Focusing on What Matters - From Identifying to Enacting our Big Rocks

There is a delightful story frequently told of a philosophy professor who shares a valuable life message with students through the story of the “Big Rocks”. There are many versions of the story, and the protagonist varies from philosopher to business guru to teacher, it goes something like this.

The professor places a large glass jar on the bench at the front of the hall. It is empty, and this fact is verified when the glass is turned upside down. From a small bag, the professor places one rock after the other into the jar until it can take no more. He holds the jar aloft and asks the students who are wondering what the point of this demonstration might be, “Is the jar full?”. In unison, the class responds “yes”. The professor returns the jar to the table and takes a second bag from under the table. Delicately and with some shaking of the jar to facilitate the process the professor now empties the contents into the jar. Out of the bag tumbles a stream of gravel which fills the spaces between the larger rocks already in the jar. Again the jar is held aloft, and the question asked, “Is the jar full?” and again the answer comes, louder this time, “Yes!”.

The professor’s face reveals little emotion as a third bag is pulled from beneath the table. This time fine sand is poured into the jar and with some gentle shaking encouraged to fill the small spaces between the rocks and the gravel. A faint smile is evident on the professors face as the jar is once more held up for review, and the students are asked, “Is the jar full?”. The students respond with a resounding and confident “Yes!” suspecting that the professor must surely be close to beginning the serious work of the lecture.

The now heavy jar is placed delicately back on the bench. The professor pauses for a moment, takes a small sip from the coffee cup which has sat as always on the bench beside a large pile of papers. He pauses as though distracted by some thought of times long past, before pouring the nearly full contents of the cup into the jar before repeating the process with a second cup from beneath the bench. A grin moves across a wise face as the jar is once more held aloft, and the professor proclaims triumphantly “Now the jar is full!”.

The message is now unpacked for the class. The jar represents our lives, and the challenge is to decide what we will fill our lives with. The large rocks represent those things which matter most in our lives. The gravel and sand the small things which occupy our time and keep us from what matters most. If we place the gravel and sand into our jar first, if we attend to the little things first, we have no space for the large rocks. The cup of coffee shows that no matter how full our lives might be, there is always time for a cup of coffee with a friend.

It is an essential story for educators to ponder as we decide not only what fills our lives but what fills the lives of our learners. It is a story that requires its audience to stop and ponder what are their “Big Rocks”, what are the things that truly matter. When we consider what we emphasise in our teaching the question needs to be asked, are we focusing on what we believe will truly matter in the lives that our learners are likely to live? Too often we spend time and energy on tasks which are not well aligned with what matters most to us and to our learners. The daily minutia of being a teacher pulls us away from the actions which we value most. Our students are required to engage in tasks which result in them developing a false view of what school and learning are about. We allocate our time and their time to activities which we know are low impact even when we know this is not what matters most. We remain in what Stephen Covey describes as the realms of the not important and fire fighting.


Engaging with the process of identifying our big rocks is well worth the time but that it should only be the first part of the process. Once we determine our big rocks, how will we make sure that our actions and the messages we send to our students, our team members and ourselves align with these ideals and move us closer to achieving our goals? It is always hard to move out of the zone of the urgent, low order tasks and move our thinking into the more strategic realm. In a recent article, Jeff Bezos of Amazon reflected that his role required him not to do lots of work but to make one or two significant decisions a day. The hard part is making the right decision. Maybe if we consider the magnitude of the impact that each action we take might have on our learners and on our school, we will gain a better understanding of how we allocate our time and make better decisions. 

By Nigel Coutts