College Student

Making Room for Purpose at School

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by Heather Malin

One of the most useful lessons from the recent college admissions scandal comes from Olivia Jade, the social media influencer whose celebrity parents cheated to get her into a high-status college. The gawkers who combed Olivia Jade’s Instagram and YouTube accounts were quick to uncover evidence that her parents’ money was wasted. School was an afterthought for her, a place without purpose.

She’s not alone in failing to find purpose at school. How many students believe the purpose of education is simply to get into a good college? Our research team at the Stanford Center on Adolescence interviewed hundreds of teens about what matters most to them. Many said getting good grades and getting into a good college mattered more than almost anything else. Few described education as an opportunity for gaining self-knowledge, pursuing meaningful goals, or contributing to society. We have successfully instilled in our children the belief that the purpose of education is getting accepted to a top-ranked college.

It didn’t take a celebrity scandal to know there is something wrong with the current school system. We’ve seen students craft exquisite but meaningless resumes for college applications. We’ve heard about the increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide among adolescents. We’ve watched high school superstars depart for ivy league colleges, flounder, and return home before finishing their first year. The intense pursuit of college acceptance without connection to any sense of purpose leaves students feeling adrift and anxious.

The good news is that there is a turning of the tide and it’s rippling across the country. Increasingly, teachers and school leaders are asking questions about the purpose of school and finding that the purpose of school should be – purpose.

Purpose is our drive to contribute to something larger than ourselves. It’s rooted in our core values – the things we care about most and that represent the kind of person we want to be. If we value close relationships, we might find purpose in providing for our family or in growing our bonds with those we care about. If we value creativity or innovation, we might find purpose in designing new technologies that can have a positive impact in the world or in writing songs that can have an emotional impact on listeners.

A purpose education movement is on the rise, as more and more schools are asking students to reflect on who they are and the kind of person they want to be, to think about the world beyond themselves and what the world needs from them, and to look to the future with some sense of what makes life meaningful. My book, Teaching for Purpose, profiles several of these schools and the organizations they partner with, such as Noble Impact in Arkansas and Open Future Institute in New York. These programs train educators to engage students in open and sometimes vulnerable classroom discussions about relationships, values, meaning, and purpose.

The arguments against this are quick to surface. We don’t have time. Values should be taught at home. This won’t help their test scores. But, superintendents and principals scattered across the country are starting to say, “Enough is enough. It’s time to do what’s right for our children.” These leaders find the time to integrate values, character, and purpose into the school day.

Do values and purpose belong at school? Anecdotal and research evidence suggests we can’t afford to keep them out. One study showed that students who think education is for pursuing a purpose to contribute something positive to society performed better on academic tasks and went further in college than those who felt education was for pursuing personal gain.

Anecdotally, some principals who embrace purpose education are seeing declines in discipline referrals. Their teachers learn skills for inviting students’ values into the classroom and creating an environment of respect and safety for students to share and explore what matters to them. With a better understanding of who their students are, what drives them, and where they are coming from, these teachers can be more effective in responding to behavior challenges that arise. Students, in turn, respond to the increased trust and sense of belonging at school that comes with being truly heard. When school is for nothing more than winning the academic race, too many students fail to make connections between their learning and what matters most to them, or worse, like Olivia Jade they disengage from school completely. What if, instead, we made purpose the purpose of school?


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