Ditch Success for Significance: Impactful Learning | Will Richardson | 3 Min Read

When you think about a “successful” student or a “successful” school, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

Might it be high test scores? Acceptances to prestigious universities? A great GPA? A high ranking in U.S. News & World Report magazine’s list of “Best High Schools”?

I’m sure there’s nuance to the collective answers we might give, but for the most part, my guess is that’s how “success” is defined most often among educators and parents. And we loathe to mess with the recipe that gets us there.

But what if that definition isn’t capturing what’s most Important for our students in this moment. What if instead of “success” we sought “significance”?

In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in the midst of some heavy lifts right now: racial and social justice, economic inequity, climate, nationalism… We need people who aspire to significance to get through all that and whatever else might be on the horizon.

Sure, significance is harder to measure. It’s a story, not a score. It’s about doing meaningful work in, with, and for the world, not just for personal gain or reputation. In some ways, it’s about getting back to the real purpose of schools, to begin with.

Over the last half a century, there’s been a steady shift away from schools being seen as a “public good” whose goal is to develop able, contributing citizens, to, instead, a focus on the “private good” where the goal is to maintain or increase one’s personal standing in society. In many ways, that’s the reason school has become such a game, because “success” actually is seen as quantifiable. Large numbers of students will choose to cheat their way there if they have to, and we all are complicit in the ill-effects that ranking and sorting and competition manifest in our kids. The irony is that the more we judge them by numbers, the more insignificant they feel. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. And it likely won’t stay this way. Like many other narratives around education, this one is breaking. Schools propelled by significance instead of success are popping up all over. And this generation of emerging adults is rewriting the rules for success even more. The world may be moving there regardless, and many are figuring out that our continued existence may depend on it.

But what if we educators decided to choose that path as well? What if we retired our current definitions of success and instead committed to writing stories of significance?

Schools would be different places, I think, as would the people who graduate from them. We’d drape our hallways not with the insignias of Ivy League or Big Ten schools but with pictures and reports of the places where our students have already made a real difference, both in our local communities and in the greater world. We’d stop posting our test scores and instead start promoting our projects. (Who knows, maybe we’d even get rid of test scores altogether.) We’d begin to live more fully all of those things we say are most sacred in our work: relationships, creative problem solving, and having an impact.

Imagine a “pedagogy for significance.” It would require that we adults become deep learners of the world with our students, tracking the latest trends and contexts, connecting with others around the world to do work that matters to become “significant” in our own right. 

Or imagine a “curriculum of significance,” one that would focus on the development of the skills, literacies, and dispositions to become positive actors in the world. It couldn’t be static, dependent on what’s already known; instead focused on uncovering what needs to be accomplished for the world in which we live today. 

No question, this would be a significant change from our current practice. But then again, as the word suggests, isn’t that the point?

So let’s stop striving for “success,” and in all of our interactions with children, let’s strive instead to help them and our school communities become significant, if for no other reason than we need them to be. 

Will Richardson

A former public school educator of 22 years, Will Richardson has spent the past 15 years developing an international reputation as a leading thinker and writer about the intersection of social online learning networks, education, and systemic change. Most recently, Will is a co-founder of The Big Questions Institute which was created to help educators use “fearless inquiry” to make sense of this complex moment and an uncertain future. In 2017, Will was named one of 100 global “Changemakers in Education” by the Finnish site HundrED, and was named one of the Top 5 “Edupreneurs to Follow” by Forbes. He has given keynote speeches, lead breakout sessions, and provided coaching services in over 30 countries on 6 continents. He has also authored six books, and given TEDx Talks in New York, Melbourne, and Vancouver.

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