The Learner’s Always Right!


What the heck does that mean, anyway?

Saying that the “learner is always right” doesn’t mean that learners don’t make mistakes.  It simply means that what the learner does tells us how effective our instruction is.  When learners make mistakes this is a signal to us that we need to change something about what we’re doing so that we meet the learners’ needs.

Oftentimes when kids don’t do well at school we have a tendency to blame them.  We say that they don’t work hard enough or that they’re not smart enough.  The problem with this, of course, and particularly in the case of a student not being “smart enough,” is that it doesn’t really give us anywhere to go as instructors.

What if instead of “blaming” the learner we took responsibility, as instructional designers, for the learner’s poor performance?  What if our approach was, “Hmmm, this lesson didn’t generate the student performance that I was expecting.  How can I change this lesson?”  And what if we didn’t stop improving on the lesson until we got the performance we were looking for from every learner?

I can hear some of you thinking, “Holy crap!  That’s a lot of work!”  And it probably is.  And depending on the type of instruction we’re delivering it’s not always viable to iterate enough times to get every learner to the same level of mastery performance.  But even if we don’t get every learner to that point, what if we still thought about it differently?  If we thought, “Well, Johnny got to 90% of mastery on this lesson and if I had more time to spend I could get him to 100%?”

What kind of difference (if any) do you think this would make in the classroom?  Do you think it would make for happier kids?

Sad Student image from

About karen mahon

i am a behavior and learning scientist. i hold an ed.d. in educational psychology and am trained as an instructional designer. i have spent more than 15 years working in education and instructional software design.
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4 Responses to The Learner’s Always Right!

  1. Mair says:

    Yes, what if? What if, instead of believing that students are “just lazy”, we looked at what we could do differently to engage them, grab their interest, enliven their love of learning?

  2. karen mahon says:

    Mair, exactly! We all have seen those kids…lying across their desks, poking their neighbor, looking around the room. Instead of thinking of those kids as lazy or not being able to pay attention, what if we looked at the lesson and asked “What might be the reason that this lesson isn’t keeping this learner engaged? Does she have all of the prerequisite skills?” Often in these situations it’s not just a so-called “motivation” problem…it can also be a skills-deficit problem!

    • Mair says:


      The question that I have teams work with is “where is the gap in my instruction?”…and it is the first question I ask MYSELF when I am training and I look out into a sea of blank stares…I think that the important piece of this is for people to understand that blaming the student does not ameliorate the issue and, in fact, can create a self-sustaining vicious circle/cycle.

      As you said, “holy crap, that’s a lot of work”…Indeed, it can be a lot of work, especially when one has to take a look at comfortable methods of instruction that are not producing the expected student learning outcomes.

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