You Are the Strategy: 21st Century Education - By David Tranter, PhD

Programs don’t change people, relationships do. - Bill Milliken

Teachers are preparing today’s students for the world of 2030, 2040, and even 2050. What do you think the future will look like? What are the biggest challenges that our students will face? What does education need to focus on now to help the next generation thrive in the world of tomorrow?

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Although no one can precisely predict the future, most experts agree that there are trends today that will come to fundamentally shape our lives in the future. These forces are redefining the world of employment, powerfully influencing our personal lives, and radically changing the skills that adults need to succeed.

Among these skills, two of the most important will be:

  1. The ability to adapt to a constantly changing world.

  2. The ability to manage mounds of information.

Today’s rapid pace of change shows no signs of letting up. Constant change will become the norm. For example, not only is it unlikely that someone will have the same job for their whole career, they are unlikely to have a single career. Instead, like the emerging “gig economy”, people will have multiple jobs, perform numerous roles, and need to be self-motivated and highly flexible. They will provide services and solve problems that we have never thought of or encountered before. Many of the jobs they are likely to do in 2050 don’t exist right now. Many of the jobs that exist right now probably won’t in 2050. The jobs that do survive will be unrecognizable by today’s standards.

Information—already ever-present in our lives—will be more available than ever. On the upside, all of the world’s knowledge will be simultaneously at the fingertips of every citizen on earth—or possibly piped directly to their brains! On the downside, the onslaught of information—of both the important and unimportant kind—will be unrelenting. Millions of information sources will constantly compete for our attention in increasingly provocative and intrusive ways. Successful people will be those who are able to discern good information from bad and resist the endless barrage of trivia, falsehoods and propaganda.

The fact that education needs to make fundamental changes in order to properly prepare our young people for the future is not new. Conversations about “21st century education” have been going on for a long time. More and more teachers have adopted new instructional strategies in the hope of more effectively building “21st century skills” such as the “4 Cs” of critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity.[1] Whether it’s through discovery learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning, problem-based learning, concept-based learning, or even trauma-sensitive approaches, teachers are genuinely trying to break free of the old factory model of education to help their students succeed as adults.

However, despite the efforts of many teachers, we have to admit that education hasn’t really changed that much. Sure, there are success stories of dramatic school transformations, but these still tend to be the exceptions that prove the rule that teachers are still trapped in the factory model box. 21st century strategies haven’t led to a 21st century education system. The promise of classrooms full of highly engaged and self-directed “learners” working together to find creative solutions to complex problems hasn’t fully materialized.

Instead, all too often, teachers do their level best to adopt new instructional strategies in order to “teach the whole student” but must shoe-horn them into an already jam-packed curriculum. Shifting the emphasis to project- or problem-based learning sometimes works, but it also can fall flat. And a trauma-sensitive approach can be tough to do properly when there is such pressure to get so much done each day. 21st century strategies haven’t clarified the goals of education, they have complicated them. The to-do list for teachers seems longer than ever.

The problem is that we are still operating as if there is a clear blueprint for success in the 21st century. We are making the assumption that there exists some set of competencies that, taken together, constitute a model of the successful adult. The thinking is, if we can just get clear about what our students will need to succeed in 2050, then we can start giving them those skills now. But we don’t know for sure what those competencies are, so we just keep adding more expectations and approaches to the list, hedging our bets, and hoping it all works out.

This approach, says the child psychologist Alison Gopnik, is the carpenter approach to education.[2] We start with the finished product—the “successful adult”—and then try to fashion each child into that adult. We come up with a list of the attributes that every child will need in the future and then set about ensuring that they acquire each one. We develop methods to teach these attributes, and ways to evaluate whether they have them. This is the traditional backwards design of the factory model. We start with the results we want to achieve and then put the pieces in place in an effort to make the results happen.

The carpenter approach to education worked in the past because the future was predictable. For the most part, we could rely on the fact that the future would be a lot like the present. Sure, there has always been change, but up until recently it’s been much slower and largely foreseeable. For example, we don’t teach the dewy decimal system or how to search through a card catalogue any more—it was pretty easy to anticipate that computers searches would become the norm. Adjustments had to be made, but the three r’s of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic were enduring fundamentals—every student needed the same level of proficiency in order to succeed. As for the future of employment, we knew that some adaptation would be required, but we also knew that those jobs would still exist in the future.

Now, the future is truly uncertain and preparing students for it calls for a fundamentally different approach. This, says Gopnik, is the gardener approach. Rather than focusing on working toward a predefined end product, gardeners focus on planting seeds, nurturing growth in all of its forms, and ensuring that the soil is as fertile as possible. The emphasis shifts from worrying about all the tools that each student should have at the finish line, and instead toward enriching the quality of their journey. There isn’t one definition of success, or one best path to get there. The journey can’t be planned in advance, but rather teachers (and educational partners) need to be highly responsive to the varied and complex needs of each student as they arise along the way. The goal isn’t to send young people off into adulthood with the same bagful of academic skills, so much as it is to ensure that they know themselves, are socially and emotionally healthy, and are able to deal with uncertainty and embrace the unknown.

The gardener approach emphasizes the fundamentally relational nature of education. It recognizes that relationships are at the core of learning and development. It views learning, not as curriculum-based, as much as it is fundamentally relationship-based.[3] This is critical to success when it comes to 21st century teaching. For example, as learning becomes student-focused—rather than curriculum-focused—the complex nature of each student become increasingly apparent. Students are no longer empty vessels to be filled, they are full-fledged human beings with unique needs, independent minds, and challenging personal lives. As teachers engage students in deeper learning, not only is the inner intellectual world of each student revealed, their emotional worlds are also laid bare.

When students enter into the uncertain and expansive space that is the process of discovery, they are exposed, vulnerable, and prone to feeling unsafe. And when they are invited to bring their whole self to the learning process, it should be no surprise that they bring their anxieties, defenses, and emotional struggles. In the factory model, whether a student suffers from anxiety, or has experienced trauma, may well have been considered irrelevant to learning. But now, students need to feel genuinely safe in order to take the intellectual and emotional risks that deeper learning demands. Teachers need to genuinely know their students, spot the early signs of struggle, and know how to provide effective support.

So, what does this truly mean for today’s teachers? It means that, if your instructional strategies sometimes fall flat, or if your classroom management strategies don’t seem to be working, maybe it’s time to think differently. If you feel pressure to solve your classroom problems through finding yet another new strategy, or if someone else suggest there’s a new strategy that will transform your teaching, maybe you should think about stepping off the strategy train and looking elsewhere. And by elsewhere, I mean, looking within. Chances are that the struggles that your students have will not simply be solved with technical solutions. There probably isn’t some answer out there that you are failing to find. The “answer” is much more complex, and more personal.

Genuine, caring and responsive relationships need to form the core of modern teaching. And it’s not just the relationship between you and your student that is critical. It’s the relationships that your students have with each other, and it’s the relationships that your students have with all of the educators in your school. It’s the relationship that the educators have with each other. It’s the relationship between educators and the parents and caregivers. And it’s the relationship between the school community, your school partner organizations, and the wider community.

But it all starts with you. You, my friend, are the strategy that matters most.


[1] National Education Association (2010). Preparing 21st Century Students for a Global Society: An Educator’s Guide to the “Four Cs”.

[2] Gopnik, A. The Gardener and the Carpenter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. New York, NY.

[3] Tranter, D., Carson, L. & Boland, T. (2018). The Third Path: A Relationship-Based Approach to Student Well-Being and Achievement. Nelson. Toronto: ON.


David TranterComment