Strategies for Transforming Education to Foster Purpose

Jennifer D. Klein
"An increase in resilience comes from the steady dedication to something larger than ourselves." --William Damon

There has been a lot of conversation about purpose over the last decade, due in part to the publication of William Damon’s “The Path to Purpose” in 2009.  Good educators probably aren’t surprised to know how important purpose can be in the classroom; for most students, a lack of purpose behind what they’re learning quickly kills motivation.  Learning in a vacuum leads to learning for the sake of the grade or some other external reward, whereas purpose-based experiences lead to intrinsic and authentic engagement.

But purpose orientations in education include a lot more than making sure that students know why they’re learning what they’re learning, and why the knowledge or skills they’ll acquire matter.  It also means creating a classroom and school culture that helps students find their own purpose, that place where their talents, curiosities, and passions come together to form a course of study, a career, a life of inquiry and growth.

Ikigai defined (English)
Ikigai definido (español)

In Japanese, this concept is captured perfectly by the concept of “Ikigai,” translated as “a reason for being.”  As you can see in the image(s), a person’s ikigai is the intersection of what s/he loves, what the world needs, what s/he is good at, and what s/he can be paid for. Traditional education tends to lead to what my father calls “the golden handcuffs,” a career focused almost solely on what earns a living, largely bereft of importance or joy.  But more transformative, inquiry-based forms of education can help students find purpose and meaning, a life and career that fulfills and satisfies them, and a pathway that provides opportunities to contribute to their communities.  

In my opinion, this search for a larger sense of purpose is what drives us in almost every regard as humans.  Simon Sinek found, in his exploration of corporations, that employees who connect to the purpose or “why” of their employees have a much deeper dedication to the work than just earning a living.  Similarly, educators will agree that students who connect to the purpose or “why” of their learning will work harder and better, for more intrinsic motivations than grades or parental approval.  William Damon found that purpose fosters resilience, helping young people and adults to remain loyal to something bigger than themselves—and helps them build their lives accordingly.  And author Yong Zhao suggests that, in our times, young people who create their own niche are more successful than those who try to fit themselves into an existing niche.  All of this suggests that education has to help young people find their deeper purpose, even if that purpose shifts 100 times in their lifetimes as it does for so many of us, so that they know what they’re working toward and are equipped with the competencies to reach their goals.

There are a few things teachers and parents can do to help students find that deeper sense of purpose, as I do in Purpose Orientation processes with students.

1.    Create a classroom culture where everything feels possible and no ideas are ignored. I’ve heard far too many stories of great thinkers, inventors and change makers who were told in their youth that their ideas were “impossible,” an easy mistake for adults to avoid.

2.    Create projects that allow students to use their talents in authentic ways (while also building their other skills).

3.    Give students the highest levels of choice possible—in how they focus their solutions, in how they manage their process, in how they articulate their learning, and more.

4.    Ask questions more than you offer answers, so that you are harvesting students’ ideas, not encouraging adherence to your own.

5.    Use invitational language (what if, how might we…) to invite multiple pathways and creative inclusion—and so that you are a learner alongside your students, demonstrating passion and purpose in your daily work.

6.    Bring experts into everything you do, at all ages, so that students have a chance to meet people working from their passions on the issues they’re studying—and can envision the myriad ways they might do the same.

7.    Ensure the school acts on students’ ideas for change, offering them more than tokenistic opportunities to lead change inside their own communities.

8.    Help students learn to articulate their ideas and passions in multiple forms to varied audiences beyond the schoolhouse, so that their ideas have the potential to create change on a local, national and even global level.

The good news is that the newer generations are insisting, far more than previous generations have, that their lives need to include the happiness and wellbeing that come from a life of purpose.  The better news is that our classrooms are filled with young people who are capable of tremendous innovations, if the culture of their school supports it, as we discussed at [Re]Learn 2020.  And the best news is that educators around the world are transforming their practices, are making their students protagonists in their learning—and are reconnecting with their own ikigai along the way.

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