Learner types: Which is most prepared for an uncertain future?

The Learning Landscape is a powerful metaphor for learning. More than that, it offers us a way to visualise and understand what skilful learning looks like, and what teachers need to do to help students develop as more skilful learners.  

As we engage students in the Learning Landscape, two important points about learning become apparent. Firstly, learning is an active process. Students go on a learning journey through the landscape, encountering Challenge Pits and climbing out of them. They fill their backpacks with Habits of Mind and ascend the mountains of expertise.

Secondly, learning is not a simple matter of moving through the Learning Landscape in the same way as everyone else. How we move is critically important. Learning is a skill students must develop and master!

The power deeply embedded in the Learning Landscape is that to become a truly effective learner, to roam far and wide and climb the highest peaks, students must be more than active learners – they must be skilful ones! The most successful students actively work towards becoming more skilful learners.

In my book, The Learning Landscape, I describe six different types of learners.

Non-Learners, Beginning Learners and Performance Learners are below-the-bar learners. While these learners might learn “new” things, they never really challenge themselves to learn more difficult things. These learners remain in the lowlands of the Learning Landscape, never truly developing the skills they need to conquer more difficult challenges. As a result, they tend not to cope in the face of change.

Directed Learners, Independent Learners and Agile Learners are above-the-bar learners. They stretch themselves, take on Challenge Pits and fill their backpacks with Habits of Mind to succeed at increasingly difficult tasks. These learners succeed to varying degrees in the face of change. However, the way they do this varies in critically important ways.

A Directed Learner does what they are told. They are led through the Learning Landscape and react to the learning demands given to them by a teacher. They are compliant, accepting the challenges the teacher gives them. They accept feedback, correct mistakes only when they are pointed out to them, and then do what they are told to do next. In this way, they are reactive – they learn only at the direction of the teacher.

An Independent Learner takes charge of their learning. They set their own goals and journey through the Learning Landscape in the direction they choose. They respond to the learning demands of the environment as they arise. When they realise their backpack is not sufficiently equipped with well-developed Habits of Mind, they fill it themselves, seeking feedback and asking for help as they encounter difficulties. In this way, they are responsive to their learning needs. They recognise when the Learning Landscape presents them with a challenge beyond their current capacity, and they respond by adapting themselves to that environment.

The Agile Learner is the most sophisticated and effective learner. They are proactive and prepare themselves for an unknown future environment by becoming the most skilful learner they can be. They embrace challenges not because they are told to or because they lie in the path of them reaching their goal. Rather, they embrace challenges as opportunities to develop new skills and Habits of Mind. Agile Learners recognise the future will bring unpredictable challenges. By embracing challenges now, they become better learners and prepare themselves for an uncertain future.

Perhaps there was a time when it was sufficient for teachers to be in charge of the learning process, for students to do what the teachers said and be Directed Learners. Today, however, the role of the teacher has changed. We must not only guide students through the Learning Landscape, we must also teach them how to become their own guides. We must teach them how to take control of their learning and become more skilful learners.

Moreover, we must show students how to prepare themselves for a world that is changing more rapidly than it has in the past. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out in his book, Antifragile, it is impossible to predict the future, but we can prepare for it. And the way we prepare for it is by developing Agile Learners.

The Learning Landscape provides us with a rich and powerful metaphor that helps teachers more deeply understand their role in developing Agile Learners. In my Learning Landscape workshops, I give you the tools you need to develop Agile Learners in your classroom. I share with you 5 different teaching styles, and the key focus of each that will ensure you are developing Agile Learners in your classroom.


James Anderson is a speaker, author and educator who is passionate about helping fellow educators develop students as better learners. James’ work combines Growth Mindset with Habits of Mind and Practice to create Learning Agility. He puts the growth back into Growth Mindset. And through creating and describing the Mindset Continuum, he provides the cornerstone for effective Growth Mindset interventions.

James is a Certified Speaking Professional and speaks regularly at conferences around the world. He has published several books including Succeeding with Habits of Mind, The Agile Learner, The Mindset Continuum and The Learning Landscape.

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