Developing Sense of Purpose in Middle School? It’s Not Too Early.

On the Summit Sparks Podcast: Bill Damon

This month on the Summit Sparks podcast, we welcome the New Year — Happy 2018 everyone — and explore the theme of Sense of Purpose. Our first guest, William (Bill) Damon, a professor of education at Stanford University, describes purpose as a long-term compass that guides individuals and helps them stay on track throughout life.

The transcript below has been edited for clarity and is a condensed version of Damon’s full interview. Find this and all episodes at

Why is it important that our students, even starting in middle school, begin identifying a Sense of Purpose?

Bill Damon: Purpose gives you a long-term compass that keeps you on track. Everyone has goals and goals are important, especially for students, and that includes getting their homework done, getting good grades in school, getting along with their teachers and their peers.

All of these goals have ultimate reasons, in other words, they’re not goals in themselves. You don’t have a goal of doing your homework just because the homework needs to be done. It contributes to the purpose of learning, and learning contributes to the purpose of helping you find the area in life that you want to accomplish something, make a difference, contribute to the world… [purpose] is associated with lots of goods in life, lots of benefits, ranging from health to energy, to a sense that I’m satisfied with my life, and I’m finding fulfillment in my everyday actions.

What do you believe are the critical components that schools should consider when designing environments… that best help students discover a Sense of Purpose?

BD: One is to give students an opportunity to observe a purposeful adult and see what purpose looks like in a human being. Of course, teachers have a great opportunity to do this, simply by every now and then, expressing why they find teaching a purpose… this is something, by the way, that I don’t often see teachers doing spontaneously. Maybe they’re a bit shy about that, but, if a teacher ever express, you know, “I really get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing my students learn, that’s why I do this. I always wanted to do something like this.”

That won’t necessarily encourage students to become teachers. Not at all. Adults cannot give young people their purposes, but they can show young people what purpose looks like. That can be inspiring for young people.

Purpose is associated with lots of benefits, ranging from health to energy, to a sense that I’m satisfied with my life, and I’m finding fulfillment in my everyday actions.

How should educators think about guiding students from different racial, economic, and other backgrounds in their own, in discovering Purpose?

BD: In our studies, I have found that purpose is a highly individual phenomenon. In other words, every child, from whatever background, is going to find their own way. That’s the only way it works. I would encourage teachers to, first of all, resist stereotyping children according to categories of backgrounds, because you want to give every child the unlimited potential, unlimited opportunities, whatever they find. That’s not going to be determined by a particular background that a child has had.

If we want students to… have achieved a certain level of [understanding of Purpose by the time they graduate high school], how do we know that they’ve done so?

BD: I think the right kinds of questions is really the best way to it, because those questions linger on. If you simply ask a student, “When you are looking back in 10 years from now, what would you like to say about your life over the last 10 years? If you think of yourself when you’re 25, let’s say; or, take it even further — what would you like to say about your life at the end of your life?”

Get them to think about things like that. They may not have answers when you ask them that question. Or, they may mumble. In fact, they probably won’t have very articulate answers, but that’s the reason you do it, because it puts something in their mind that they will be thinking about that will percolate. They will start asking themselves those questions eventually. It’s exactly that process of self-reflection that leads the young person to begin figuring out what direction [they] want to take in life. Those are the first steps of purpose.

Stanford University’s William Damon

Bill Damon is director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence and a professor of education at Stanford University. Bill’s current research explores how young people develop purpose in their civic, work, family, and community relationships. He’s also written widely about educating young people for moral and ethical understanding. Bill’s 2008 book, The Path to Purpose: Helping our Children Find Their Calling in Life, helped inform Summit’s design of its four student outcomes, which include Sense of Purpose.

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About the author

Lauren Faggella
A storyteller and former educator, Lauren Faggella is dedicated to turning the Summit Learning community's stories and ideas into great content that informs and inspires a range of audiences. Prior to joining Summit Public Schools, Lauren was a professional freelance writer and third-grade teacher in Rhode Island. She earned her MEd from the University of Rhode Island and BA in English from Elon University.