Learner Trait Discourses


Interpreting learning and teaching in terms of the characteristics of the individual learner

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … established, external truths
  • Knowing is … measurable performance
  • Learner is … an individual
  • Learning is … acquiring; attaining
  • Teaching is … instructing




In popular terms, the word “learner” is overwhelmingly interpreted in terms of an individual person. Consequently, “learning” is understood in terms of changes to individual possibility, and that notion serves as a grounding assumption of Learner Trait Discourses. Concisely, if “learning” is narrowly defined in terms of what a “learner” does, it follows that the characteristics of the learner will define the learning that happens. (Compare: Identity Discourses.) Discourses that are prominently associated with Learner Trait Discourses (but that often read into other interpretive frames) include:
  • Learner Characteristics (Learner Model; Learner Profile)– a concept deployed in some branches of education and psychology, associated with identifying categories of learners (according to personal, academic, and/or demographic qualities), typically to define and form target groups for experimental teaching methods and instructional materials
  • Applied Psychology (Hugo Münsterberg, 1910s) – an umbrella notion, applied to pragmatically oriented branches of psychology, including:
    • Counseling Psychology – Typically drawing on Well-Being Discourses and Personal Agency Discourses, Counseling Psychology aims to support schooling success and career development by focusing on individuals’ senses of self, social relationships, and overall functioning.
    • Educational Psychology – Dominated by Positivism and related sensibilities, Educational Psychology is mainly focused on studying and assessing learning in formal educational settings, with a secondary interest in the psychology of teaching.
    • School Neuropsychology – A more recent specialty of School Psychology that focuses on aligns strongly with Cognitivism and Information Processing Theory in its emphasis on evaluating cognitive processing through standardized instruments
    • School Psychology – Most prominently drawing on Personality Types Theories, Identity Discourses, Developmental Discourses, Motivation Theories, and Learner Trait Discourses, School Psychology is a field that focuses on the diagnosis and treatment of individuals’ behavioral and learning problems.


Learner Trait Discourses tend to cast the individual learner as an isolated and insulated entity whose learning is determined by largely immutable qualities. These discourses have been used to differentiate among and segregate learners, to rationalize regimes of measurement and comparison, to explain away differences in achievement and aptitude, and to further entrench structures and emphases of traditional (standardized) education. Critical attentiveness to underlying assumptions on learning and learners is rarely part of the discourses.


  • Applied Psychology
  • Counseling Psychology
  • Educational Psychology
  • Learner Characteristics (Learner Model; Learner Profile)
  • School Neuropsychology
  • School Psychology

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Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2021). “Learner Trait Discourses” in Discourses on Learning in Education. https://learningdiscourses.com.

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