A New Focus on Purpose-Based Learning

Aspen Academy Contributor
Helen Keller noted, "Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."
In September, speaker Ross Wehner joins us at Aspen Academy for a Parent University talk on "Exploring Purpose With Our Children." The following is an excerpt from an article by Wehner published in the National Association of Independent Schools magazine in 2018:

"Purpose, A Critical Life Skill

The benefits of purpose in adults are well-documented in medical and academic research: better sleep, longer life, greater happiness, faster healing, and lower rate of serious problems like strokes and cardiovascular disease. The benefits for teens are similar but include an important bonus: better stress management. Purpose is becoming a critical life skill because it helps youth navigate the uncertainty of our fast-changing, technology-rich time.

Stanford University professor William Damon, author of The Path to Purpose, defines purpose as 'a stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at the same time meaningful to the self and consequential for the world beyond self.' In other words, purpose happens when students develop a meaningful connection to someone or something outside of themselves—and they do something about it. Purpose can be as big as solving a world problem, as simple as caring for a younger sibling, or as open-ended as bringing humor to tough situations.

Damon and his team of researchers developed the Youth Purpose Study, a 45-minute sit-down interview that they gave to more than 1,200 young people between 2003-2009. Their results, confirmed by other research teams using the same survey, show that purpose is relatively rare in K–12 students. Only 10 percent of middle school students have a purpose orientation, according to the survey’s findings, and this number increases to around 20 percent by high school. (Though numbers vary, other surveys indicate that only 40 percent of adults ever go on to find purpose.)

The other 80 percent of high school students are divided almost equally into three other categories, according to Damon:

  • The Dabblers or Goal-Driven: These students work hard and try out numerous pursuits, but have not yet landed on a purposeful path. These students are often goal-driven. They can work hard for goals that are largely self-focused, like doing well at sports or getting into the “right” college.
  • The Dreamers: They have an emotional connection to something or someone, outside of themselves—but aren’t doing anything about it yet.
  • The Disengaged: They have neither dreams nor goals.

Teachers may not be aware of the science of youth purpose, but they can always recognize purpose when a student has it. Linda Nathan, executive director of the Center for Artistry and Scholarship, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy, author, and lecturer at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, describes students with purpose as having “light behind the eyes,” speaking to the brightness and illumination that students of purpose have. They like to have fun but also work hard. They are resilient. They are engaged learners and caring human beings. And their energy makes schools come alive. Purpose-driven students like Matthew Mu, who worked on the hydroponics project outside of his normal classwork, often take on more stress than their peers, says Kendall Bronk, a leading purpose researcher at Claremont Graduate University. But it’s “good” stress, Bronk explains, because it’s meaningful to them, and, therefore, they manage the stress better. Mu can attest to this fact. “I believe a lot of stress comes from the belief that you need to work hard to be successful, rather than having fun,” Mu says. “This was about friends doing something fun together.”

Youth purpose can be fostered in an amazingly short period of time, says Bronk, who worked on Damon’s research team while a graduate student at Stanford. Bronk and her fellow researchers came to this conclusion after noticing a curious pattern in the Youth Purpose Study: Students who had been surveyed months before kept asking to see the transcripts from their interviews. It turns out the students were still curious about the questions and mulling over their answers. So, Damon’s team went back and compared groups of students who had been interviewed, vs. a control group of students who had not been interviewed. They discovered that the some of the students who were interviewed made substantial gains on their purpose score vs. the control group. Just the act of having a 45-minute conversation about purpose with an adult who was not their parent was enough to nudge these students into the purpose quadrant.'...to read the full article, click here.


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About Ross Wehner

After college, Wehner spent a decade working as a journalist in Latin America during the 1990s. It was the time of cholera, hyperinflation, terrorism, and human rights abuses. His outlook on the world began to darken until he had a moment of clarity: "I needed to stop reporting on problems, and instead start looking for solutions. I had this idea to start a school that would empower next-generation world leaders. That thought led me to graduate school and afterwards to work as a classroom teacher and wilderness educator. I started World Leadership School in 2007..." As Founder, he leads innovation and change initiatives with K-12 schools and work closely with school leaders. He spends time on TeachUNITED, WLS’ non-profit arm that “partners with rural schools to transform teaching and learning.” TeachUNITED allows WLS to work at a deeper level with rural school partners and create stronger school-to-school partnerships through WLS. He lives in Boulder with my wife, Renee, and their children Francesca and Sebastian. Read more about Ross' work and purpose here.


About Aspen Academy PUMP'd

Each year, Aspen Academy Parenting Universities provide opportunities for our community of parents and caregivers to learn and grow together, with a focus on the topics that are most important and relevant for you. In 2019, our events focus on resilience and address topics from purpose to anxiety. Register for events here.