The Impact Misconception

By Jim Tiffin Jr (Cross-posted on my personal blog, Building Capacity)

Look closely at the image of the moon’s surface atop this post.

What do you see?

Take 30 seconds and make a quick list of 10 things that you notice about the picture. (This is like the first half of the Visible Thinking Routine: Looking – 10 times 2.)



I’m willing to guess that some place in your list you made a comment about the craters on the surface – perhaps that some of them were big and some of them were small.  You may have even commented that there are far more smaller craters than big craters.

It’s that last observation about the types and frequency of meteorite impacts that I think highlights an important point for educators to realize when trying to find ways for their own students to make an impact.

I’m wondering if a misconception around the scope of an impact has caused teachers to become reluctant to seek out opportunities for their students to make an impact in the first place.

Consider examples like Caine’s Arcade, Alex’s Lemonade Stand, or Braeden’s Brown Bag Project. Each of these cases show a student making an incredible impact on people throughout the country, and in some cases the entire planet. They’ve been recognized by people in government and had foundations formed around their ideas. They’ve enlightened people to issues that would have been otherwise invisible to them. Best of all, they’ve inspired movements that have been joined by students and adults to expand the reach of their efforts to groups unknown to Caine, Alex, and Braeden. In short, these kids truly have made an incredibly big impact.

But do teachers realize that impacts of this scale are not the norm?

Look back at the moon picture again and realize that the number of small impacts outnumber the large ones by a huge margin. This is the true nature of impacts.

Most folks probably don’t know the little impacts that happened prior to these kids stepping onto the big stage. The instances where they had exposure to “making a difference”, practice, confidence-building, mistakes, encouragement – essentially the learning elements that educators would call scaffolding.

Bautista connects for a single

A single by Bautista of the Toronto Blue Jays.

I think it is important that educators not lose sight of the value of giving students opportunities to make small impacts. And to have them make lots of them.  There’s a sports metaphor that works here: “Base hits win games.”  You’ve gotta get on base in order to score. People that swing for the fences all the time, tend to strike out the most… just ask Reggie Jackson.

If we constantly try to make students engage in just the biggest of impacts, do we set them up for failure because we haven’t developed their “impact muscles”?

Do we dash students hopes to individually accomplish big things because those big things have always been orchestrated by the teacher?

Wouldn’t giving students opportunities to make lots of small impacts on their immediate world be a better learning experience in the long haul? Something that prepares them for creating bigger impact opportunities as they grow.

What do these small impacts look like? Impacts can be anything in which the student recognizes that they made a difference. Small impacts should be ones in which the students themselves sees the effects of their actions, and those effects take place at a relatable scale. (The time between action and impact, and the relatable scale change as the student gets older.) Examples include:

  • Solving an organization issue in the classroom, like backpacks or scrap paper
  • Helping a fellow student solve a problem that they are struggling with
  • Coming up with a strategy to overcome forgetting things, like permission slips or library books or homework, and then carrying out that strategy
  • Learning from a mistake, and not making it again because they made a different choice as a result
  • Sharing something with a classmate who has a need
  • Giving credit to others that helped out, or inspired a new idea

No doubt teachers can think of lots of other student good deeds that are both academic and social in nature.  All of them count. And all of them nurture an inclination by the student to develop their self-confidence in recognizing that they can make an impact – afterall, they’ve will have been doing it since pre-school!

Does this mean that teachers shouldn’t find a way for students to make a big impact? Absolutely not. If the opportunity presents itself, then great! Go for it. Just make sure a misconception doesn’t develop in the students that leads them to believe that if they can’t do something on a huge scale, then they can’t do anything all. You want students that have a bias toward action.

So what are some other ways that we can encourage students and teachers to value the little craters that they actually make, and not hyperfocus on the big craters they want to make? How else can we get them to see small impacts as preparation for big impacts later? How might we encourage teachers to have a bias toward making and recognizing little impacts, so that they can leave a big impact on their students?

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