By Will Richardson

We’re halfway to school when my 14-year-old son remembers a homework assignment he forgot to do for biology class.

“Something big?” I ask, fearing the worst.
“Nah,” he says with a shrug. “Just a handout and some questions. It doesn’t matter.”

It’s happened before, many times, in fact, that “it doesn’t matter” response when it comes to work both of my kids are doing in school. This morning when he said it, I started trying to remember any work that they’d done this year that actually did matter in the world, work that seemed to have a purpose outside the classroom. Unfortunately, not much came to mind.

That’s an especially frustrating reality for me because in my travels to schools around the world I see lots of examples of “work that matters”; high school kids in Philadelphia designing solar panels for hospitals in the African bush; middle school kids in San Diego writing books about their local ecosystems and selling them in local stores; primary school kids designing a new classroom wing being built at their school outside of Melbourne, Australia. And more.

“Work that matters” has significance beyond classroom walls; it’s work that is created for an authentic audience who might  enjoy it or benefit from it even in a small way. It’s work that isn’t simply passed to the teacher for a grade, or shared with peers for review. It’s work that potentially makes a difference in the world.

And while we’ve always been able to do “work that matters” in our classrooms, our growing access to the Web and the tools and technologies of the modern world can certainly amplify the potentials for audience and for real world application of whatever it is our students are doing. Suddenly, our students have a potential  audience of 2.5 billion people who could become readers or collaborators, and they’ve got all sorts of tools and apps in their backpacks that they can use to create really beautiful, meaningful work in ways that most of their teachers couldn’t imagine doing when they were in school. I would argue, in fact, that the growing access to knowledge, information, people, and tools that our students are getting demands a shift in how we think about the work they do in school, one that moves them away from traditional, institutionally organized “assignments” and toward more student-organized projects that are centered on the intersection of their interests and the subject or standard at hand.

That argument becomes even more compelling when you look at the work some kids are doing on their own, outside of school, around their own interests and passions. Like 16-year-old Sean Fay Wolfe, whose 422-page book Quest for Justice (a novel set in Minecraft) currently ranks in the top 1 percent in sales of books sold on Amazon. Or like 12-year-old “Super Awesome Sylvia” Todd, who designed and helped to create a water color replicator that now sells in kit form for $295. Or 15-year-old Jack Andraka, who used his after school time to work in a Johns Hopkins laboratory to invent a cancer test that obliterated the current gold standard.

Are these kids outliers? Sure. But they are also examples of what is now possible for every child and, I would add, each one of us as well. And those examples and the thousands more like them should compel us to rethink what’s possible in our classrooms if we begin to open up to the potentials. Instead of passing paper, digital or otherwise, back and forth between students and teacher, what if we allowed students to do real work for real audiences that can read and interact far beyond the limits of the school walls, schedule, and curriculum? What if we let our students do work that they actually cared about and wanted to create, not for a grade but because of its potential contribution to and effect on the world?

No question, this kind of work is harder to manage and to assess; there is very little if any “work that matters” that happens when students sit to take state assessments. Even though this type of work might tell us much more about what a student has learned and can do with that learning than any traditional test, it’s not as efficient or quantifiable or rankable.

Still, we can start small, can’t we? What if we took 10% of what we’re currently doing and handed it over to our students, asking them to meet the standard or the outcome we’ve set for them in a way that they care about and that had a purpose beyond the classroom? What if we created opportunities for them to educate, entertain, inspire, or connect with people from all over the globe who might be sincerely influenced by the work they’re doing? And what if we asked them to assess their own work in ways that matter to them, ways that inform them what worked, what didn’t work, and how they might do it differently down the road?

Schools and classrooms should support a deep culture of “doing work that matters,” where the adults in the building serve as models for the type of creating and learning we might expect from kids. And there should be a clear vision that everyone understands and works toward, one like the vision at Mount Vernon Presbyterian School in Atlanta which states: “We are a school of inquiry, innovation, and impact.” Impact, as in the work that students do carries more weight than just a grade.

The reality of this moment is that every one of our students can create and share and connect in ways that didn’t exist even a decade ago. I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like a decade from now. But I know this: if our students look at the work we’re asking them to do today and say “It doesn’t matter,” we’re missing a huge opportunity to help them become the learners they now need to be.

Will Richardson will be the opening keynote for the July 28-30 EdTechTeacher Summit in Chicago.

For Students, the Importance of Doing Work That Matters 30 April,2014MindShift

  • Lori Kechter Blake

    This is absolutely Brilliant! I want to live in “this world”.

  • Afranklin

    Very interesting and true…kids need to relate to their world and see the significance. I, an elementary education teacher (5th/6th), always struggle with the delicate balance of children having enough background “standard” knowledge and experience to operate with. I guess balance is a good word. The homework thing is a huge hot topic right now.

  • Perkins

    Phone does one develop a work ethic if a parent says “OK” when they think it doesn’t matter

    • Perkins

      How does “one” not phone

  • Rebecca Irwin
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  • Oakland Teacher

    Agreed, mostly. However, please consider that when students hand in work that is “simply passed to the teacher for a grade,” that grade might be part of a system that the teacher has carefully designed to give your child important practice and feedback in order to aid skill development.

    • Randy Rodgers

      Skills that are probably 90% irrelevant and were deemed “important” by academics a century or more ago. The VAST majority of teachers never question whether the knowledge or skills they teach are important or matter at all to kids, or they delude themselves into thinking they are. That system needs to be razed and rebuilt.

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  • Math teacher

    I agree with opportunity for students to make a difference in their world with regards to creating something worthwhile. At the same time, there are students who need to practice or review or read to help improve their knowledge and skills to allow them to engage in such open challenges. There has to be a balance to make it worthwhile so students are not only contributing to an audience but at the same time building their own skillset.

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  • englishteacher

    I agree that it is important for students to have the chance to impact the world around them. However, is this really a new idea that students like to do work that matters to them? I get weighed down in education articles that say what teachers need to be doing without giving much concrete detail of how to actually begin implementing it in a classroom. Most don’t even provide outside resources to keep learning or researching. It gets really frustrating.

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  • Denise Powell

    Passion Projects.

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  • Heike Larson

    Work that matters is built into good Montessori programs! Much of what my seven-year-old does in her Montessori classroom combines being meaningful with being academically challenging. Here are just a few examples:

    – The 2nd graders wrote letters to the city where their school is located, asking the city to repair broken equipment at a local playground. They outlined, they drafted, they edited for spelling, for tone (“be more polite in asking” was a comment on one student paper), they wrote a final copy in their best cursive, with proper formal letter formatting. Then, they walked to the post office to buy stamps and to mailed them.

    – The older students often edit the writing work of the younger ones in their mixed-age community. They check math problems for accuracy. This is a great practice for their emerging spelling and grammar skills–and of practical use!

    – The 2nd years are currently recording audio books of their favorite picture books. They are much more motivated to read with intonation, without mistakes, as they know that their younger peers will listen to them read aloud. They also master important technology skills, as they edit their audio books.

    – In their daily writing process work, students write stories and then edit them until they are beautiful, ready to be bound and published. The younger students then use these stories written in cursive for reading practice during silent reading time!

    The mixed-age community in Montessori enables even young elementary students to progress academically and to be motivated by doing work that is meaningful to them.

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  • We’re talking about Project Based Learning here, right, Will? When it’s done correctly – authentically – then PBL requires students’ learning to matter beyond the classroom.

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  • Virginia Pratt

    I think there’s much truth in this. And if we, as teachers, see value in it that our students don’t see, we need to help them understand the value… OR re-evaluate our priorities for the assignment.

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  • Adam Dawkins

    The author misses a great opportunity to recognize work that matters in many schools; work that is been going on for years and years: student media. Reporters, editors, designers, coders, entrepreneurs, photographers, and producers working for their student-run newspapers, magazines, websites and broadcast video. This work matters, everyday. Student media has been doing this for a long, long time.

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  • Christine A

    More than a year ago, a very supportive supervisor who knew I was busting out out the traditional role of “teacher” sent me this article to help affirm my desire to expand my students’ experiences as well as my own. I read it, posted it on my “physical” classroom wall behind my “traditional” desk, and confirmed my mission to make everything I did with my students matter. Since this headline become my mantra, many of my students and their parents expressed to me how the year changed the way they view their own learning. My young geniuses were excited to come to school so that they could continue their work and expand their own learning. This shift in mindset affected not only my world, but those young minds that will affect so many others in our world.

    • I have to say, that’s one of the best stories I’ve heard when it comes to the stuff I’ve written over the years. Thanks for sharing it.

  • urbie delgado

    I heard Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (Disclaimer: I worked with Brian at Intel in the 90s and love that company) describe how his company is redoubling its efforts towards The Internet of Things. This is where devices are internetworked to the World Wide Web and accessible via our mobile devices. As educators we should embrace The Internet of Learning where we connect with others and, as you describe, learn while working with others on real problems.

  • Laurie Marshall

    I totally agree and want to take your thesis a step farther. Not only are we missing a huge opportunity to help students become learners, we are missing a huge opportunity to solve the enormous problems the human race faces as the planet warms. We need to partner the genius of youth to help heal the world. They need us, yes, but we may need them even more. You can see many more examples in my book, Beating The Odds Now: Ten Steps for Teachers to Meet the Standards and Still Love What You Do!

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