations with practitioners from schools, to workplaces, to research asking “How do you think about learners?”

I asked for their explanations in the form of a model, because models are particularly useful at allowing us to gain insight quickly, for example:

A model for electricity. The house heating system is identical symbolically to the circuit below.

The Radiator Circuit Model

The red boiler heats water that then flows through the pipes in the system. The radiator takes the hot water and releases heat. The water flows back to the pump.

In this model the pump is our battery, the radiator is our bulb, the pipes our wire and our water symbolises the flow of electrons.

This is regularly used to build a basic concept of circuitry, which it can achieve. However, like most models, it fails at certain points, like lacking explanations for current, voltage & resistance.

The following models are ways of thinking that can give us an insight into possible approaches to Jess’s learning.

We can then consider whether we identify with or disagree with these models.


How do you think about learners?


1. Plants & Gardeners Model

From a Science Teacher

A garden grows numerous plants. It’s success relies on being tended to by gardeners. Their needs change, sometimes requiring water, fertiliser or even preening.

Here learners are the growing plants within the garden. Importantly they can’t communicate their needs. The educators as gardeners need to recognise symptoms from each plant and provide accordingly. The gardeners therefore have to be experts at reading, feeding and nurturing these plants. Failure to do so correctly will result in stunted growth, with repercussions for the whole garden.

Here, importance is placed on the gardener to recognise symptoms and act. The end goal is to have healthy learners that produce for the garden.

2. Vehicles & Garage Model

From a Modern Languages Teacher

A garage has different vehicles entering it. All the vehicles are different models, with differing attachments and in various conditions.

The learners are the vehicles and all are required to meet certain standards before being allowed onto the market. The garage is the teacher, aiming to get each vehicle to meet the correct standards by cleaning, adding parts and testing. The learners have to be vehicles of memory to qualify. However, as each one is different, the garage has to adapt to each vehicle to enable good results.

Here, importance is placed on the garage adapting to the variety of vehicles and improving them to meet important standards. The end goal is to have successful vehicles that can safely be on the market.

3. House & Renovators Model

From a Company Instructor

A house is being renovated. Builders are starting at the foundations and working upwards. Elements are being cleaned, decorated and replaced.

The house is the learner undergoing a developmental process through the renovations. There are already base layers of knowledge. Therefore the builders, who are the instructors, clean misconceptions off windows, bolster foundations and add decorations. The house, once finished, will be self maintained. Therefore the builders have to be thorough in ensuring the house is ready so that the future of living and reflecting on the memories encased in the house is secure.

Here importance is placed on the builders renovating a house securely. The end goal is to have a good house that can be lived in and revisited over time.

4. Declining Experience Model

From a Maths Teacher

We have a selection of Pokemon who gather experience and develop from things they’ve been exposed to by their trainer. However their memory and ability to use this experience depletes slowly over time.

The Pokemon are the learners whilst trainers are the teachers. For the Pokemon to develop efficiently they need to be exposed to the right things. This varies per Pokemon but successfully doing so will ensure that their experience will not deplete as rapidly allowing them to apply it longer. Failure to engage them correctly will mean that their experience will be forgotten.

Here importance is placed on the trainer engaging development. The end goal is to have Pokemon who are successfully able to apply their experiences.

5. Athlete & Coach Model

From a Humanities Teacher

A coach and an athlete are training towards a competition.

The athlete is the learner and the coach is the instructor. The athletes like learners are working towards competing in the future. The coach has to develop the athlete by providing adequate challenges. The athlete needs to have a desire, a want to win. The success of both depends on having a good relationship and mutual respect. This comes from understanding each other's boundaries, recognising what is achievable and bringing out their best.

Here importance is placed on the coach understanding how to develop the athlete and on both parties having respect for each other. The end goal is for a good result in the competition.

6. Zoo’s & Zookeepers Model

From an English Teacher

There is a zoo with lots of baby animals. They are growing and being fed by the zookeeper.

The learners are the baby animals, each have their own charecters and natures. Through the zookeeper’s interactions the animals will grow to be healthy. The zookeeper is the teacher defining boundaries, dividing resources and attention to help the animals thrive. Failure to manage the population and the individuals will have negative repercussions across the zoo.

Here the importance is placed on the zookeeper understanding how to control the interactions and the baby animals. The end goal is nurturing them to become true versions of themselves.

7. Foreign Bridges & Blueprint Model

From an Education Academic

There is a bridge being built with a team of builders and one lead architect. The blueprints for this bridge are in a foreign language that only the architect can understand.

The lead architect represents the teacher and the builder team represents the students. As only the architect understands the language she must lead and communicate to the team. The builders through this leadership slowly become capable of building bridges by themselves. The construction of a bridge in connecting concepts is the learning process. However to achieve this they must work in partnership with the architect. If mutual respect isn’t present then the bridge, the architect and the team will not be succeed.

Here importance is placed on the teamwork and relationship between the architect and builders. The end goal is to have a team that has built a bridge ready to build more.

8. Spheres of Experience Model

By an Education researcher

There are spheres that are connected. The spheres collect experiences which cause them to grow and inside they can hold an unlimited number of experiences.

The are larger spheres that can share their experiences by passing them to others. This happens at no cost to themselves and in turn they also grow from revisiting these experiences and the ones of others. Learning is this sharing and compiling of experiences between all. It is a facilitative process that relies on the spheres being able to share experiences the can be understood universally.

Here the importance is placed on everyone being a learner. Learning has to be facilitative towards experiences. The end goal is a mutual growth for all.


What about Jess?

These models are thought experiments into how others think and they aren’t the end because Jess, our learner, is waiting.

It isn’t easy, just as each learner is an individual, each teacher will have their own approach. But whichever way we use the next 40 minutes, the fact that we have been mindful about how we could approach should hold us with better chances of succeeding.

So how do you think about learners?

You may have liked some of these models and others you may have hated. It would be fascinating to hear how you think about learners here.


If you liked this post you’ll like two projects I’m part of, Created by Schools where we build tools for schools & Wall Display where we share great learning. Images from Internet Archive Book Images.