A New Focus on Purpose-Based Learning

Spring 2018

By Ross Wehner

During his sophomore year at Gilman School (MD), Matthew Mu and two of his fellow students became interested in the idea of building a hydroponic greenhouse on campus. No faculty asked them to do it, nor was it part of a class project. “I took it as a challenge,” Mu says. “I wanted to show people what’s possible.” Two years later, after the first greenhouse was destroyed by high winds, the three students have created an urban hydroponics program that collaborates with other schools in the Baltimore area. Now they are training younger students to take over the project.

This story, in many ways, exemplifies the kind of learning independent schools have always sought to achieve. But these examples of students doing real things in the real world are becoming even more common, as the landscape for learning rapidly transforms. Like many organizational shifts, this transformation is messy, uneven, and, at times, hard to define. But there is an underlying pattern that connects much of what is happening in schools today. This pattern is a shift to purpose-based learning—and by understanding this pattern and
making it more visible to teachers, parents, and students, we can accelerate school innovation.

How We Got Here

Smartphones, technology, and a transforming workplace are making the industrial “sit and get” model of education increasingly irrelevant. In addition, neuroscientists are revealing in dazzling detail how the adolescent brain develops critical skills such as problem-solving, creativity, and empathy. Most alarmingly, the current K–12 educational system, especially high school, is not working for the teenage brain. In one recent Yale University survey of 22,000 U.S. high school students, the three main feelings they reported were tired, stressed, and bored.

Independent schools are responding in a variety of positive ways. Schools are mainstreaming social and emotional learning and mindfulness, which help students manage stress, develop their inner lives, and understand their gifts. Schools are retraining teachers and hiring new ones to shift toward student-centered pedagogies like project-based learning, which allow students greater voice, choice, and the chance to explore their passions in the world. And a growing coalition of nearly 200 schools known as the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC) is building a new college transcript that will emphasize mastery of skills over memorization of content and allow schools to focus on the whole child—rather than a narrow slice of achievement described by A, B, C, and D grades.

All these efforts can be understood through the lens of a purpose formula derived from the work of Richard Leider, an executive coach, organizational change consultant, and bestselling author of Power of Purpose.

With this formula in mind, it’s clear that social and emotional learning programs help students understand their inner world and their gifts; modern pedagogies like project-based learning help students explore their passions; and the MTC’s college transcript will give students a platform to tell a richer story about who they really are and their impact in the world.

Schools are already doing much great work around purpose formation. But we need to be more explicit by understanding the theory and science behind purpose formation. We need to tie together what we are already doing into a visible K–12 strategy designed to foster purpose among students. We need to formulate the right questions: Now that we understand how the adolescent brain works, how can we make it light up with purpose? Or more specifically: How can K–12 schools help students discover, explore and articulate purpose earlier in life?

Purpose, A Critical Life Skill

The benefits of purpose in adults are well-documented in medical and academic research: better sleep, longer life, greater happiness, faster healing, and lower rate of serious problems like strokes and cardiovascular disease. The benefits for teens are similar but include an important bonus: better stress management. Purpose is becoming a critical life skill because it helps youth navigate the uncertainty of our fast-changing, technology-
rich time.

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.” In other words, purpose happens when students develop a meaningful connection to someone or something outside of themselves—and they do something about it. Purpose can be as big as solving a world problem, as simple as caring for a younger sibling, or as open-ended as bringing humor to tough situations.

Damon and his team of researchers developed the Youth Purpose Study, a 45-minute sit-down interview that they gave to more than 1,200 young people between 2003-2009. Their results, confirmed by other research teams using the same survey, show that purpose is relatively rare in K–12 students. Only 10 percent of middle school students have a purpose orientation, according to the survey’s findings, and this number increases to around 20 percent by high school. (Though numbers vary, other surveys indicate that only 40 percent of adults ever go on to find purpose.)

The other 80 percent of high school students are divided almost equally into three other categories, according to Damon:
  • The Dabblers or Goal-Driven: These students work hard and try out numerous pursuits, but have not yet landed on a purposeful path. These students are often goal-driven. They can work hard for goals that are largely self-focused, like doing well at sports or getting into the “right” college.
  • The Dreamers: They have an emotional connection to something or someone, outside of themselves—but aren’t doing anything about it yet.
  • The Disengaged: They have neither dreams nor goals.
Teachers may not be aware of the science of youth purpose, but they can always recognize purpose when a student has it. Linda Nathan, executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, author, and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, describes students with purpose as having “light behind the eyes,” speaking to the brightness and illumination that students of purpose have. They like to have fun but also work hard. They are resilient. They are engaged learners and caring human beings. And their energy makes schools come alive. Purpose-driven students like Matthew Mu, who worked on the hydroponics project outside of his normal classwork, often take on more stress than their peers, says Kendall Bronk, a leading purpose researcher at Claremont Graduate University. But it’s “good” stress, Bronk explains, because it’s meaningful to them, and, therefore, they manage the stress better. Mu can attest to this fact. “I believe a lot of stress comes from the belief that you need to work hard to be successful, rather than having fun,” Mu says. “This was about friends doing something fun together.”

Youth purpose can be fostered in an amazingly short period of time, says Bronk, who worked on Damon’s research team while a graduate student at Stanford. Bronk and her fellow researchers came to this conclusion after noticing a curious pattern in the Youth Purpose Study: Students who had been surveyed months before kept asking to see the transcripts from their interviews. It turns out the students were still curious about the questions and mulling over their answers. So, Damon’s team went back and compared groups of students who had been interviewed, vs. a control group of students who had not been interviewed. They discovered that the some of the students who were interviewed made substantial gains on their purpose score vs. the control group. Just the act of having a 45-minute conversation about purpose with an adult who was not their parent was enough to nudge these students into the purpose quadrant.

If brief interventions can work wonders, imagine how a long-term strategy for fostering purpose across the K–12 spectrum could help more students. How might we help the dabblers, who are often goal-driven, make a meaningful, heartfelt connection to someone or something outside of themselves? Or how might we get the dreamers to make goals and action plans? And how might we help the disengaged develop dreams in the world, or create goals, and maybe even do both at the same time? Imagine the impact for our schools—and for our communities—if we could take the current 20 percent of purpose-driven students and double it. Our school cultures would be transformed.

Creating a Movement

Just as there is a movement now to establish routines and other strategies to make learning visible, we need a K–12 framework for making purpose formation more visible in our schools.

Why don’t more schools have well-crafted purpose programs to help our students thrive and contribute? In part, because there are many pitfalls in efforts to institutionalize purpose formation, which up until now has been woven into so much of what schools do.

For starters, we have to be careful about how we talk about purpose, which can seem heavy and abstract, even to adults. I remember my grandfather asking me when I was 10 years old, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” And the question felt so dull—the opposite of what purpose actually feels like when it grows in the heart and mind of a child. It’s no surprise that the Youth Purpose Study does not mention the word “purpose” once. Instead, researchers ask questions like: “What is most important to you in your life?” and “Why do you care about those things?” and “Do you have any long-term goals?” Rather than think about purpose head-on, it seems helpful to explore the different dimensions of purpose (gifts, passions, and impact). The conversation is more interesting when it’s focused on the process, not the goal. And maybe there are better terms such as “imagining,” “sense-making,” or “wayfinding,” which is used by Project Wayfinder.

And, of course, we have to think about the college admission process. Colleges are starting to show signs of looking for students of purpose, as evidenced by several related questions on the Common Application and Yale’s most recent admission application prompts: “What inspires you?” and “Reflect on your engagement with a community to which you belong. How do you feel you have contributed to this community?” But we have to
engage students—and their parents—in a meaningful conversation long before high school. The danger is that purpose-finding can become a reductionist box to check off at the end of high school, a sort of arms race for parents and students, rather than a meaningful journey that begins in kindergarten. “Colleges are seeing that purpose and passion correlate with success,” says Karen Kenkel, director at NGL Academy (CA). “But when colleges say they are interested in something, they can destroy its positive potential. It’s tragic and sad.”

An effort to institutionalize purpose formation across the K–12 spectrum would force schools to ask some interesting questions. As we design the next-generation college transcript, why can’t we measure purpose-formation, just as Stanford has done? Most educators today agree that mastery of skills is a higher bar than memorizing content. But isn’t the highest bar of all when students use their skills to have impact in the world?

Schools often spend too much energy on what they produce rather than why they exist, which creates a culture that values taking over giving, and consuming over making. John Allman, head of school at Trinity School (NY)—who wrote a letter to parents in August that was referenced in The New York Times article “Can Prep Schools Fight the Class War?”— 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 concluded by saying “to deconstruct this default understanding of Trinity as a credentialing factory, we need to actively develop in our students compelling understandings of the socially redeeming purposes their knowledge and skills could and should serve.”

A focus on purpose transforms school communities from top to bottom and accelerates teacher innovation. Al Adams, who is now retired after 23 years as head of school at Lick-Wilmerding High School (CA), built a community of belief around the idea that Lick was a “private school with public purpose.” This clear “why” helped create an atmosphere in which purpose—the idea of contributing to something larger than yourself—became a basic expectation of all teachers and students. “I saw purpose come alive over time in many students,” Adams says. “When that happened the most was when kids were doing real work that mattered.”
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.