The Secret to Student Motivation? A Sense of Purpose

What does a canoe without a rudder and Sense of Purpose have in common? Summit Public Schools’ Co-Founder and CEO Diane Tavenner enlightens us in this month’s Sense of Purpose series. Diane talks about how purpose, which she describes as the self-knowledge underlying student motivation, is impacting the way Summit thinks about student success.

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

How do you define Sense of Purpose?

People with a Sense of Purpose know who they are. They know what their values are. They know what motivates them. They understand what society has to offer them, and they take advantage of opportunities to make choices that are aligned with who they are.

Why is purpose important in middle and high school?

It’s at the heart of motivation. What we know from so much of the good work that so many of the learning scientists have done about people, is that everyone can do really amazing things when they’re motivated. When they’re not motivated, not a lot gets done.

How does someone start to prepare students for an uncertain or changing life path while they’re still in high school?

I had this experience once, where I was with this group of people, and we were canoeing on a river. It turned out they were two-man canoes, and it turned out that the canoe I was in, the rudder was broken but no one knew this until we sort of got out into the river…

There was no way to make sense of which way to paddle or how to paddle and what that would end up making happen… at some point my partner and I just gave up because everything we were doing was putting us in a different direction than we wanted to go. Nothing made sense. We felt completely disempowered.

The idea that people as young as small children don’t need to understand how they have control over their lives and what they do impacts them is kind of silly to me… When we dig into what it takes to actually develop a Sense of Purpose, the earlier the better.

What is needed in that process of finding or developing purpose?

There are really three core activities of developing a Sense of Purpose. The first is exposure. So what’s key is that human beings are exposed a whole wide array of opportunities and experiences and possibilities…

The second piece is that they get to explore; so when presented with all of these possibilities, what do they actually choose? What does a person choose to actually explore?

Then the third piece is having the opportunity to deeply pursue something…  to really go after the things that seem to be meaningful to an individual and have the opportunity to start to develop being good at that or really developing some expertise in that area.

Listen to Diane Tavenner’s full interview — including her thoughts on the important role of local communities in helping students develop Sense of Purpose —  on the Summit Sparks podcast.

Diane Tavenner

Diane Tavenner is the Co-Founder and CEO of Summit Public Schools, a leading public school system that operates 11 schools in California and Washington, as well as a free program that enables schools across the U.S. to implement Summit Learning, its nationally recognized personalized approach to teaching and learning.

Prior to Summit, Diane was a public school teacher, administrator, and leader in traditional urban and suburban public schools throughout California. She holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree in administration and policy analysis from Stanford University.

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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.