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How Schools Can Help Students Develop A Greater Sense Of Purpose

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When Aly Buffett was a young girl struggling with reading, her parents brought in a tutor. The tutor told her, “You’re struggling right now, but I’m here with you, and you’re going to do amazing things,” Buffett said. Now 20 years old and a junior at Tulane University, Buffett believes her tutor’s warmth and confidence altered the path of her life. She realized that the steady support she’d received from her parents, teachers and tutor isn’t something every struggling child receives.

“A lot of kids aren’t told, ‘You’re going to be successful, you’re going to achieve a lot,' ” she said. Conscious of her good fortune, and grateful to all who helped her, Buffett is considering a career in politics so she can shape education or health policy. “I feel the need to pay it forward,” she said.

Having a sense of purpose like this is “the long-term, number one motivator in life,” said William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose. To have purpose is to be engaged in something larger than the self, he said; it’s often sparked by the observation that something’s missing in the world that you might provide. It’s also a mindset that many teenagers appear to lack, according to research Damon carried out at the Stanford Center on Adolescence: About 20 percent of high school kids report being purposeful and dedicated to something besides themselves. The majority are either adrift, frenetic with work but purposeless, or full of big dreams but lacking a deliberate plan.

Of course, parents are instrumental in guiding their children toward purpose. But schools also play a part. And so far, Damon writes, when it comes to steering teenagers toward futures that are meaningful and rewarding, there's more work to be done.

Damon and other experts offer teachers and school leaders practical steps to assist students to find purpose.


Relate the lessons of literature to teenagers’ lives. When discussing Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with her 12th-grade English students, Anne Weisgerber prods her students to consider the characters’ purpose, and to puzzle over how their flaws set them on a disastrous path. “Stories like these get students thinking about why people do certain things, while commenting on right and wrong behavior,” Weisgerber said. “Students begin to understand the time and place and how there might be parallels to their own lives,” she added. Weisgerber wants her students to reflect over literature’s enduring themes and to apply these insights to their own life plan. “I always tell my students that life doesn't come with a rule book, but it does provide us with great literature,” she said.

Talk about why. “Every part of the curriculum should be taught with the Why question squarely in the foreground,” Damon writes. Why study mathematics, or literature, or biology? Students might better appreciate a subject’s value if they understand its purpose, as well as what drove leading figures in the field to devote themselves to it. In literature, teachers can explore what compelled the author to develop a character in a particular way. “The closing question is always, ‘what’s the author’s purpose?’” Weisgerber said. “That’s where the big discussions happen,” she added.

Explain your purpose as a teacher. By sharing what they find meaningful in their work, teachers prod students to think about their own lives’ purpose. “They can be a model of what a purposeful person looks like,” Damon said.

Connect the classroom to the outside world. “There’s a disconnect between school curriculum and real life,” said Adam Poswolsky, author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough. When what goes on in class feels untethered to reality, kids lose interest in the subject and start to drift. Poswolsky encourages teachers to take students on field trips whenever possible. “You can’t replicate the real world in the classroom,” he said. Exposure to actual careers and experiences might help kids recognize the connection between what they’re learning and reality.

Promote community service and civic engagement. Already, schools have been successful in steering kids toward serving the community; 26 percent of teenagers between 16 and 19 volunteer. Such volunteerism, even when coerced by schools or parents, is apt to carry on beyond high school, especially when some education accompanies the service. To encourage more political engagement, schools can talk up the importance of student elections. These ultra-local, bottom-up campaigns teach kids about elections and the political process, and introduce them to purpose, said Poswolsky.

Continue to ask important questions. Elementary school kids are routinely asked big questions about their futures. What do you dream about? What do you want to be when you grow up? But by high school, adults more often inquire about teenagers’ college plan or course load. “Your purpose in high school is to get into the best college,” said Caroline Wohl, a freshman at Georgetown University, who said she spent her high school years striving for academic success. Candid, thoughtful conversations between teachers and students about purpose — as Weisgerber does in her literature discussions — can prod young people to think about their own values and how best to live.

It’s not just teachers. Coaches, tutors and guidance counselors also are well-suited to inviting thoughtful conversations about purpose. “There need to be people in a school who say, ‘I’m not worried about your actual work, I’m worried about your heart and dreams,” Poswolsky said. In high-needs schools, such figures are even more vital, he added. Neal Sharma, who has coached track and cross-country for 17 years in Summit, New Jersey, said that he delivers the message to kids that distance running will give them confidence in themselves and a sense of self-efficacy.

“I think about helping kids become better versions of themselves, which might lead them to their purpose,” he said.

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