The story goes… 

…there was a philosophy professor who was giving a lecture. She held a big glass jar. She started off by filling up the jar with the big rocks and when they reached the rim of the jar she held it up to the students and asked them if the jar was full. They all agreed, there was no more room to put the rocks in, it was full. But was it full?

She then picked up a tub of small pebbles and poured these in the jar so that they filled the space around the big rocks. “Is the jar full now?” she asked. The group of students all looked at each other and agreed that the jar was now completely full. But was it really full?

The professor then picked up another container, this time it had sand in it. She poured the sand in between the pebbles and the rocks and once again she held up the jar to the class and asked if it was full. Once again the students agreed that the jar was full.

“Are you sure it’s full?” she asked. She finally picked up a bottle of water and tipped the water into the jar until it filled up all the remaining space. The students laughed.


Now, imagine that you put all the sand and the pebbles into the jar first? There would be no room for the big rocks! This analogy, often used to describe making room for the important things in life, can be used to understand instruction.


The jar symbolizes an instructional opportunity. The big rocks symbolize the big ideas and the most important, essential parts of a standard or lesson. The pebbles are other things that matter but hold slightly less importance, and the sand represents all the “small stuff.”


The “Rock, Pebbles, and Sand” analogy can be applied to the accelerated learning approach. The “small stuff” is still important, but if you spend all of your instructional time on the small things, or if you believe that your students need all of the sand and pebbles before you get to rocks, then you’ll run out of time for the big, impactful, things that will accelerate your students’ achievement.

Planning time is precious- spend that time designing ways for learners to understand the big ideas because it is critical for developing the disciplinary and analytical practices. Set these as your learning targets. The pebbles represent concepts that can be developed over time but are not essential for understanding the big concepts in the moment. The rest is just sand.

Don’t sweat the “small stuff” -ultimately, these tasks carry less rigor and have less impact overall. If your instruction focus is on the pebbles and the sand, the more rigorous tasks are less likely to get accomplished.

Make room for the important things. The big ideas are more engaging, relevant, and require personal connection.  Invite students to share what they know, value their input, recognize them as bringing funds of knowledge, inspire schema activation, and then scaffold what they need to know just-in-time to access new information.

We want you to feel successful! Press START WATCHING to view our 4-Part Series on Strategic Planning: Key Steps for Returning to School!


Cover Photo: Melissa Lambert 

Image Credit: Institute for Integrative Nutrition