Why do we teach? Beyond the facts and basic skills, what do we hope our students will learn? Why school?
These big questions get lost in our daily routines, our standards and standardized tests, college-focused high school resumes, the sudden disruption of a COVID pandemic, too-full classrooms, and too many kids facing crushing life challenges in the world beyond our schools.
But given a few moments to reflect, a bit of cushion from the daily rigors, educators will spiral into the center of gravity of those big questions, and at the core we frequently arrive back at words like “life-ready”, “meaning”, and “purpose”. I happen to be working with a school that has distilled their North Star into just two words, and one of them is “meaning”. In one of the serendipitous convergences that drive our understanding, I turned on the radio yesterday on the way to the gym and caught a piece of a Hidden Brain podcast featuring Anthony Burrow of Cornell, who specializes in the science and understanding of “purpose”.
Burrow asks us to understand the difference between “meaning” which involves looking backwards, making sense of the world as it happened or is happening; and “purpose”, which is about looking forward, aspiring or intending to accomplish something that is ahead of you. Purpose is an intentionality, a life aim; it is always in front of you. Unlike goals, which we accomplish, we will never actually reach our purpose. I might have a reachable goal to lose weight or read more books; I will never achieve my purpose of being a great father.
So the first prompt I have is this: as educators, do we know the difference between meaning and purpose, and which are we trying to instill in our students, or both, in what sequence or measure? Do we even know how to move towards whatever balance we define?
Burrow believes there is increasing evidence that having a sense of purpose makes people “more well” in many ways and, particularly key for educators, that purpose is not something lying around in our lives waiting to be found. We can’t find our purpose if we just “have the right flashlight, if someone just tells me how it works”.
He says acquiring purpose seems to arise out of one of three pathways:
- A proactive pathway of gradual, sustained interaction with some topic or opportunity, like a hobby. Over time I start to think of this focus as a path I am on, gaining purpose through gradual exploration. My purpose grows like a snowball over time.
- A reactive pathway, responding to something either positive or negative that happens in my life. I know exactly where that purpose came from.
- A social learning pathway: I watch others or learn from others; I see what a purpose looks like up close and I draw inspiration from someone else by close observation of them. For many teachers and parents, this is the pathway in which we can be most helpful.
All these pathways share a common element: they are all active. Learning purpose is not something we can teach. We must create the conditions for students to find and learn it for themselves.
And, I think, we must be incredibly mindful that the “meaning” of each child, that “way the world happened or is happening” is very different for each. The starting points of meaning and identity of our students are not congruent, as much as a cookie cutter-based education system would like them to be.
So, I think the school I am working with has several starting point tasks before they can design ways to achieve their North Star. What is the nature of meaning? How is it different from purpose? Which should be our North Star, or what mix of both? How can we best create the conditions for students (and adults!) to find their own purpose?
And perhaps most importantly, if the real purpose of education is to help our students find their own purpose, which I expect it is, how do we know if we are getting closer to that unreachable aspiration?