Being That Teacher: Shifting Towards Student-Centred Learning

We will know we’ve been successful as educators if a student we taught can at age 30 pursue any option in life they desire — Ira David Socol.

As teachers, it seems the system measures us by the “success” (see standardised test scores) our students achieve while in our care, but perhaps the truest measure of an educator should be defined by the number of options our past students have available at age 30. What job opportunities exist for them? What kind of adults/partners have they become? What kind of parents may they have turned out to be?

Do you ever pause to wonder about your past students? As I prepare to farewell my current crop of young learners, my mind has drifted to students of years past. Where are they now? Did I have a positive impact on their lives? Did I help steer them towards finding their purpose in life? Do they remember school fondly?

Jack*, a former student who has just finished high school, popped into my room recently for a visit. While we were catching up, he shared that I had been his “best” teacher. I made a “did you drop out after year seven?” wisecrack, but I was humbled to hear it. And shouldn’t this be our aim as educators? To be that teacher? We all have them. It’s rarefied air to belong to the select group of educators that another person carries around with them for the rest of their days.

I had some amazing teachers over the years, but large chunks of my school experience were still pretty miserable. The recurring theme on my report cards growing up was “he has the ability, but needs to apply himself”. Actually, what I needed was learning that had meaning. What I needed was a sense of purpose and control. I needed to move & create. I needed adults who believed in me.

Deliver the best curriculum content the world has known and it won’t rate a mention against the educator who believes, who champions, who sees the potential of a young person and inspires them to pursue their purpose and passions above all else.

“He has too many of the wrong ambitions and his energy is too often misplaced.” (John Lennon)

This got me thinking about the experience Jack had in my room as opposed to his sibling who I’m currently teaching. Seven years ago I was a very different teacher. I epitomised teacher-centred practice. I decided what content and skills mattered and how each would be measured. I created the assignments and assessments which were completed in lockstep. I wielded strict deadlines, zeroes, and a trove of one-size-fits-all summative assessments to keep kids “accountable”. I got really good at getting kids to do my learning, now I’m trying to get better at helping kids find purpose and meaning in their learning.

Even though I cringe when I recall many of my past methods, my classroom wasn’t a bad place for kids and I wasn’t a bad teacher. Jack is a testament to that. I just had a lot of unlearning to do. I still do. Early in my career, I was mired in the left-hand columns of this continuum.

Image C/- EdPartnerships International: I think graphics like this can be valuable for educators who want to create more opportunities for student agency, but don’t know where to start.

By viewing growth along a continuum, it gives us actionable feedback and invites us to continue growing in an authentic and natural way. Instead of seeing co-design as a scary choice that we either plunge into head first or not, we can now see it as an extension of what all educators already do — helping students grow in capability and independence over time. – David Ng commenting onIn Search of a Co-Design Continuum

Every educator offers a different experience and it’s this diversity which creates rich learning environments and school cultures. There is not one best way to teach and educators should be allowed to stay true to their authentic pedagogy. But to paraphrase Monte Syrie, one end of this spectrum relies heavily on compliance, the other end relies on commitment. Doing school to kids is easy. Doing school with kids, that’s where the artistry of teaching comes in.

Many teachers equate developing opportunities for student autonomy, purpose and meaning to “letting ’em do whatever they want”. They can’t fathom how student-centred learning can be rigorous, challenging and engaging. During a recent podcast (Things Fall Apart: Human Restoration Project, S2: E18), Tony Wagner, suggested that when it comes to innovation, teachers are highly risk-averse. According to Wagner, we “teach in the ways we’ve been taught, it’s not our fault, it’s all we know” and “you’re not going to change your teaching because you’ve read a book…or seen a movie”.

I agree that educators are unlikely to find their “why” for change in the pages of a book, but the rest of this quote, I’m not so sure about. My school experience mostly served to inform the type of teacher I didn’t want to become. We have to overcome the limitations of our own experiences if we are going to transform school for all learners. We could change nothing and a large percentage of students who play the game of school just fine will find success and purpose in life. But all means all. Be that teacher.


Want to explore progressive education ideas but not sure where to start? Check out this primer from the Human Restoration Project.

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