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Elementary School Children are "Getting Things Done"

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Busy, distracted, sleepless, anxious, stressed . . . overwhelmed. Sound familiar? Over the past few decades, we have moved from the industrial age of linear work to the dynamic multifaceted age of knowledge work -- with more information and stimuli than ever before. Feeling lost and pressured is a unique knowledge work phenomenon, but one that can be relieved.

In 2008, I was introduced to David Allen's book Getting Things Done: How to achieve stress-free productivity, and found my life changing for the positive -- increased stability and control, higher engagement in the present, and an increased desire to take creative risks in my teaching practices.

What is Getting Things Done (GTD)?

GTD is a systematic approach to:

  • Obtaining control and stability
  • Capturing anything and everything that has our attention
  • Making decisions about things in life as they show up
  • Organizing the results of valued thinking in trusted places
  • Reviewing those trusted places to ensure that they are current
  • Making confident and trusted decisions at any time and in any context
  • Knowing what to do next

As I grew to understand the subtleties and complexities of this methodology, I realized that I needed to pass along this transformative knowledge and skill set to the elementary students with whom I work. I believed, correctly, that GTD could help students translate imagination into action, and help equip them with tools to become autonomous. Ultimately, GTD inspired me to re-imagine my entire practice.

Credit: Mark Wallace

5 GTD Tactics

Here are five ways to consider bringing GTD into your classroom practice.

1. Capturing

Capturing thoughts and commitments is at the core of GTD. I had to rethink and redesign the traditional student planner to differentiate between calendar dates, actions to take, projects to track, and someday/maybe lists for holding ideas. Students needed a place to capture physical materials coming at them, so I transformed the traditional student "cubbies" into "inboxes" where students know that the materials found there require more thinking. Consider the following:

  • Where will your students capture ideas, actions, projects and dates?
  • Where can students count on capturing physical stuff in your classroom space? If you have a space already, do kids use it as an inbox or a junk drawer?

Credit: Mark Wallace

2. Clarifying

Clarifying stuff you've captured involves continually transforming it into outcomes and actions. To help students think about outcomes and actions, I distinguish between what "done" looks like and what "doing" looks like. Consider the following:

  • What actions are you asking kids to take?
  • Which items are actually projects that need defined outcomes?
  • How can you help students differentiate between the two?

3. Organizing

Organizing involves placing the results of valued thinking in trusted and accessible places. Students have quite a bit of reference material -- things that may require action, but not at that moment (think textbooks). To manage materials and ideas, we remade our lockers and classroom bins into reference storage, and our planners into valued spaces to manage commitments and ideas. With the help of some white board paint, our tables became canvases for brainstorming and refining ideas. Consider the following:

  • Where will students keep their reference material?
  • Have you clearly defined the function of lockers, backpacks, folders, etc.? Or do students perceive all of these spaces as places to stick stuff?

4. Reviewing

Reviewing weekly, the most critical GTD practices involve processing inboxes; updating the calendar, actions and projects lists; and thinking creatively about what might be on the horizon. To help learners become clear, current, and creative, I established a weekly review -- a block of time dedicated to clearing "residue" (unorganized materials) from lockers, backpacks and folders; getting current on planners and assignments; and thinking creatively -- where students consider what they want to explore, design or create. Consider the following:

  • Are you scheduling times for students to purposefully reflect?
  • What practices will help your students do their most creative work?
  • How might a weekly review help your practice?

5. Doing

Doing is not just executing -- it is making decisions that can be trusted because they are based on informed criteria. Doing is the culmination of knowledge work. To support this knowledge work in action, I planned extended exploration and work times where I avoided directly teaching new material or assigning new work. Kids began looking at their work in terms of:

Context - What can or must I do at school or at home?
Time - What can I accomplish given the current time constraints?
Energy - What do I feel like doing, given the time of day and people around me?
Priority - What do I need to work on? What is coming due?

Consider the following:

  • Are you expecting kids to be able to make executive decisions at a high level?
  • Are you actively coaching them on that skill?

Credit: Mark Wallace

Go with the Workflow

Besides revolutionizing my practice, GTD has inspired me to bring workflow strategies to an entire district. The Edina Public School District is in the early stages of launching the Workflow Institute for equipping all staff, students and families with workflow strategies to maximize their learning and potential. David Allen's GTD framework and processes are at its core, as is the belief that we can help students succeed at what they do because of their training in how to do it.

Have you integrated GTD in your practice or classroom? What's worked well, and what have you learned? I look forward to hearing from others.

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John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

Interesting stuff. I keep my 1st and 2nd grade students organized by having a couple of folders. One is the Keep folder. It is bright yellow and where we put things we need to keep for later. It is things I need to provide more instruction on or things we will refer to in later lessons.

Then we have our Fix-n-Finish folders which are bright red. These are the folders they put things that they need to finish. We divide this folder into two parts- one part is the "MUST be done" side and the other is the "CAN be done" side. The "MUST" side is for assigned work that I need to see to confirm mastery or growth. The "CAN" side is for enrichment activities or other fun curriculum things that reinforce the skills taught by providing more practice.

There are part of my week when students have to work on the "MUST" side and there are times they get to do the "CAN" side.

I have a "What to do" list in my room. On the top of this list is the "MUST" side. Then I have other items on the "What to do" list and lower down is the "CAN" side.

So at the beginning of the year when a student comes to me after finishing their work and ask "What do I do now?" I just point. Then in a matter of weeks they stop asking me and just naturally go to the list. ;)

Megan's picture
First grade teacher from Ohio

I'm really drawn to the idea of giving kids appropriate responsibility. Keeping a structured classroom where children know what to expect and where to find things is so important. I too have cubbies or inboxes, but I call them "mailboxes" for my students. I should probably change the name though, because we don't use it for mail. We keep their "data notebooks" in there. These notebooks are used for the students to track their own attendance and behavior as well as sight word goals, letter recognition/sounds, number sense goals, etc. I have recently added a handwriting section where they put their writing, a checklist they completed to see if they met all the criteria for "great writing". These papers are placed in binder once a week after we have conferenced.

We also have take home folders with a "keep at home" and "return to school" side. For first grade this is easy enough to keep important flyers with dates, etc. in.

I really like the idea of what "done" looks like and what "doing" looks like. It's so important to show the difference. So many times my students want to race to finish because they think it's close to recess, or they can choose an easier activity. It's a difficult idea to demonstrate, but a key one for them to be prideful in their ideas and work.

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal


I love the data notebook idea. I'm sure it provides your students more ownership over their own learning. I enjoyed reading about your "done" and "doing" explanation.

When my students are writing and they come up to me and say I'm done, we instead talk about no, you are not done. Instead, you are "ready for the next step." I have a pocket chart where the students track what step of the writing process they are currently working in. When they complete a step they move their name card to the next step and review the expectations for the next step listed on a card with pictures and words.

Daniela Adams's picture

Great read, thanks for sharing such useful information. I love the idea of structured and organized lessons for the kids. It's easier for them to learn, when they know what to expect. I love the way you organized your system, so that there is a space for children to keep their projects and materials, and they also can get feedback on their work.

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