The Secret Teacher: What makes 21st-century students tick?

We can’t expect students to be happy with what we catch and feed them any more

The Three Rs, reading, writing and arithmetic, served us well for much of the 20th century, but what are the 21st-century equivalents? Today’s learners are very different, and upgrading our education system’s offering to reflect that is a priority.

The first two decades of the 21st century have irreversibly altered definitions of many aspects of life: diversity, inclusion, individuality to name just some. Young people growing up with these new definitions have needs far greater than those of their 20th-century counterparts. They also have access to knowledge on an unprecedented scale. There is as much misinformation available to them as there is information.

As teachers, our fishing days are numbered; we can no longer expect students to be satisfied with what we catch and feed them. Twenty-first-century learners need to do their own fishing. And if that’s the case, what function do schools and teachers serve? There obviously remains the vital one of facilitating opportunities for exploring life as a member of society. No woman is an island, after all.

Worrying statistics around screen time, and not just exclusively for young people, suggest that we are in danger of losing human connection. Screen time might be able to largely replace reading, writing and arithmetic, but schools and teachers provide what screens cannot.

Working in education over the past two decades means I’ve had front line experience of how learners have changed in that time. As I approach a career milestone, there is much to reflect on in terms of what trio I would suggest to replace the three Rs. What makes 21st-century learners tick?

In my experience, classrooms thrive when learning, love and laughter feature in equal doses.

Like love and laughter, learning is available elsewhere but it is unquestionably the essential component of schooling

Laughter doesn’t discriminate – it’s for everyone. We can, and should, be fun-loving at any age. Young people only stop being playful if we condition them away from it. Given that they spend such a large proportion of their childhoods in schools, it wouldn’t actually make sense for fun and laughter not to feature. If laughter isn’t a feature in our interactions we are depriving ourselves and those around us of something easily achieved through human contact and not yet easily replaced by technological advances.


Duty of care is familiar terminology in schools and refers to our obligation to ensure the students' safety and wellbeing. That is the legalese we use; the cold, hard application of the term. And by love here, I mean the altogether warmer and entirely natural sense of caring for the minors entrusted to us on a daily basis. We get to spend the waking hours of their academic days with them, and this is too rarely acknowledged as the privilege it is. Many of the diverse opinions on what teachers are, and what it means to be one, feed into a narrative that is unhelpful at best and toxic at worst. Given the unrivalled depth of teachers' contact with young people, we are their secondary adult role models (their primary one being unquestionably their parents, guardians or carers). If they are to thrive in our presence, it stands to reason that we should be thriving. Here in Ireland that is a tough ask. No violin or pity cap needed here, I imagine. I can safely state that we teachers are the butt of a lot of abuse and criticism. Some among us may deserve it, but not all.

Effective learning

Whereas learning could perhaps be the whole point of schooling in the days of reading, writing and arithmetic that is not true of learning in the 21st century. Like love and laughter, learning is available elsewhere but it is unquestionably the essential component of schooling. What does effective learning look like in the 21st century, as opposed to what it looked like in the 20th? If we are doing it properly, and moving with the times, it is active rather than passive. This means that learners are heavily involved: questioning, researching, debating, explaining and justifying. Rote learning is not 21st-century learning. Appropriate learning is open rather than closed. This means there is often no definitive, set and undisputed answer. Topics are broad and varied. Teachers are courageous about content which has them partnering the students in the search for answers, as opposed to always providing them. Many formal examinations are open book. (In fact our own school-leaving exams are anything but. Still, it is relatively early days and we may catch up before the century is out!)

Twenty-first-century learning happens in real time with new questions constantly emerging. There are more questions than there are answers and this is warmly welcomed. Learners know as much, if not more, than their teachers, and this is recognised without in any way compromising a teacher’s expertise and justified role in their students’ learning. In the same way as we value more than the academic about our students, society must embrace more than the academic in us as teachers.

A collaboration

Above all, 21st-century learning is a collaboration. It is set in an environment within which the partners care for and support each other. Twenty-first-century students mature and develop in line with all that they can access more widely and at earlier ages than ever before, and 21st-century teachers embrace that.

And so, as the rigid knowledge-based approach fell by the wayside, the gap between students and teachers narrowed. A different affinity has grown and paved the way for the three Ls: learning, love and laughter. Each one has its part to play in forming accomplished and contented 21st-century learners