Purpose Learning to Meet the Demands of Today

Fall 2023

By Jessica Catoggio, Ross Wehner

This article appeared as "Beyond Thinking" in the Fall 2023 issue of Independent School.

The disruptions of the last few years have crashed over schools as separate waves of change. But they are also part of a rising tide that is helping schools navigate to more human-centered and purposeful learning.

COVID-19 proved that children can’t learn unless they feel safe, seen, and heard. The ongoing racial reckoning is forcing schools to examine power systems and explore new ways to affirm the diverse identities of students. Artificial intelligence continues to evolve, but one thing feels certain: In a world where automation will reign supreme, humans will need to become more human than ever before. In an age of machines, purpose becomes a superpower. And schools have an important role in leading this shift in learning and in life.

In a Winter 2022 Independent School article, we examined the theory and science of purpose and defined purpose learning as the idea that learning has to be more than thinking. Learning in the future will integrate thinking with feeling and doing—and at the intersection of these three domains, students have a greater chance of connecting with meaning. It’s an old idea we have reformulated to meet the demands of the moment. Purpose learning combines today’s approaches to school reform into an easy-to-understand framework. 

Purpose Learning: A Both/And

Purpose learning is a both/and, not an either/or. We all live in systems with which we have to work. Students have to meet specific requirements to graduate. Teachers have to meet learning standards and submit grades. As individuals, we have to both work within the system and follow our own path of meaning, at the same time. 

Purpose-driven schools make this both/and easier by offering supportive communities and clear systems that create room for individual voice and choice. In this environment, students are better able to match up what they are being asked to learn with what feels meaningful. When this match occurs, the magic happens not only in learning but in life.

Purpose is a unique journey for each human, and it’s an expedition that varies dramatically for each school. In our experience, each school enters the purpose-learning framework from different places. Many independent schools enter via learning as thinking, while others focus on doing via project-based, arts-focused, or expeditionary learning. Where independent schools can often grow is learning as feeling—in other words, the part of purpose learning where students drop into emotion, see others with empathy, and have the space and support to do the inner work of identity and purpose clarification.

In our work, we’ve noticed that some charter school networks are doing groundbreaking work in the learning-as-feeling area, most notably advisory. In these schools, helping students process emotions and cultivate deep communities of belonging is a foundational move toward deeper learning. Professional learning communities are often siloed by public, charter, and independent schools. But in purpose learning, diverse schools benefit by learning from each other.

Valor Collegiate Academies (TN), a World Leadership School partner, is a charter network that comprises two middle schools and one high school with a mission to “empower our diverse community to live inspired, purposeful lives.” It serves a diverse population and is in the top 1% of highest-performing schools in the state. Students spend 3.5 hours each week in Compass, an advisory program designed to help them grow in a supportive community. The school is designed around a “Theory of Change,” which is a window into the shift in thinking we see at many purpose-driven schools. First, “schools are responsible for developing whole children.” Second, the primary driver for whole children is “the development of whole adults.” Third, the development of whole adults and whole children depends on “safe, productive, and affirming communities.”

Valor’s focus for building community as the key lever for developing each unique adult and child is an example of the way that purpose-driven schools gently challenge backwards-mapping, the key tool used to design learning since the early 1900s. In backwards-mapping, a group of people gathers to decide what students should know or be able to do upon graduation, and they build school from there. Backwards-mapping helped build last century’s content-focused system. This century, so far, it’s helped fuel the Common Core national learning standards, the Portrait of a Graduate movement, and the rise of Competency-Based Learning.

Purpose-driven schools shift focus in subtle but important ways. Instead of focusing mainly on future learning targets, these schools prioritize the inner life of children right now and build upward. In other words, they focus on human development. This critical pivot is described in the work of Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a neuroscientist at the University of Southern California who has conducted groundbreaking research on the primacy of emotion in learning. “What we need to focus on in the design of schooling is the development of the people in the system and allow learning to follow that. Right now we have the cart before the horse,” she says in a June 2022 episode of the Finding Mastery podcast.

But purpose learning is not a revolution; it’s an incremental journey along a both/and spectrum. In addition to Compass advisory, Valor offers a variety of academic supports, uses backward-mapping as a curriculum tool, and follows state-learning standards. In the same ways, competency-based learning is a powerful step forward from content-based learning but works well when schools prioritize human development first amid a community of belonging.

The Roadmap of a Purpose-Driven School

Embracing the idea that focusing on purpose and human thriving first will lead to deeper learning can feel like a leap of faith. Victor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and the modern-day father of the purpose movement, famously said, “It is the very pursuit of happiness that thwarts happiness.” Frankl believed pursuing purpose allows happiness to ensue as a byproduct.

In the same way, a growing number of schools are shifting toward human development as a pathway to deeper learning. In the process, these schools are experimenting with ways to make K–12 learning a platform to launch children into lives of purpose. Though each school is different, patterns emerge that suggest a process for building a purpose-driven school. Many school leaders want to jump into instructional design right away, but our experience suggests this is usually a mistake. Several baseline conditions have to be present in order for purpose learning to take root.

Authentic leadership. We are not aware of a single school that has made meaningful shifts to purpose learning in the absence of a leader with a deeply human heartbeat. We are talking about leaders who are comfortable bringing their humanity to school in curated but authentic ways. Leaders whose essence (who they are on the inside) matches their form (how they show up in the world). Leaders whose transparency inspires trust. Leaders who understand the power of vulnerability, as defined by Brené Brown: “When you are in uncertainty, when you feel at risk, when you feel exposed, don’t tap out. Stay brave, stay uncomfortable, stay in the cringey moment, lean into the hard conversation, and keep leading.” The tremendous pressures of the last several years have pushed many school leaders into survival mode, causing them to become disconnected from their bodies and their “why” for working in schools in the first place.

Bigger-than-school mission. John Allman, head of Trinity School (NY), bravely wrote an end-of-summer blog in 2017 that ended up being quoted in The New York Times. In it he criticized “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interests.” He envisioned a shift from a culture of contract, based on gain and entitlement, to covenant, where all sides give in order to create fulfillment.

Allman’s challenge about school culture is becoming formalized by The Purpose Project, a growing movement that urges independent schools to “show that we are purposeful and necessary contributors to the lives of students and families, as well as our communities.” (See “Resonant and Relevant” for an in-depth look at The Purpose Project.) In the Anchor Schools movement, schools work to become community anchors to build equity through partnerships, social justice efforts, parent engagement, and off-campus learning. Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA) was one of the first schools to establish a “Center for Civic Engagement” in 2007, which resulted in a range of deep and symbiotic community partnerships. The school’s work, in turn, helped give rise to Partnership of Schools with Public Purpose and the National Network of Schools in Partnership, two organizations that focus on helping schools develop equitable community partnerships.

Interwoven faculty culture. Like leaders, many teachers became disconnected from themselves and from each other because of recent high levels of burn-out and compassion fatigue. Helping teachers reconnect with their “why” for teaching in the context of their community is a powerful antidote. In our experience, every teacher has a why for teaching, though many don’t have the time or space to connect with it on a regular basis in school. Helping teachers do the “work that reconnects,” in the words of environmental activist and author Joanna Macy, is a critical first step toward purpose. “You can’t give away what you don’t own,” says Richard Leider, author of the best-selling book The Power of Purpose. In the same way, if teachers haven’t done the hard work of voicing and living their own purpose, how can they coach students to do the same?

At World Leadership School, we have used the techniques of Leider and others to create a process that helps teachers (and students) work together to clarify and map each teacher’s unique why. During the experience, teachers explore their unique gifts through an activity called Calling Cards, share stories with a trusted colleague through Golden Thread, and then create a purpose statement at the center of a Purpose Map. This map lays out a both/and action plan that allows teachers to do their job and follow their path of meaning. The map helps each teacher identify a “sounding board” of trusted advisors, key daily practices, and short-term “purpose goals,” among other steps. 

Instructional Design

If a school’s culture, mission, and vision are the foundational why, instructional design is the “how,” and the growth and impact of students are the “what.” Simon Sinek’s advice to “start with the why” helps schools understand when they are ready for instructional design, which integrates concrete planning tools, a high-level collaboration between educators, and synergy with the community.

Purpose learning should be a bustling two-way street. It should be a street on which “drivers” dynamically change lanes, detour at will, travel in the fast lane or slow lane depending on the road conditions, navigate roundabouts, and thoughtfully make return trips. What we find, however, is that in many schools, pedagogical practices train students to be adept at driving on a one-way street, with few detours, and perfect weather conditions—while on cruise control. 

This two-way street is reflected in the curriculum planning tools we’ve developed at WLS, such as the Purpose Planner, which is based on both project-based learning and the principles of design thinking. It gives students an opportunity to connect learning to self (the inward journey) and then to take action for something bigger (the outer journey). This type of instructional design challenges the one-way, sit-and-get model of learning and requires educators who understand that deep learning connects with students’ identities and gifts and creates opportunities for community impact.

Recently we worked with Montessori Academy of Colorado (MAC) to design its new middle school, which launched in the fall of 2022, through the lens of purpose learning. In a culinary arts unit, students focused on the driving question: “What sustains us?” and worked with Tommy Lee, a Denver chef whose restaurant Hop Alley explores the painful racist history of Denver’s Chinatown in the 1870s. Through a series of spiraling “engagement touch points,” students explored the rituals behind making ramen, the history of Denver, and the science of food before creating their own recipes based on their own cultural identities. “The highlight was watching teachers and students find their identity and their purpose in parallel through the work,” says Alicia FaJohn, MAC’s associate head of school who oversaw the middle school launch.

Purpose learning can also be used to disrupt traditional education and create a two-way street of learning. We worked with Nicholas Day, the director of academic programs at Appleby College (Toronto, Canada), to bring greater purpose to the AP U.S. History course he was teaching. Day challenged each student to identify a thread they could follow through the course, which required them to complete research, collect documents, and give a summative oral defense in front of their peers. One student studied women’s political participation in U.S. politics from First Lady Abigail Adams to Vice President Kamala Harris. Though the student had previously struggled in group presentations, she “rose to the occasion and not only volunteered to go first but spoke with such confidence that she drew the audience in,” Day says. “In a touching moment, she erupted into cathartic tears on our last day because she was so proud of the work she did in the course.”

Past is Present

Purpose learning is alive and well in thousands of schools around the planet. It’s being developed by teachers and schools of all types based consciously or unconsciously on the wisdom of learning experts past and present like Johann Pestalozzi, Anna Julia Cooper, Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, John Dewey, bell hooks, Linda Darling-Hammond, and many others. The decline of No Child Left Behind in particular, and the standardized testing movement in general, is creating space for purpose learning to rise and meet the demands of this moment in history. Cooper was a black author and activist whose words from a century ago apply to today’s learning shift: “The best and most economical education is that which gives to the individual, according to his capacity, that training of ‘head, hand, and heart,’ or, more literally, of mind, body, and spirit, which converts him into a beneficent force in the service of the world.”
What if the purpose of school were purpose?

What Is Purpose?

The word “purpose” has been loaded with so many cultural, religious, and new-age connotations that it's hard to see clearly. But the late Sir Ken Robinson explained it best in Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life when he wrote that purpose is a “two-way journey: an inward journey to explore what lies within you and an outward journey to explore opportunities in the world around you.” Stanford University professor William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as a “stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.”

Purpose is not a passion like playing the violin or field hockey. Rather it's a stable intention that comes through in different areas of life. A child whose purpose statement is to “light up the room so that others smile” may play this role with friends, family, and even teachers. This child may indeed play violin or field hockey, and the next “purpose goal” might be stand-up comedy.

Stanford's Youth Purpose Study (YPS) is a 45-minute interview between a researcher and a student that has been given to thousands of students since 2003. The YPS questions helped inspire a new generation of more vulnerable essay prompts that began to appear in the Common Application from 2010 onward. The data suggest that high school students in the U.S. and other developed countries divide into four rough quadrants.

At World Leadership School, we have mapped these quadrants onto a spectrum where meaning is on the x-axis, and action is on the y-axis. This spectrum is a coaching tool to help advisors understand what each student might need. Goal-driven students, who can make up more than half the population of independent schools, may need experiences that provoke awe, emotion, and wonder to burst their “me-centered” bubble. Dreamers could benefit from mentors, action plans, and help taking small steps to action. The Disengaged need all these things, at the same time.

Learn More

World Leadership School partners with K–12 schools to reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders. There is a growing collection of tools and resources related to purpose learning on World Leadership School's website, including Ross Wehner's recent TEDx talk (and inspiration for this article) “What If the Purpose of School Were Purpose?
Jessica Catoggio

Jessica Catoggio is director of professional learning at World Leadership School in Boulder, Colorado.

Ross Wehner

Ross Wehner is founder of World Leadership School in Boulder, Colorado, and TeachUNITED, both of which partner with K–12 schools to transform learning and build next-generation leaders.