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Follow the Golden Unicorns: three steps to true student-centric teaching

Follow the Golden Unicorns: three steps to true student-centric teaching

When you go to school, the trauma is that you must stop learning and you must now accept being taught.
— Seymour Papert

I don’t think Papert was over-exaggerating when he said that. Kris and I were at a Microsoft Leaders SUMMIT event the other week where we were asked to re-envision learning in the classroom. Here’s what we got:

Teachers are a guide on everyone’s side offering feedback and scaffolding. Students are collaborating while focused on a topic of interest. There are self and peer reflections on 21st-century skills.  It’s iterative. Generative. It’s V messy. And it’s not necessarily in a classroom.

This isn’t a new or even unique perspective on how the classroom should be run. Every other group in that room co-created the same vision. It’s no surprise that our education system needs a remodel. And despite the obvious need for change, classrooms are still being run the same way. Why? It’s self-preservation. Which is why transforming education isn’t an event, a Pro. D day, or a shiny new piece of tech. It’s a long-haul of unlearning, learning and relearning.

This modern learning journey is already being adopted in a number of classrooms across the world. It is happening, it’s just not being realized. So instead of addressing education’s obvious disappointments, I would like to celebrate the ones who are designing authentic learning experiences for our students. The ones who are taking risks every day in their classrooms, who are letting go of control so their students have more agency. The trailblazers for the rest of us.

Like any wave of habit or trend, teachers need to see it being done before they do it themselves.

I am constantly inspired by the educators who have shifted in their roles from “teachers to”. From teachers to learners. From teachers to mentors. We need to remember that these #teacherturned phenomenons are truly risking. When they put students at the center,  it raises a number of other daunting questions for them. How do I assess this style of learning? How do I monitor it? How do I document it? What do their report cards look like? How do I explain their progress to the parents? My principal? The #teacherturned squad all throw self-preservation out the window to become a MASTER OF THE MOMENT for their kids. They are the golden unicorns of education.



And now you’re thinking, well... I want to be a golden unicorn too, but I don’t know how. There is a very simple solution. And no, you don’t need to be overly creative, attend 100 Pro. D days, or be a trending Instagram TPT Edupreneur, you just need one thing:


Your new curriculum is right in front of you. If you strip “learning” down to what is truly important—YOUR STUDENTS—throwing out the old, arbitrary curriculum and designing a current, relevant and engaging learning experience is actually quite straightforward. Empathy is the first principle in design thinking. You just need to care. Not about the standards, about your kids!  Pause. Take a deep breath…. There is no resource for this. No textbook that I am going to suggest. No link or “how to” guide offered. Little Jane doesn’t come with a manual. You can’t run little Oscar through a photocopier and Simon can’t be pinned on Pinterest. This is just a pleasant reminder to stop overcomplicating learning with time-slots, arbitrary content, student labels, and expectations. Get to know your kids. Like, really get to know them.

They are capable of so much more than you could ever plan for.

The golden unicorns of education lead with empathy. Here’s how:


Remember - the kids know everything already. They are not empty vessels, they are purposeful agents. Your job is to make them think. So let your descriptive, step-by-step roadmaps for learning begin to look a little more like a compass and a middle of the woods drop-off.

instagram:  @inquiryteacher

instagram: @inquiryteacher

Rebecca Bathurts-Hunt (@inquiryteacher), co-author of Inquiry Mindset creates a world of wonder in her classroom every day through inquiry-based learning. Using a Wonder Wall in your class is a great way to identify your students' curiosities throughout the year.

Melissa Kruse (@readingandwritinghaven) and Emily Aierstok (@readitwriteitlearnit) are big advocates of passion projects. Why? It has changed the relationship they have with her students (back to empathy) for the better. Emily claims that she is finally tapping into the things that “make our students’ heart race, their eyes light up, and their engagement increase.”


This is the phase of unlearning, and at first, it is VERY uncomfortable. For you and for them. We are letting go of a teacher-student narrative that we once held so dear. Our self-preserving ways are scrapped. So it is important to anchor their learning journey in the WHY. The best way to do this is through formative, transparent goals.

instagram:  @believetheycan

instagram: @believetheycan

Kim (@believetheycan) and Emily Aierstok (@readitwriteitlearnit) provide visual reminders of the skill(s) being focused on. When the assessment is clear for kids, modern learning is anchored. “CAN I” is a question loaded with hesitation. “I CAN” is a statement of certitude. It is important to encourage confident learners through assessment so they believe they CAN. Note that Kim only focuses on one skill a week—a realistic goal. Learning is a habit, not an event. It takes time and open attention.


Be a guide on their side. Learn alongside them. Nurture the path they are on by offering feedback and encouragement. Celebrate them, who they are, and what they bring to the table. Then, give them an audience. A stage. So that everything they do becomes important.

instagram:  @selebrateyou

instagram: @selebrateyou

@SELebrateYOU is all about that morning message. They check in to see where their students are at by providing an easy, yet beautiful daily self and social awareness prompts. So simple, yet so powerful.

instagram:  @coreinspiration

instagram: @coreinspiration

Laura Santos (@coreinspiration) uses sticky notes to provide constructive feedback to further engage her students in their learning

Props to the golden unicorns out there who have taken the leap to give students greater agency in their classrooms. Lead the way!

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