Restoring Humanity to...Purpose (Changing the Focus of School)

The following is the transcript for our recent podcast. Listen here!

I was reading an article in The Atlantic titled “The Purpose of Education - According to Students” and the dialogue within was horrifying. “What do you think is the purpose of education?” One student responds, “....I’m seeing the role of school - of education - basically a pastime, like a public babysitter for whoever feels their children should be here.” Another, “....they don’t really teach you about how to go and get a job, how to live on your own, pay this, pay that, when you actually have to do it. Or actually prepare you for college and dealing with that.” And a student says, “You’re just learning to take a test. You’re not learning to actually be happy.” Quite frankly, I find it perplexing that this isn’t a bigger deal... (Slapik, 2017.)

Children are faced with a ton of pressure on what they will do when they graduate - and that pressure is exacerbated in their teenage years when while soul-searching they face depression, anxiety, and fear. The fear of judgment by others, but also there’s a kind of sustained apathy - which is brought upon by years of irrelevant schooling. Personally, my students seem more purposeless than ever.

Sadly, there isn’t a lot of history surrounding the explicit focus of purpose for students - perhaps due to its relatively new historical place. To define what I mean by “purpose”, I’m referring to a meaningful life’s work that you focus on - and you understand why this is your life’s work. It’s not an immediate goal - but why you continue to push forward in whatever you do. Prior to the modern era, most children went into a familiar field - such as what their family did, or simply married and had children. Only the very affluent would have much choice in their further education, and much of that collegiate experience was soul-searching.

The earliest substantial writings I could find of searching for passion in schools were studies of Dr. William Damon of Stanford University in the late 2000s. He wrote “Path to Purpose: How Young People Find Their Calling in Life” which centered on the “directionless drift” that most students move through schooling with. He found that only 1 in 5 people from ages 12-22 could express what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go, and most importantly - why they wanted to do these things. Then, 60% had some purposeful actions, but didn’t have the time nor commitment to really care about them. And finally, 25% had literally no aspirations. These studies were conducted at the same time of many exploring meaning and psychological benefits - almost entirely in the late 90s and through today.

Prior to this, it was assumed that through schooling, students would find their purpose as they grew up - but there was no explicit intent to have students reflect on this matter, outside of the Free School movement and other counterculture and unschooling programs to the traditional public school system. In fact, since the 1960s and the US worriment of our place academically versus other countries, traditional education has doubled down on standardized knowledge through “back to basics” movements, calls for national standards reform, and accountability measures. Ironically, the beginning schools of the United States - which were more focused on community goals and serving the needs of its students - seem to have more intent toward finding purpose than the ubiquitous schooling models of today. In fact, we could arguably state that common schooling that from roughly the 1850s on, although having benefits in reading, writing, and providing a basic education for all, overtime seemed to more and more distance itself from finding purposeful actions for students (Sugimoto & Carter, 2015.)

Now, we live in an era where 1 in 5 kids have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Students feel empty, depressed, and anxious. Suicide rates are rising - with a 40 year high among girls in 2015. Obviously, there’s a lot more to this than just school - we also need efforts toward normalizing mental health treatment and talking more about these problems - but it’s undeniable that for many of our students, school is purposeless. Not only does the content seem outdated and contrived, but they’re forced to sit through it for 8 hours a day, sometimes even forced to do it into late afternoons. It’s incredibly odd that we wouldn’t be focused on kids finding their place in the world. Perhaps that’s a grandiose question for a 14-year-old, but that’s the exact question they’re asking and seeking the answer to (Snow & McFadden, 2017.)

Much of the research I’m about to refer to is compiled from our previous podcast guest’s organization, Patrick Cook-Deegan’s Project Wayfinder, as well as Dr. William Damon’s formative work, Path to Purpose. Again, this is quite a new field, but the results are staggering and really, if you think about it, common sense.

First, in 2013, Patrick L. Hill, Rachel Sumner, and Anthony Burrow found that individuals who had proactive engagement toward finding their purpose had greater agency and openness to experience, which coincidentally resulted in greater emotional and social well-being. Whereas individuals who found their purpose through mostly reactionary means, as in, someone forced it upon them or they just happened to start doing something, were less likely to feel what they did mattered. Obviously, people that sought out finding their purpose and acted upon it were happier (Hill, Sumner, & Burrow, 2014.)

In the same vein, further research by William Damon, Jenni Menon, and Kendall Cotton in 2010, compiled how adolescents view their sense of purpose in their formative years. In summary, students spent little to no time on soul-searching, and in the hyper-communicative world of social media and advertising, with a frenzy of people telling you what you should be, students are stressed out. They’re told to find passions or things that interest them, but that’s often in spite of what they’re already doing in school (Damon, Menon, & Cotton Bronk, 2003.)

And it should come as no surprise that 9th and 10th grade students, according to the work of Jane Gillham, had greater life satisfaction and less depressive symptoms when they found meaning and love in their lives (Gillham et al., 2011.)

Another interesting note is Martha Sayles’ research, where she studied a diverse school system - accounting for gender, ethnicity, their egocentrism, and their purpose in life. Students who scored low in having a purpose or meaning to life were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as using dangerous drugs or drinking and driving. In addition, Anglo-American children reported having much less of a purpose in their lives and were drastically more prone to risky behavior than their minority classmates (Sayles, 1995.)

In a landmark study by Kendall Cotton Bronk, she found that adolescents had incredibly close ties between their purpose and their identity. The more teenagers understood their place in the world - the more purposeful actions they took - and the more they understood who they were. They would then take incredible steps to be the person they wanted to be - to meet their life’s purpose (Cotton Bronk, 2012.)

And there’s still a couple more highlights. Dr. Cotton Bronk then worked with Patrick Hill and Anthony Burrow in 2014 to find that grit - as in working hard to achieve your goals - had a substantial correlation with those who had a life direction and commitment to a purpose. Furthermore, those still confused about their futures tended to have very little commitment (Hill, Burrow, & Cotton Bronk, 2014.)

Finally, important research by Kyla Machell, David Disabato, and Todd Kashdan found that teenagers living in poverty, who often have increased antisocial and decreased prosocial behavior, can alleviate and escape from these mindsets by finding purpose in life - the ultimate resiliency factor - to develop skills and a mindset to achieve in spite of adversity (Machell et al.,2015.)

So...why focus on purpose? I don’t really know how someone could not answer....of course you would focus on purpose. In addition to all that research previously presented, there are hundreds of studies that correlate increased and better life outcomes - even mortality rates - to having a purpose.

The argument that arises is - do we need well-rounded people? As in, are there certain things that everyone has to know in order to be successful? Then, after we figure out what those things are - we then devote all that time to achieving and finding student’s life goals. Of course, in the modern school system - nearly 100% of our time is on what the state has determined as a successful, well-rounded person. No one wants to give up their valuable class time to soul-searching when they’re meeting their standards, and most teachers value their standards more than others - meaning they’re less likely to solely give up their time.

In order for a purposeful, meaningful classroom to exist, students almost have to hyper-specialize. They can’t find meaning from surface-level ideas - especially when those ideas are being thrown at them day to day in the same vein as their online lives. To deep dive into a particular topic - especially when that topic isn’t related to our core subject areas - is practically impossible in a traditional system. And we still will likely place value on some topics we believe everyone should know.

Personally, I think that the only takeaway I want 100% of my students to understand as a result of my American History class are tolerance and empathy - developing anti-racist, anti-sexist, and pro-diverse viewpoints. And I’m sure that most subjects have a key, underlying reason why they want students to know their subject. I’m not sure if my views of having a history major background influences what I deem important to all (after all, there are so many non-school subject majors who would bring something else to to the table) - but if we truly factored down our subjects, we could be providing students 80% of a focus on what they want to do.

This viewpoint is counter to a purely self-directed school, but in my progressive mindset I do believe that there is some value in “sparking curiosity” of young students through an effective teacher, but I do believe that the relationship should be consensual - you can’t force students into learning things. My fear of purely individualized classrooms - such as MOOCs and other ed-tech individualistic endeavors - is the loss of community. If one solely hyper-specializes to find their purpose, but never sees that connection to others or interacts with their peers, they’re essentially a robot, not a human with purpose.

All that being said, helping students find a purpose in school isn’t rocket science in terms of its actual implementation, but it is a bureaucratic nightmare when it involves giving up what’s already there. To teach purpose, we just need to let students explore the world according to their desires, present them with things that spark their curiosity, and provide resources for them to reflect and interact with each other. We need to value their thoughts and give them opportunities to specialize in projects that interest them, which they can then pursue with a mentor - the teacher - assisting them when they need it.

None of this works if students have to complete x amount of work each week in each subject, or are tested on a slew of mandated knowledge that ultimately is forgotten or irrelevant. Although it is surprising how easy it can be to rig this system in your favor - such as drilling for a state test a week before it is given for substantially high results, even when you barely cared about it in the months before.

Operating a class where you give students time - or even better - a school gives students time - to just seek out answers is worthwhile. Developing close relationships with every student where you know what their interests are - and help guide them on their journey - is life changing and so incredibly important. This isn’t supposed to be a “genius hour” or a fraction of school - it should be the other way around - the hour of time would be the mandated knowledge, with the rest being up to the individual or class.

All of this ties together with other topics of this podcast: grading, critical pedagogy, reformative justice, and various conversations with those looking to reform schools. The solution is just to listen, learn, provide time, and give decision-making to the individual needs of students - meaning schools all look very different to each other and have their own solutions to problems. Notably, that means that schools are listening to their students to develop their frameworks, not assuming or making judgment calls on what their students can do. But to the overall point, our major issue is in convincing legislators, school boards, administrators, and the public that this all matters. When you write or say it - it makes complete sense - but to actually change the cultural discourse of public education takes a lot of work.

Perhaps the next step is to bring up a discussion of purpose in school. Find the one thing that sparks educators to rise up and demand change - and maybe purpose is that calling. Each of these puzzle pieces in creating a relevant schooling system works in tandem with another - and once we find the discussion that ignites our local school - the quicker we’ll be reforming every notion toward progressive education.