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A New Year, a New Approach

The Good Work Toolkit can help you reflect on what matters to you — and what you want to accomplish

December 20, 2015
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An updated version of an article that was originally posted on December 24, 2014.

As the year draws to an end, many of us are taking stock of what we’ve accomplished and what remains unfulfilled in our lives. But instead of beginning a new year with kneejerk resolutions to change this, do better at that, what if we made time for real reflection?

Reflection can provide all of us — as individuals and as members of a learning community — with clarity about our decisions and our circumstances. And yet in our busy lives, opportunities to engage in a meaningful process of reflection are exceedingly rare.

The Good Work Toolkit

One resource that can help facilitate the process is the Good Work Toolkit — a flexible set of materials, including narrative accounts of students and professionals who strive to carry out good work, along with accompanying questions and activities. 

The materials were developed by the Good Work Project, a large-scale research effort that falls under the Project Zero umbrella and was originally launched by psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, William Damon, and Howard Gardner. Their aim was to identify people and institutions that exemplify good work and to determine how best to increase the incidence of it across society.

Beginning in 1997, researchers interviewed more than 1,200 workers, ranging widely in age and drawn from nine occupational domains: journalism, genetics, theater, business, K-12 education, higher education, law, medicine, and philanthropy. They determined that “good work” has three key components across domains — the so-called “three Es”: excellence (technically outstanding), ethics (committed to a professional or personal moral compass), and engagement (showing investment and enjoyment).

Researchers created the Good Work Toolkit in 2004, drawing on real-life situations from original in-depth qualitative interviews, and educators and professionals at all levels have since incorporated the materials into classrooms and conferences as a way to get communities thinking about the nature of good work in particular environments and institutions. The toolkit’s narratives describe a series of relatable, challenging dilemmas that arise in professional or academic settings. The activities are designed to prompt critical thinking about goals, influences, and choices. As the name implies, the idea is to give participants the tools they need to make important decisions in the real world — the complex, multifaceted world we navigate each day.

How to Start

What does doing 'good work' mean to you? This new year, instead of making resolutions, make time for reflecting on your goals, influences, and choices.. Usable Knowledge, HGSE

One great way to jumpstart your thinking is this value-sort activity, which you can do right now, online. (You can also order the sorting activity as a set of cards.) By rank-ordering a list of 30 value cards, you can easily notice and reflect upon what is most important to you. This activity is also a great way to stimulate conversations with peers, colleagues, and family members.

The materials are adaptable — they can be used in whichever order or combination is most relevant, forming the basis of an afternoon retreat, a weekend workshop, or a semester-long course. June Weissman, an elementary school teacher in New Jersey, told researchers that the Good Work philosophy has “inspired my teaching and my students since the Toolkit’s pilot. Our efforts and motivations are examined in terms of ethics, engagement, excellence, and social responsibility. These goals dovetail naturally as we reflect upon various timely narratives including the ethics of colonizing Mars and the possible repercussions involved with the creation of sentient robots.”

Other global instances of Good Work implementation include:

Additional Resources


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