Teacher as compass

I love the metaphor of ‘Teacher as compass’; helping students navigate their own learning journey.

Last night I read this tweet from Will Richardson:

I quoted his tweet and responded:

This made me think about the first time I used this metaphor? I went looking here on my blog and it turned out to be 13 years ago: David Warlick’s K12 Online Conference Keynote 2006. David used a metaphor about trains and ‘riding the rails’, and I decided to create a different metaphor:

“A great metaphor here, on the theme of learners navigating on their own, is the teacher as the compass. We point in a direction, (not necessarily the direction that the student is going), and we are a reference point or guide to the learning. As students sail (rather than ride the rails) they must choose their destination, (what they want to learn), and tack and adjust their path as they go… using the teacher as a compass that keeps them on their ‘learning’ course.


  • Students and teachers need to know how to sail- they need to be literate in these new ways of learning and communicating. They must be adaptable, willing to course-correct as they go.
  • Students and teachers need to seek out other sailors- communities of learners, online this too could be considered a literacy issue .
  • Students must bring their own sails- and not all sails are created equally, the metaphor can work with sails being competency (skills), motivation, handicaps (the ability to function physically, emotionally, intellectually (not everyone has the same sized sail), and technically (the ‘new’ literacy issue again)).
  • Teachers need to let students steer- it will take a while for many teachers to give up the steering wheel and become the compass.
  • Teachers need to be ‘useful’ compasses- “Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the Moon” comes to mind here… also think of using technology for learning rather than using technology to teach. If students steer themselves, they will take us into uncharted water, and we need to be able to point the way even when we may not know the best course of action. (It isn’t about ‘right’ answers, it is about the journey- this goes back to Warlick’s [or rather Toffler’s] idea that learners (students and teachers) need to learn, unlearn and relearn all the time.”

If teachers are focussed on providing content, they don’t need this metaphor because they are essentially taking all their students on the same journey. The teachers are captains with their students on the same boat. However, ‘Teacher as compass’ works very well with inquiry-based learning. Students will do projects where they become more knowledgeable than the teacher in a specific area of content. If teachers are trying to be the content providers for students who are all on different learning voyages, the teachers will fail. However, if teachers are guiding their students, helping them seek out information, and expertise, and supporting them in creating a learning plan… if they are the compass… then they can support students on their individual learning journeys.

Teacher as compass: Teachers provide the true north, and help students find a worthy course… one that will challenge their skills on the open learning seas.