Purpose Learning: Reimagining What and How Students Learn

Winter 2022

By Ross Wehner

final_1-(1).jpgDuring 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 created an urban hydroponics program that operates in collaboration with other schools in the Baltimore area to train younger students to take over the project.
This story, in many ways, exemplifies the kind of learning for which independent schools have always been known. 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 toward a growing movement called Purpose Learning—by understanding this shift 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. The current K–12 educational system, especially high school, is not working for the teenage brain. In a Yale University survey of 22,000 U.S. high school students, the three main feelings they reported were tired, stressed, and bored. These feelings explain why teen anxiety and suicide increased every year since 2007.
But COVID-19’s massive shift to online learning, and plummeting levels of student learning, forced schools more than ever to recognize how important equity and belonging are for learning. Schools learned, as neuroscientists have argued for decades, that learning can only happen when students feel connected, safe, and seen. How to create spaces of belonging, where students can bring their emotions to learning, is the new frontier for learning. “It is literally neurobiologically impossible to build memories, engage complex thoughts, or make meaningful decisions without emotions,” writes Helen Immordino-Yang, a former classroom teacher and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California. “Put succinctly, we only think deeply about things we care about.”
Independent schools are responding in a variety of positive ways to create spaces of belonging. Schools are mainstreaming social-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 independent, public, and charter schools are supporting the Mastery Transcript Consortium (MTC), an ambitious effort to launch a new college transcript that will emphasize mastery of skills over memorization of content. The MTC will allow schools to focus on the whole child—rather than a narrow slice of achievement described by A, B, C, and D grades.

Purpose Learning

Purpose learning is a growing movement that integrates today’s school reform into a simple, actionable framework. Learning in the past emphasized thinking, or helping students memorize content and develop key cognitive skills. Learning in the future will integrate thinking with rich forms of feeling and doing, all at the same time. At the center of these three domains students have a chance to explore purpose in learning and life. 
Thinking, feeling, and doing is an old framework first advanced as “head, heart, and hands” learning by Swiss pedagogue Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi in the early 19th century. Progressive educators such as Rudolf Steiner, Maria Montessori, and John Dewey developed it even further. Progressive education, a vital reform movement in the United States in the early 20th century, was completely overshadowed by the “factory school model” that scaled quickly after World War II in response to a growing population. Now schools are returning once again to progressive education as the factory model, and standardized testing movement, begin to ebb for the first time since WWII.
Independent schools are already doing much great work in Purpose Learning, but it is patchy, uneven, and inconsistent. The challenge is to articulate and scale deliberate strategies for helping students embark upon what the late Sir Ken Robinson described as the “two great human journeys.” The first is an inner journey to explore self (“Who am I?” or learning as feeling). The second is the outer journey to contribute to the world (“How do I connect?” or learning as doing). Schools need a visible and articulated K–12 strategy 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? The question guiding the future of learning is: How can K–12 schools help students discover, explore, and articulate purpose? In other words, what if the purpose of school were 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 and 2009. Their results, confirmed by other research teams using the same survey, show that purpose is relatively rare in K–12 students. Only 10% of middle school students have a purpose orientation, according to the survey’s findings, and this number increases to around 20% by high school. (Though numbers vary, other surveys indicate that only 40% of adults ever go on to find purpose.)
The other 80% 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.” 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 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% 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-crapurpose.JPGfted 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 increasingly fishing for students of purpose, because they know these students are more likely to be deep learners and better stress managers. Not surprisingly, the Common Application’s essay prompts have evolved since 2009 to mirror many of the questions from Stanford’s Youth Purpose Study. These questions demand students to explore identity, vulnerability, and meaning making. The most notable example is the essay prompt: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”
To get students ready for these questions, we have to engage students—and their parents—in a meaningful conversation about purpose 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, a veteran school leader now at Villa Joseph Marie High School (PA). “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 the summer of 2017 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 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.” 
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of Independent School magazine and has been updated in sections.
Ross Wehner

Ross Wehner is founder of World Leadership School in Boulder, Colorado, which partners with K–12 schools to reimagine learning and create next-generation leaders, and co-founder of the nonprofit TeachUNITED.