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Restoring Humanity are short(ish) segments on understanding a key idea of progressive education. In this podcast, we’re looking at the history, research, and practical application of “purpose finding” in schools. Why would we not explicitly focus on students finding their purpose in life?
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Chris McNutt: Hey there, and welcome to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris, and thanks for joining me today. We're going to be talking about students finding purpose, and what our role as educators and more grandly, schools should have in finding it. First, we're going to dive into some history, then review some research, and finally talk about goals in our practice. This work, as well as other podcasts and free resources, are a result of our incredible patrons. A special thank you to Nick Covington and Annette Laughlin for making this all possible. You can learn about the Human Restoration Project and find everything we do, as well as considering contributing on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. You can also find us on Twitter, at humerezpro. I was reading an article in the Atlantic titled, The Purpose of Education According to Students, and the dialogue within was absolutely horrifying. The question is, 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 there. Another student says, 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 really prepare you for college and dealing with that. Another 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. 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 there's also this sustained apathy, which is brought upon by years of irrelevant schooling. Personally, I find that my students seem more purposeless than ever. Sadly, there isn't a whole lot of history surrounding the explicit focus of purpose for students, perhaps due to it being relatively a new historical thing. To define what I mean by purpose, I'm referring to the meaningful life's work that you focus on. You understand, importantly, why it's your life's work. It's not just an immediate goal on the horizon, it's why you continue to push forward in whatever it is that you're doing. And prior to the modern era, most children just went into a familiar field. They just did what their family did, they took on apprenticeship, or they just married and had children. Really, only the very affluent would have much choice in furthering their education, and much of that collegiate experience was soul searching and finding your purpose. It was just kind of doing whatever and talking about, you know, smart things. The earliest substantial writings I could find of searching for passion in schools were the 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 this idea of directionless drift that most students move through within schools. He found that only one in five people from ages 12 to 22 could express what they wanted to do, where they wanted to go, and most importantly, why they wanted to do these things. Then of that group, 60% had some purposeful actions but didn't have time nor commitment to really care about them, and finally, 25% had literally no aspirations. These studies were conducted at the same time as many that were exploring meaning and psychological benefits, which are almost entirely in the late 90s through today. Prior to this, it would be assumed that through schooling, students would just find their purpose as they grew up, and there was no real explicit intent to find students and have them reflect on this matter, outside of maybe the free school movement and some counterculture unschooling programs to the traditional education system. Really, in fact, since the 1960s and the United States' worryment of our place academically versus other countries, traditional education has doubled down on standardized education through back-to-basics or calls for national standards reform, accountability measures, which are really all just code words for doubling down on the core for subject areas. Ironically, the beginning schools of the United States, the ones that were more focused on communities and raising kids to be productive members of society, they were really better possibly at serving the needs of their students because there was more of an intent towards finding purpose than just have a ubiquitous model that makes everyone the same. In fact, we could arguably state that common schooling from the 1850s onward, although having drastic benefits in reading and writing and providing a basic education, over time has really distanced itself from having those purposeful actions for students. And now we live in an era where one in five kids have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder. Students feel empty, depressed, and anxious, and 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 talk about 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 about eight 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. Maybe that's a grandiose question for a 14-year-old, but that's the exact question that they're asking, the thing they want their answer to. So diving into some research now, much of the research I'm about to refer to is compiled from our previous podcast guest 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 really staggering. And when you think about it, I mean, it's common sense. So first, in 2013, we have Patrick L. Hill, Rachel Sumner, and Anthony Burrow, who found that individuals with proactive engagement toward finding their purpose had greater agency and openness to experience, which coincidentally resulted in greater social and emotional well-being. Whereas individuals who found their purpose through reactionary means, as in someone forced it upon them or they just happened to start doing it, were less likely to feel that what they did mattered. Obviously, people who figure out what their purpose is and act upon it have happier life outcomes. And then in the same vein, we have more research by William Damon, Jenny Menon, and Kendall Kotton-Bronk in 2010, where they compiled how adolescents view their sense of purpose in their formative years. And in summary, they found that students spent little to no time on soul searching. And in our hyper-communicative world of social media and advertising, where there's a frenzy of people telling you what you should be, students are often stressed out. And they're told to find their passions or things that interest them, but that's in spite of what they're doing in school, and they just don't have enough time for it. They're depressed, anxious, et cetera. It should come as no surprise that when Jane Gilham did a study of ninth and 10th grade students, they had greater life satisfaction and less depressive symptoms when they found needing and love in their lives. Another interesting note is Martha Sayles' research, where she studied a diverse school system. She accounted for gender, ethnicity, their egocentrism, and their purpose in life through a variety of tasks. Students who scored low in having a purpose or meaning to life were significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as dangerous drugs or drinking and driving. Also we have a landmark study by Kendall Kotton-Bronk as well. She found that adolescents had incredibly close ties between their purpose and their The more teenagers understood their place in the world, the more purposeful their actions that they took, and the more they understood who they were. They would then take a lot of really incredible steps to be the person that they wanted to be because they wanted to meet their life's purpose. And a couple more highlights, also by Dr. Kotton-Bronk, who worked with Patrick Hill and Anthony Burrow in 2014, they found that grit, as in the idea of working hard to achieve your goals, not just doing something just to do it, that type of grit, had a substantial correlation with those who had a life direction and commitment to a purpose. Those who were confused about their futures tended to have very little commitment, or it seemed to go in chunks. And then finally, there is some important research by Kyla Matchell, David Disabato, and Todd Kashdan. They found that teenagers who live in poverty, who usually have higher antisocial or decreased prosocial behaviors, can alleviate and escape these mindsets by finding a purpose in life. They found that to be the ultimate resiliency factor. It helped them develop skills and develop a mindset to achieve in spite of adversity. So why focus on purpose? I don't really know how someone could not answer this question. I mean, of course you would focus on purpose. In addition to all the research previously presented, there are hundreds of studies that correlate increased and better life outcomes, even mortality rates, to having a purpose in life. The argument that usually 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 students' life goals. Then after we figure out what all those things are, we take the remainder of that time in achieving and finding students' life goals, figuring out their purpose. 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, and 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 other teachers' standards, meaning they're less likely to solely just give up their time. In order to have a purposeful, meaningful classroom, students 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 are constantly communicating to them new messages. To deep-dive into a particular topic, especially when that topic isn't related to our core subject areas, is practically impossible in the traditional system. And that's not to say that we won't likely place some value on some topics we believe everyone should know. For example, personally, I think that the only takeaway I want 100% of my students to understand as a result of American history are tolerance and empathy. They have anti-racist, anti-sexist, pro-diverse viewpoints. And I'm sure that those subjects have a key underlying reason why they want students to know something very specific. I'm not sure if my views of being a history major influences what I deem important to all. After all, there's going to be many non-school subject majors who would bring something else to the table. But I think if we truly factored down our subjects, we could be providing students 80% or more of time on focusing on what they want to do, rather than what we deem is important. This viewpoint is counter to maybe what a purely self-directed school would say, but in my progressive mindset, I think there is some value in sparking curiosity of young students through an effective teacher. However, do note, I do believe that relationships should be consensual. I don't think you can force students into learning things. My fear is taken on its most extreme, purely individualized classrooms like MOOCs or ed tech individualistic endeavors, fears that loss of community that you have in a classroom. If one solely hyper-specializes to find their purpose, but never sees a connection to others or interacts with their peers, or is exposed to new ideas or diverse viewpoints, they're essentially a robot. They no longer are a human with purpose, they're just doing an action. All that being said, helping students find a purpose in school isn't really rocket science in terms of its actual implementation, but it's a bureaucratic nightmare when it comes to 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, which is usually the teacher, assisting them when they need it. None of this works if students have to complete X amounts of work each week in each subject, or are tested on a slew of mandated knowledge that ultimately is forgotten or irrelevant. Again, operating a class where you give students time, or even better, a school gives students time to seek out answers is really worthwhile. Developing close relationships with every student, when you know what their interests are, and helping guide them on their journey is life-changing and so incredibly important. It shouldn't be a small slew of time, like a genius hour where you're giving them an hour to explore. As Pam Moran, Chad Radcliffe, and Ira Sokol explain in Timeless Learning, why isn't it the other way around? As in, why is there not an hour of time for mandated knowledge, with the rest being up to the individual or class? And all of this ties together with other topics on this podcast, so ungrading, critical pedagogy, reformative justice, and various conversations with those looking to reform schools. And the solution is often just to listen, learn, provide time, and give decision-making to the individual needs of students, meaning that every school is going to look very different from each other and have their own solutions to problems. Notably, that means that schools are listening to their students to develop this framework, not assuming or making judgment calls on what their students can do. A lot of times, schools will say something like, you know, I know what's best for our kids, when really that's code for my kids are out of control, so I know I have to do this, instead of actually listening to them. But to the overall point, our major issue is convincing legislators, school boards, administrators, and the public that all of the stuff that we're talking about matters. When you write or say it, it makes complete sense. I mean, how can you argue against the idea that students should have purpose in their lives? But to actually change the cultural discourse of public education takes a lot of work. So 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 that we have in creating a relevant schooling system works in tandem with each other. You can't have a school system primarily focused on finding purpose while still having a hyper-standardized testing facility. You can't have students have better social and emotional well-being and do better in school when you still have traditional grading practices. Everything goes along with each other. And once we find one of those things that starts igniting discussion at our school, the quicker we'll be reforming every notion toward progressive education. Hope you enjoyed this podcast. We want to connect with you and hear your thoughts. Follow us on Twitter, YouTube, Medium, and other social media, and be sure to check us out on our website at humanrestorationproject.org. If you want to support us in our endeavor of starting a movement towards progressive ed through high-quality resources, consider supporting us on Patreon. Thanks again!