What is meaningful work?

meaningful work

I asked my students this question on our Google classroom the other day. I didn’t post it as an “assignment”. I simply asked the question on a Monday afternoon around 1 pm and told them to share their thoughts. Within a few hours, I had 21 replies. That is more than the number of students that actually come to my weekly Google meetings, if I’m keeping it real. Ironically, it seemed as though they felt that engaging with this question was more engaging than the meetings we have or the work I actually assign. I asked them because when I thought about it, I couldn’t think my way to an appropriate answer. I couldn’t resolve the meaning of meaningful work. I am still left asking, what is meaningful work?

Part of why defining meaningful work is such a deeply layered question is because of everything it implies. And, a few things it may not include. Because of that, I don’t think we can come up with a singular definition of meaningful work. There are certain aspects of work that have meaning and always will. A task that applies to the development of a universal skill set that we all need can be deemed as meaningful. Teaching students the tenants of persuasion and then tasking them with a persuasive essay is meaningful, insofar as it creates an opportunity for students to foster their ability to negotiate and communicate; two things that 99% of people utilize in life. But is that persuasive essay task meaningful? I don’t have the answer because by virtue of thinking the opposite, I can rationalize flaws. Albeit, small ones that have more to do with the delivery and the direction of a task like that – but they still exist. 

Much of my shying away from the idea of a utilitarian ideal for meaningful work inside of a classroom relates to how meaningfulness often stitches itself to engagement. Does work need to be engaging for it to be meaningful? We know not everything is going to engage everyone. I’m not arguing that fact. What I am trying to tease out is the balance between meaning, engagement, motivation and mandated learning. I have to follow curriculum guidelines. I also have flexibility. So how do I juxtapose all four of those important elements into “work”?

meaningful work



Or maybe meaningful work drives at a more pressing question. That is, how do you teach a student to be intrinsically motivated? One of my students provided an analogy to my original question on my Google classroom. She said that she finds work meaningful because she wants to be engaged, other students try to be engaged because they know it is important but may not find meaning, and yet some don’t find meaning and don’t care to be engaged. Firstly, I thought that a 7th grader breaking the question down like that was pure brilliance. Secondly, I thought about a new way of defining meaningful work. Work that overlaps with real life skills by pulling on individual talents and interests. It may be a little too verbose right now but I am working with that definition in light of figuring out how to best teach my students in these tough times. I am asking myself that because it is hard to learn new things online and then figure out a way to share them with my class. In addition to staying on top of delivering feedback so that they stay engaged and find meaning in the work they do. I want to give work that leaves students feeling satisfied when they complete it (beyond the fact that they feel satisfied by simply completing it). I want them to see purpose in the things they are doing during their emergency education experience. I struggle when grappling with this because I feel like the “work” I do inside my physical classroom is more meaningful than any content I have ever dolled out. But maybe my wants will lead me to my answers in regards to giving my students meaningful work.   




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Matthew R. Morris

Educator, Speaker, Writer

Matthew R. Morris is a writer, speaker, and elementary educator in Toronto. He has an M.A. in Social Justice Education from OISE at the University of Toronto and is the author of the forthcoming book, Black Boys Like Me. 

Matthew R. Morris

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