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For Students, the Importance of Doing Work That Matters

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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.

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