What Really Matters?

What Really Matters

Spring came early to Seattle this year and my daughter and I went out to play tennis this week. Our balls flew high in the air, hit the net and landed outside the court...a lot. We murmured ‘sorry’ to each other and players around us. We didn’t even attempt to keep score. Sure, it may have improved our skills to play a proper game, but keeping score would have ruined the experience. As we laughed and loped after our rolling balls, I remembered something a fellow funder said at the foundation where I worked as a program officer. I cannot attribute it, nor write it verbatim, but it went something like this:

If you’re not keeping score, you’re not playing the game.

The comment was made to stress the importance of evaluating impact. How do our investments and partnerships move the needle on eradicating malaria, improving maternal health and raising student test scores? If the influx of significant dollars does not change outcomes, and relatively quickly, it is cause for concern and possible grant reallocation or termination. I remember vigorously agreeing to this statement at the time. After all, keeping score or ‘formative assessment,’ if we relate this to education, is a critical component of the academic learning and improvement cycle, for both students and teachers. This thesis is hard to argue with (see research like Black & Williams’ The Black Box).

Standardized tests administered more infrequently by larger systems like districts, states, provinces and nations are a different animal altogether as they serve to hold investments and programs accountable, but equally important. Governments have a responsibility to track the impact of taxpayer dollars and we have a moral obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of racial/ethnic background and social status, achieve. What bothers me with tests now is that they measure some but not all of the right things.

In other words, we’re not keeping score of the game we’re actually playing in a much different world today than even a decade ago.

The tennis game with my daughter wasn’t really a game of skill, strategy or endurance. It was more of a game of grit, patience and humility. Schools are still, and rightly, assessing core academic knowledge and skills (the new Common Core exams are a huge improvement over previous exams especially in measuring critical thinking skills; the OECD’s PISA exam is another admirable example of a 21st C measurement tool). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Progress, perhaps...but are we really measuring what matters in the end?

So, what really matters in the end? And how do we know what matters?

As this is a blog post and not a scientific journal, I’m going to tell you what I think matters from the perspective of an educator and parent. As one of my favorite edu-blogger and inquiry kindred spirit writes, “I could write a formal post using fancy language, quoting research about coaching if I wanted to, but I choose not to! (There are plenty of those around, just Google.)” I feel the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools and International Baccalaureate nurtured me as a young teacher and principal. They (and their associated common principles and learner profiles) are where I still go for inspiration and direction. Mine is a bit shorter.

What Really Matters: What Students Would Be Doing, What Teachers Would Be Doing

1. Joy


Speaking to one another throughout the class period on relevant work; Smiling and generally looking happy to be there; Showing excitement and passion for their work, sharing and talking about their work outside the classroom


Talking less; asking more (we could create an voice-recognition app for this!); Creating emotional bonds among students and the subject; students and the teacher; students and other students (eg. storytelling); Designing work that is meaningful, integrates the environment/tech and offers creative choice (PBL)

2. Sticking with Difficult Problems


Everyone is participating and taking risks with ideas; Collaborating with other students and utilizing resources (not just the teacher); Asking great questions


Celebrating “mistake-making” and staying neutral when students take risks with conjectures/thoughts
Roaming around asking questions and helping students come to own solutions; 
Taking time to train students on how to ask great questions (Blooms, Webb, RQI, etc.)

3. Getting Along with Others (and Feeling Good about Oneself)


Building on and debunking others’ ideas in respectful ways; Balancing and taking good care of mind, body, spirit through physical activity, art, music, relaxation and good food; Noticing when someone is in need or hurting and taking action; Listening to others with full attention and respect; sharing the stage with other voices


Offering lots of instructional conversation and discussion time; and reflection on the discussions
Creating a schedule and environment that intentionally nurtures what really matters; 
Noticing/acknowledging when sharing, helping and kindness are happening; modeling and talking about these behaviors in real contexts; Setting up conversation norms and listening to students intently and with an open-heart

4. Analyzing Knowledge Sources


Citing sources of information unprompted; Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of one another regularly; Accessing and analyzing sources of information from a variety of places; online, in person, through experiences


Frequently citing their own sources of information unprompted; Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of students regularly; Providing opportunities to access devices and analyze sources of information

What if, upon being hired at a school, you were told that nurturing these four things with your students was your real job (the actual game you were playing)? The vehicle with which you teach these four things is the content; whether it was calculus, culinary arts or literature. Sharing the cannon of your subject area was secondary to teaching these four things.

Or, what if we taught these four things explicitly at times? An entire course on joy and finding one’s passions! An entire course on how to be a good friend or handle enemies! Or a course on analyzing and making sense of the vast and overwhelming amount of information available to us now! Imagine if for an entire semester students delved into the "The fundamental problem of communication.”

It matters that children enjoy school, stay curious about the world around them and find learning stimulating and worth the effort. Too many children are getting really good at

complying with school. My own children have become dutiful little worksheet-fillers and holiday-celebrants (they attend “great public schools”).

That’s not on them...it’s on us. We don’t regularly offer students the time or the experience of working on meaningful projects and problems together. Yes, the exceptions are there and they are wonderful. Thank you, wonderful, exceptions! One might argue that the curriculum is so tight that teachers cannot possibly deviate and provide the time needed for this type of instruction. That’s fair, but there are strategies one can overlay even the dullest of lessons. A question like “What makes you think that?” or “What do the rest of you think about what Jake just said?” can be applied to any setting or curriculum and offer students the opportunity to communicate and think more deeply.

When one is 30, 60 and 90 years old, these are the things that will matter more than the periodic table. Keep the new tests, but let’s not forget to keep looking at the things that really matter.