Purpose and meaning in the classroom


Image developed by the Stanford d.school

If the goal of schools is to prepare young people to successfully and impactfully engage with the world, then exploring questions of purpose and meaning must be part of education. “What do I mean to the world? Why am I learning what I am learning? What do I want to do with my life?” If we do not support young people in seeking answers to these questions – and many more related to purpose and meaning – then how can we expect them to feel invested in their learning or develop a healthy internal life and compass to navigate the world and their place in it?

If we look at high school students today (and, again, I am writing from the United States), we see a brewing mental health crisis. 31.9%, or nearly one in three adolescents will meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder by age 18. In 2016, an estimated 3.1 million adolescents aged 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. 

Is the prevalence of mental health challenges in adolescent students due entirely to those students having too much on their plates? Or is something else happening? 

A Gallup poll conducted in 2004 asked U.S. teenagers (ages 13-17) to select three words from a list to describe how they usually feel in school. The most commonly selected word was “bored” – identified by half of the participants. “Tired” came in second, selected by 42%. It would be nice to think the situation has improved, but in another study conducted by Gallup in 2015 less than a third of 11th graders reported feeling engaged in school. 

William Damon, director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, has conducted research into purpose in high school students today. The results of his research suggest that a large part of the problem is that not only are high school students overworked, they do not know why they are doing what they are doing in school. In short, their educational experience lacks purpose and meaning.

Extremely purposeful students, Damon writes, demonstrate high levels of resilience, resourcefulness, persistence and the capacity for healthy risk taking – many of the qualities that are also important for a sense of hope. 

All of this makes sense. Certainly in the United States today, and likely in many other countries as well, adolescent life is not structured in a way that gives much opportunity for cultivating the inner world and a sense of purpose and passion. 

The Stanford d.school, which works to foster creative potential in people of all ages, identified three factors that intertwine to foster a sense of purpose: 1) A student’s skills and strengths; 2) what the world needs; and 3) what the student loves to do. The d.school created the infographic included at the top of this post to illustrate these essential interrelating components of purpose – which lies squarely at the intersection of all three factors.

Schools are oriented towards external expectations. Little to no time in school is spent on self-reflection or reflection on the existential questions inherent in any life, particularly in that critical time of transition from childhood to adulthood. There are educational exceptions, of course (like humane education and place-based education for example), but the majority of high school students are still not supported in seeking purpose and meaning.

How can this trend change? How can we integrate an active quest for purpose into the classroom?

Patrick Cook-Deegan, educator and researcher, has spent many years pondering just these questions. Cook-Deegan ultimately created Project Wayfinder, an organization providing curricula and programming to middle and high schools and training teachers to facilitate students in seeking purpose and meaning. 

Cook-Deegan’s work highlights seven principles we can incorporate into learning spaces to support students in finding purpose: 

  • prioritize internal motivation over external achievement
  • foster collaboration
  • empower teachers as mentors and coaches
  • take students out into the world
  • encourage students to learn from failures
  • value students inner lives
  • start all learning with the “why”

To read more about each of these principles, take a peek at this concise but potent piece of Cook-Deegan’s, featured in UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine (Science-Based Insights for a Meaningful Life). (For example, he highlights the fact that most school settings today are driven by content delivery, leaving teachers little room to develop meaningful relationships with students. And yet, when asked, most teachers would identify some aspect of the teacher-student relationship as the primary reason they decided to teach.)

Fortunately, multiple programs exist already engaged in the work of bringing purpose and meaning into the school setting. Starting with Cook-Deegan’s Project Wayfinder, several others rise to the top of resources anyone engaged in the educational setting (particularly with middle or high school students) may want to consider. Here are just a few:

Project Wayfinder

With a name hailing from “wayfinding” – the practice and knowledge involved in reading the natural world to successfully navigate vast areas of land and water – Project Wayfinder offers curricula rooted in rigorous research for the middle school through college classroom. Wayfinder trains teachers to implement the curricula – or “toolkits” – in on-site trainings, multi-school trainings and summer institutes. 

QUESTion Project

Currently specifically located in schools in lower-income neighborhoods around NYC and LA, the QUESTion Project supports students as they explore life’s bigger questions through three different types of programs: the QUESTion Class (entire semester), the QUESTion Day (day-long) and the Ambassador Program (in which alum of the program serve as ambassador and help facilitate QUESTion Classes or Days). Topics explored include: Why Big Questions, Choice, Purpose, Fearlessness, Interconnectedness, Bigger Picture and Growth and Contribution. During a QUESTion Day, thousands of questions are gathered from both teachers and students and posted in public spaces all over the school.

Purpose Project

Purpose Project is a curriculum and digital platform rooted in extensive research and designed to help learners explore purpose and agency. More of the content and learning happens online than in programs like Project Wayfinder or QUESTion Project, but Purpose Project has been successfully applied in schools across the United States.

Categories: Education

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