Moving from “What is the Matter?” to “What Matters to You?”

The education world is full of smart people. We are not short of innovative and creative thinkers. What I believe holds us back at times is finding a different lens.

When we think about the priorities of our schools and the priority of learning it is of course grounded in curriculum and the things that have been determined to be important. Top of that list is the basics, literacy, math, science and social studies. More recently global competencies or the 5Cs have represented a more updated lens of what matters. On top of that, we are shifting from a one size fits all to a more individualized approach to education.

All of those things address the questions of “What is the matter?” as well as “what matters?” Diagnostic tools and insights help teachers find out both what matters as well as what is the matter with them, or what things impede their learning. From there we work tirelessly to ensure these things that matter are offered, shared, delivered to students. I don’t want that sentence to read as negative because not only is that the core of the work of schools but it can and for the most part is offered with thoughtfulness and care.

But asking “What is the matter?” or identifying “what matters” isn’t quite the same as asking “What matters to you?”

In the book The Power of Moments there’s a powerful story of a tiny shift made by a children’s hospital administrator from Scotland after hearing Maureen Bisognana share a story about her brother, that transformed the work of her hospital. Essentially Maureen watched as her a neighbouring hospital cared for her dying brother. They identified what his needs were and attempted to provide him with the best possible care and make him as comfortable as possible.

…one day at Peter Bent Brigham Hospital a physician came to visit. Maureen was sitting at Johnny’s bedside. The physician turned to her brother and said, “Johnny, what do you want?” “I want to go home,” Johnny answered. What happened next astounded Maureen. The physician asked for her jacket. He took it from her and draped it around Johnny, then carried him from the hospital bed to her car. Johnny returned to his family home, and he spent his final days in the company of the people who loved him most.
Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (pp. 235-236). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

After hearing Maureen share this story at a conference, Jen Rodgers, the children’s hospital administrator realized that at her hospital her staff was doing all they could to determine what was the matter with their patients.

She gave construction paper and markers to the children on her ward and encouraged them to draw on a page titled “What Matters to Me.” One of those kids was Kendra, seven, who had just checked into the children’s ward for surgery. She had autism and had never spoken a word. Her father was with her to help her communicate with the staff. But within 24 hours after Kendra checked in, her father suffered a suspected cardiac arrest. He had to be rushed to another hospital, leaving Kendra alone, terrified, and unable to speak for herself. But she had completed her “What Matters to Me” page, and it opened a door into her world. “My name is Kendra,” she wrote. “I have autism. I can’t speak so I won’t be able to if it hurts. I don’t like medicine by my mouth so watch out I will struggle. I love to feel people’s hair, it is my way of saying hello.” (See her drawing on the next page.) Her nurses used her drawing as a guidebook for caring for her. Without it, Rodgers said, the nurses could have easily misinterpreted her behavior. Imagine them dealing with a hard-to-understand child who grabs at their hair and fights when given oral medication. She might have been deemed aggressive. She might have been confined to her room, which would have caused her even more stress. Her father recovered quickly and rejoined her within a few days. In the meantime, the nurses had looked after Kendra by honoring her requests. They comforted her. (“I love cuddles to reassure me,” she’d written.) They avoided oral medications when possible, knowing she didn’t like it. They high-fived her. They let her feel their hair, and they combed hers. (“My dad is rubbish at doing my hair.”) Their relationship was utterly transformed because of a simple question: “What matters to you?” Heath, Chip. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact (pp. 236-237). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

I’ve thought about this story a lot and shared it a few times in presentations. Part of me acknowledges it’s a simple thing and speaks to focus on strengths which aren’t a new thing. However, like so many good and important ideas, we don’t fully implement or explore them as we should.

If you ask people “What is important for children to learn?” You’d get a laundry list of good things to learn. It’s important to remember that curriculum, even competency learning is somewhat arbitrary. There is no shortage of things that are important. For the most part, adults are the ones that decide what is important to students and even other adults. While things like “voice and choice” and student agency are shifts to move away from a content driven education it doesn’t quite get to the really essential question. To be clear, I’ve long advocated for adults to share what matters to them to students as well. As we build a community of learners, we need to continue to understand everyone’s needs, wants and desires.

How often do we ask the students and adults we serve “What Matters to You?” And how would their answers change the work we do?