Helping Students Find a Purpose
BY WILLIAM DAMON/School Administrator, June 2019

William Damon, a Stanford University professor, has identified too many youth who are lacking a strong purpose in their lives.
For the past 15 years, my research team at the Stanford Center on Adolescence has been studying the development of purpose among adolescents from all backgrounds. We have chosen to study purpose because it is the key to long-term motivation, and motivation is at the heart of student achievement.

Every teacher I’ve known will tell you that students who want to learn are a pleasure to teach. Conversely, if a student has no desire to master classroom subjects, it is a hard, uphill road to get the student to pay enough attention to learn the material.

A purpose is a long-term goal to accomplish something meaningful to the self. A purpose can be heroic (save the planet, find a cure for cancer, alleviate poverty) or quite ordinary (raise a family, grow a vegetable garden). A purpose creates a desire to learn as soon as the student realizes that certain knowledge and skills are necessary for accomplishing that purpose. When schools place subjects they teach in the context of purposes that students have acquired, students become motivated to learn. We have found that purposeful students show determination, resilience, zeal and a readiness to learn (a “growth mindset”) in their academic work.

Greater Uncertainty
When I speak to educators or parents about purpose, a question I always get is whether finding purpose is different for young people today than it’s been in the past. My answer is that the psychological need for purpose has remained the same, but the developmental conditions for acquiring purpose have changed in many ways.

The perennial human need for purpose was well-stated by Helen Keller some 80 years ago: “Many persons have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” But for today’s young, many classic routes to purpose have become elusive. Careers have become increasingly transient, marriage and families less common, communities less stable and difficult to remain in for economic reasons, and civic and religious institutions less available to the young.

All of these once offered readymade sources of purpose for the young, but recent trends have made them challenging. Because of this, I’d venture that today’s young need larger doses of initiative and creativity to fashion their purposes than was the case for prior youth cohorts.

Motivating Factors
Schools, too, have changed in ways that pose special problems for many young people. Because of recent federal mandates to focus on basic skills such as numeracy and literacy, many schools have narrowed their curricular offerings and reduced extracurricular activities such as school newspapers, music and theater groups, debate and chess clubs.

The problem is that many students find their initial inklings of purpose in such “non-core” activities. A student who thrills at writing sports stories for the school paper will be likely to pay more attention in English class because that student has discovered the purpose of written communications. And, of course, media and entertainment industries are lively sources of vocational purpose for students who are captivated by art, music, theater or writing. Schools with the broadest menus of offerings are the ones that will be most successful in fostering purpose across their entire student populations.

Schools contribute to students’ search for purpose by nurturing interests. Teachers should introduce students to a varied menu of academic activities that may become purposeful. Then the students will be able to decide for themselves which activities have enough personal meaning to develop into true purposes.

Young people express an array of purposeful interests and aspirations. Some are motivated by family purposes (raising a family, caring for an extended family). Others direct themselves to vocational purposes, are driven by faith (serving God) or by the arts, sports, civic duty or a noble cause.

Rarely do purposeful youngsters attribute their choices to direct instructions from teachers, parents or other adults. Rather, they chose from the menu of options they encountered in school and beyond. For teachers, this means being good listeners when students discuss their interests, as well as being resourceful in providing ways for students to develop their interests into mature purposes. Learning in school is a primary way for this to occur.

A Golden Opportunity
Purposeful youth usually have had chances to observe admired people who themselves were pursuing purposes they believed in. Teachers provide examples of purpose in the ways they comport themselves. One golden opportunity to do this is for teachers to tell students why they chose teaching as a profession, what they find fulfilling about teaching and what they hope to accomplish with their students. The point of doing this is not to persuade their students to become teachers but rather to show what it looks like for an admired adult to pursue a vocation with purpose.

Along the same lines, teachers can interject into the curriculum stories about the lives of those who created the knowledge that students are learning about in school. When students hear about the dedication, persistence and creativity of scientists who unraveled secrets of the universe, not only does this bring scientific knowledge to life, but it also provides young people with models of purposeful work. A similar principle applies to every field of knowledge taught in the classroom.

WILLIAM DAMON is professor of education and director of the Center for Adolescence at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and the author of The Path to Purpose: How Young People Find their Calling in Life.