Toward A New Vision of the Learner

Based on the views of pan-Canadian organizations,
scholars and research centers on the North American continent

Thérèse Laferrière, Université Laval
Ted Wall, McGill University
April 1996



During the Cold War, most countries viewed military and nuclear confrontation as the most serious threats to international security. The resulting tensions are still high on the list of imperatives but the end of the Cold War has drastically changed the perceived imminent threats to human security. While joblessness, poverty, crime and delinquency, drugs, and terrorism have always existed, they now seem closer, if more invisible and insidious, to people everywhere.

Today's opening markets, the spread of democracy and exchange of information have created opportunities for the world to progress. At the same time, we are witnessing an unexpected phenomenon whereby globalization is positioning the best and the worst scenarios side-by-side; hence, a thorough understanding of other nations and cultures has never been so crucial to widespread peace and human progress.

Education has the power to combat inaction and to generate the values and consciousness necessary to overcome ethnocentrism, racism, violence, depersonalization and environmental degradation. Things can be changed! Educational systems, which inadvertently perpetuate an attitude which does not encourage people to reach for solutions and implement them, have to change.

Although education is a provincial responsibility the fact remains that all Canadians have certain common expectations of it. "The joint declaration by the CMEC entitled: Future directions for the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada" shows that we are well aware of the challenges and expectations that we have of the education system. At their August 1993 meeting, the CMEC received from their respective Premiers the mandate to provide leadership for change and to provide a strong pan-Canadian voice for education. It promptly focused its attention on four themes: quality of education, accountability, accessibility and mobility. More specifically, it placed priority on the following activities:

After the CMEC meeting, Quebec agreed to take the lead and organized the first National Consultation on Education in May 1994, at a meeting held in Montreal; 495 participants registered. At about the same time, groups such as the Canadian School Boards Association, the Prosperity Secretariat , the Corporate-Higher Education Forum , the Canadian Society for the Study of Education , and the Conference Board of Canada had already expressed or were in the process of making many pertinent observations in support of the need for change. In 1995, the Learning and Training Working Group of the Information Highway Advisory Council presented its report proposing the elaboration and adoption of a national strategy for lifelong learning on the Information Highway.

The present paper attempts to build on the above initiatives and has borrowed heavily from the views expressed by the above-mentioned groups in the development of a new vision of the learner, one which will take all learners into the 21st Century.

Focus on the learner

A considerable amount of knowledge already exists about learning and the learner, and although it calls for very diversified and, at times, very new approaches to education, there seems to be, surprisingly enough, a certain consensus on the following issues.

The learner is the central point of attention in the new approach to education

The definition of "learner" can theoretically be applied to all the stakeholders listed under what the CMEC called "the new linkages and partnerships" in education where the learner is seen as:

Given the above definition of the learner and recent calls for the reform of education, it might be fair to say that the traditional approach to education is no longer meeting the needs of the learner and the expectations of society. In fact, research has shown that the more we discover how the mind works and how students learn, the greater the disparity between what is said to matter and what we do in educational practice. The traditional approach to education, sometimes called "the instructional paradigm", has been characterized by content-driven curricula, excess amounts of lecture and/or teacher talk, extensive measurement and insufficient time for practice. In contrast, more recent approaches to education recognize that the student's knowledge, skills, and attitudes, set the boundaries, nature, and rate of his or her learning. Under this learning paradigm, the school would seek to create environments and experiences that help students to be more engaged in the construction of their own knowledge within communities of learners that make discoveries and solve problems both individually and collectively. There is an increasingly significant body of knowledge on the relevance and operation of such learner-centered learning environments. In order to facilitate learner-focused education, it will also be of critical importance to foresee with suitable accuracy, the characteristics of the learning environment of tomorrow, whether at school, home, or work. And of course, the relationship between the learner and his or her context, a context that is changing very rapidly due to advances in the availability and uses of information technology.

Technological advances, especially in the computer and communications field afford a myriad of opportunities to enhance learning. Powerful search engines provide ready access to a wide variety of information sources including public and peer-reviewed knowledge-bases which, if used wisely, can enhance personal and group learning. Multi-media and software packages provide powerful new tools to facilitate the writing, computational, aesthetic, planning, and design capabilities of learners of all ages. The growth of the information highway has provided new opportunities for distance education as well as interactive communication among learners and their mentors/teachers.

Strategic issues related to access, content, and pedagogy will have to be addressed as changes continue to emerge in this fast-changing area. Wisely developed and used, information technology can facilitate meeting the individual needs of learners and monitor the progress that is being made by a learner or a group of learners. Furthermore, efficient and effective communication among learners, teachers, mentors, and administrators, within and outside institutions, can greatly enhance collaborative efforts within the community.

Through reading, observation, study, dialogue, and practice appropriately supported by information technology, the student will learn to communicate, listen carefully, present information orally or in writing, as well as solve problems by systematically analyzing them. In doing so, the learner will develop personal strengths in response to feedback, mentoring and the ongoing evaluation of personal goals. Therefore, much greater attention will have to be placed on the management of the self in relation to learning and personal development across the lifespan in order for students to reach their full potential.

Learning should take place in a democratic atmosphere

An appropriate Vision Statement would likely stress the need for high standards and underscore the deep belief that education should be carried out in a democratic context. The vision of the role of the teacher that is emerging will only take place, in a sustained way, if classrooms and schools are organized to become communities of learning in which all students participate actively. In older cultures, children of the elite were well taught. They were educated to think powerfully and for a purpose, and to make use of their learning to criticize and create new forms of community in which they were or would become strong members. One task of education in the next century will aim at democratizing the best of this older elite version of learning. Technological, pedagogical, and organizational advancements used by the Holmes Group (U.S.A.) for instance, have already reached enough sophistication to actively support professional educators in the task of providing better learning opportunities for all children and enabling them to become self-directed learners .

A democratic approach to learning should also call for equal opportunities for all students. Teachers are among the first to witness the human costs of society's failure to meet that goal. They know that the classroom is far from being homogeneous. More students are raised by single parents, more come from families that are new to the mainstream culture and many are affected and discouraged by poverty. The challenges of teaching for understanding multiply in schools where the inequalities of class, race, and gender are severe. Unfortunately, very often, schools profess egalitarian ideals but often sort students based on standardized means of dubious validity. Professional educators are searching for answers to the problems of diversity in the learning environment. The extra burden on teachers will consequently have to be shared by gradually restructuring the administration of the school and its leadership to provide additional support for the teaching staff as well as to facilitate greater involvement of the community.

The learner in a learning community

In an era of active citizenship where individuals have the means to better their lives and the lives of other people around them, where the nation state as traditionally known is losing some of its powers, and non-governmental organizations and people's movements have increased in all countries, students must become more aware that they are essentially social beings; that is, they are members of a community, be it a family, a school, or the surrounding society which contributes to their survival, personal development, and well being. At the same time, it is important to understand that everyone in that society has obligations to it. The school should help to identify the nature of those obligations particularly through making locally relevant knowledge a central part of the learning process.

A new approach to learning will call for a rapprochement between the student and the teacher, both learning together, seeking new ways to discover, to create, and to solve problems. They both will be given the opportunity to understand the constraints inherent to teaching and learning as well as the type of support needed from the community including the business world. In return, the community itself will learn from such interactions and will become aware of its own responsibilities and conceptualize the type of impact it should have on the education process.


The new learning paradigm that is emerging will touch on all aspects of the learning process as well as its outcomes. Four of the most important aspects are briefly addressed below.

Design and assessment of learning environments

With the focus on the development of the increased personal control of learning by students, as well as the increased opportunities to support learning afforded by advances in technology and pedagogy, much greater emphasis must be placed on the design, use, and evaluation of learning methods and environments. In the emerging vision of a learning society, the power of an approach or learning environment will be judged in terms of its impact on learning. Therefore, it follows that the feedback on the results of learning at the institutional level should have a correspondingly large impact on the institution's behaviour and the means it uses to stimulate and encourage learning.

Important changes will have to be introduced in the way success is measured. Institutional outcome assessment, which up until now has been almost entirely based in terms of content outcome assessment, will have to include much greater attention to the development of the learning ability of the student and the context in which it is developed.

In the new learning paradigm, the structure of courses and lectures will become more flexible and negotiable. Semesters and quarters, lectures, labs, indeed classes themselves, might well become options in lieu of formal structures or mandatory activities, especially as new means are found to foster learning through the wise use of technology. The new learning paradigm will prescribe no single answer to the question of how to organize learning environments and experiences. It will rely on any learning method and structure that works (where works is defined in terms of learning outcomes), that is, both product and process, not as a degree of conformity to an ideal classroom archetype. In fact, the learning paradigm requires a constant search for innovative structures and methods that work better for student learning and success, and expects even these to be redesigned so as to evolve continually over time.

Shaping the nature of the teaching-learning process

The new learning paradigm frames learning holistically, recognizing that the chief agent in the process is the learner. Thus, students must be active discoverers and constructors of their own knowledge. In this paradigm, knowledge is seen as a nesting and interacting of frameworks; learning is revealed when those frameworks are used to understand and act. Seeing the whole of something gives meaning to its elements and the whole becomes more than the sum of the component parts: learning environments and activities are learner-centered and shaped by the learner or groups of learners, with appropriate support from a teacher or an enabler of learning. While teachers will have designed the learning experiences and environments the students use, often from teamwork with each other and other staff, as well as the students, they need not be present for or participate in every structured learning activity.

Increased scope of the education agenda

The contributions that education can make in developing society can take many forms. People need development not only as contributors to the economy, but also as members of society. Very often education is evaluated on its capacity to enable economic productivity and not enough on its capacity to enable both membership and leadership in society. There is a great need for a renewed focus on human values in education which many believe have eroded in modern culture, including honesty, justice, equality, compassion, and a sense of community.

While some people are oblivious to the events around them, others are responsible and proactive. These people have empowered themselves with the right and the will to make a difference. Empowerment and participation will be central aspects of 21st century citizens. Responsible people are value-driven. Values drive the individual's action. The nature of these values is the determining factor in ensuring the right actions. Education systems today try to encourage individuals to develop the values necessary for good living. However, very often, many of the values formerly imparted have been abandoned by our education system rationalizing that it is not education's job. To some extent this is true. The family, the church, and other parts of society have critical roles as well. But education has to revisit its role in this important domain.

Responsible individuals have to be sensitive to their surroundings. A willingness to change has to exist before it can be translated into activities that result in change. An appreciation of the need for change is nurtured when a person has had an opportunity to learn about the realities of the world. This calls for a person who has enough understanding to intuitively appreciate the interdependency between actions and the affect they have on society. Interdependency means that the repercussions of decisions in business, politics, and in private life can impact other people down the street, in the next city, and sometimes half way around the world. The responsible individual cares about others. By making knowledge and information about the state of the world, its cultures and challenges more available to young people, they will be more likely able to take responsibility for themselves and others throughout their lives. Advances in technology provide new opportunities to share and develop such socially-relevant knowledge.

A collective commitment to change

We are well aware of the challenges to the education system posed by our rapidly changing world: globalization of the economy, openness with regard to other cultures, pressing needs for skilled labour, as well as, technological advances that are having an impact on our daily lives and the job market. We are reminded that these changes require constant adjustments of our educational practices to ensure high quality, accessibility, mobility, and accountability. Across the country individual persons are facing similar challenges and they see more and more the need for new and more relevant educational goals to be set and attained.

If Canada is to provide leadership in the world today, it must embrace learning as a central feature of its national identity by providing learning opportunities for everyone, and by making available a wide variety of learning strategies, as well as subject matter, geared to the individual learner. In fact, simply applying information technologies in the classroom may actually have negative consequences if not appropriately integrated into broader learning goals and strategies. The task facing us is to create a vision of the learner in the 21st century that will enhance personal and social development in such a way that all learners reach their full potential and contribute to the world in a positive and compassionate manner.

In short, the new learner will be a person who takes full advantage of all that the 21st century has to offer to better actualize his or her full potential; more concretely, she or he will be less limited by self-imposed or institutional-centered barriers.

Clearly, the above ideas require further discussion and open dialogue, and we hope that the questions we have posed provides additional stimulus to develop an appropriate vision of the learner in the 21st century.