Big Rocks.

Over the school holiday break I came across, for the first time, Steven Covey’s Big Rocks analogy.

Put simply this analogy explains how our lives are made up of big rocks, pebbles and sand. Big rocks are the really important aspects of our lives, the pebbles are also important but less so and the sand is the everyday and the trivial. Our life in this story is represented as a jar. If we put the sand into the jar first then we may well fit in the pebbles as well but we will not have enough room for all of the big rocks. Our prioritising of what we do and what we focus on is out of alignment if we want to achieve our big goals in life. If, however, we put the rocks in first then we find that with a bit of shaking the pebbles will fit in the gaps between the rocks and then in the same way the sand will fit in the gaps that remain. In other words by effectively prioritising what is really important then everything fits, with a bit of shaking.

It struck me as a very timely reminder of the need for teachers to prioritise time as we head into our fourth term.  I have added the video that explains this analogy below but as this is a general explanation I do want to take some time to explain how I see the story of the Big Rocks applies specifically to educators and teachers.


The Big Rocks story is normally applied to a person’s life in general but I believe that it can be adapted and have specific relevance for our everyday working life and the decisions we make as part of our daily routine. Like many professions the day to day life of a teacher is very busy. It is easy to get bogged down in the small details and the smaller tasks that are part of every working day.

The Big Rocks to a teacher are the really important issues, the main purpose of what they do. The key, vital aspects of why we do what we do.

For me there are three Big Rocks;

  1. The need to develop thinking skills in our learners.
  2. The need to provide them with meaningful feedback about how they are progressing and where they need to go next.
  3. The need to challenge learners as individual thinkers so that they are able to continue to develop and experience success.

These are my three Big Rocks. The pebbles are the important ways we achieve those Big Rocks.

Our curriculum, our learning experiences, our content our relationships our vision. These are all important if we are to achieve our goals but they are not necessarily the goals in themselves they are rather the processes we need to adhere to to achieve our Big Rocks.

The sand is the everyday administrative and related tasks. Reading and clearing emails, completing administrative tasks etc.

As Covey explains if we put the sand in first then you may well fit in all the pebbles but you won’t be able to fit all the big rocks into your jar and so our big educational goals will not be fulfilled. it is easy to spend the days being kept very busy with the sand and pebbles of our jobs but we run the risk of losing sight of the rocks. We run the risk of losing sight of our purpose.

We need to put the Big Rocks in first.

This is easy to say  but how can we ensure that we do keep our eyes on the Big Rocks because the sand is often immediate and reactive.

I would suggest that as teachers there are two processes we can adopt to help here.

The first is to ask ourselves some very basic questions and ask them often.

Questions like;

  1. If I only had 6 weeks to spend with a learner what would I want them to learn?What is vital?
  2.  If I had a magic wand that I could wave over learners what key learning skills would I want them to be experts in? What aspects of their ability to learn would I magically enhance if I could?
  3. If I think of a time when I had to, or wanted to learn a new skill that I found challenging what process did I go through? Is this reflected in how I am facilitating skill acquisition for my learners?

These three questions assist in ensuring that we are prioritising what needs to be prioritised, the Big Rocks.

Another technique is through a simple prioritising diagram where we divide our tasks into quadrants.

The horizontal axis represents tasks that are urgent. It goes from the extreme left which to high to the extreme right which represents low and works as a continuum.

The vertical axis represents tasks that are important and again goes from the extreme top which represents high importance to the bottom of the line which represents low importance.

By placing task on this continuum of urgent and important we can see a priority list emerging. Tasks that are important and urgent will appear in the top left hand corner and these need our immediate attention. Those that are of low importance and urgency fall in the bottom right hand quadrant.

In many case it is the top right hand quadrant that is the most important. This is where tasks that are of high importance but low urgency fall, this is the thinking quadrant. if we lose sight of the tasks in this quadrant then we are likely to lose sight of our Big Rocks.



Tasks will naturally move from one quadrant to another over time as their importance and urgency changes. The diagram, if regularly reviewed will therefore enable us, as teachers, to see what tasks need to be done now, what can be left and what is changing.

If we are serious about creating learning environments where we teach less but our students learn more than we have to look at how we use and prioritise our time and energy.

For me being aware of the difference between rocks, pebbles and sand and having a system that enables me to prioritise these components is key, it allows me to differentiate between the important and the less important…most of the time.

big rocks




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