5 Ways to Help Students Build a Strong Sense of Purpose

What gets you out of bed every morning? What do you care about? Who are you? These questions get at the heart of what it means to have purpose. And based on the conversations we’ve had this month on the Summit Sparks podcast, if you want to live your best life, developing strong purpose is where it’s at.

Purpose is not a term that young people, or even most adults, use in the course of everyday conversation. But what’s important in developing purpose is that individuals understand who they are and what they’re about, and ultimately what gets them excited to wake up each day and make the most of it.

Here are five ways that all educators — from professional teachers to parents to local business owners — can play an essential role in helping young people develop a strong Sense of Purpose.

1. Build Self-Awareness Early

If you talk to any of our podcast guests, it’s never too early to start that exploration and development, and it starts with building awareness — both a sense of self-awareness but also of one’s place in the world.

Educators should help students recognize that their journey toward Purpose — how they’d like to contribute to the world — starts with recognizing who they are now and what shaped them.

For most of us, this starts with our first community — our families. As Stanford University’s Bill Damon told us, it’s helpful to remember that purpose touches many areas of a person’s life:

“All of us, in fact, ultimately have multiple purposes that drive our lives… purposes can be heroic, they can be noble, they can try to change the whole world, or they can be ordinary. They can be wanting to get a good job to support your family, or be a good citizen. All of the kinds of purposes that we look at, have served to help young people find a good direction in life, that gives them stability, gives them continued motivation to accomplish their goals.”

There’s no such thing as a purpose that’s
too small or too big.

2. Serve as Models and Mentors

A big part of education for young people is observing and mimicking the adults in their lives — faking it until they make it. But as Bill Damon stated, sharing our purpose(s) doesn’t have to be on the level of a world leader, though it certainly can be. It can start with being a loving and responsible family member and extend to being aware of our actions and behaviors with friends, coworkers, and others.

Students enjoy hearing from their teachers why they chose to be a teacher, what their job is really like, and why they enjoy coming to work every day. Discussing why we’ve chosen our day or night jobs and other interests is an essential way to demonstrate purpose — or, as is sometimes the case, explaining why making a change in our daily work and interests would better align with our values and bring more meaning to our lives.

Camp Ernst Middle School Summit Learning Student
An 8th-grade student at Camp Ernst Middle School in Kentucky participates in a Socratic seminar

3. Expose Students to Real-World Learning

In the classroom, giving students opportunities to explore purpose is an important responsibility. As echoed by many of this month’s guests, including Princeville High School Teacher Anne Krolicki, the earlier we can start exploring these opportunities through school the better:

“I think if you’re not exploring that sense of purpose early in life, it can be really difficult to find it later. Sometimes students see education as something that they kind of have to get through so that they can get on with or to their lives. What we need to do in education is show them that their lives and their education are closer to synonyms than antonyms.”

Educators can start small in the classroom. Think of concentric circles. Start with classroom and school communities in the center. Have students brainstorm what they’d like to learn or what problems they might be able to solve. Teachers can then orchestrate opportunities to overlap with the curriculum based on these interests.  

Some teachers will witness students push the boundaries and explore how their interests align with a global and interconnected community. Kristina Bockhold, assistant school director of Expeditions for Summit Public Schools, shared one such student story with us:  

“One of my students, for example, did an entire project on the school-to-prison pipeline. She is a Cambodian refugee, and talked specifically about the pathway for Cambodian students that typically falls into the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s something that I don’t know that she would have had the exposure to in a normal, traditional setting.”

4. Ask Good Questions

Assessment still plays a key role in developing purpose, though this goes far beyond the traditional test. Based on this month’s conversations with experts in the classroom and education field, one of the best ways to see if students are building self-knowledge is to ask really great questions. 

Teachers, parents, and mentors can ask a range of questions, from “What did you feel went well for you this week in Biology class?” to the hard, sometimes unanswerable, questions like, “What would you like to say about your life at the end of it?” Prompt students to self-reflect, and encourage feedback from peers and other important people in students’ lives as another form of assessing progress toward developing strong Sense of Purpose.

5. Give Students Voice and Choice

Princeville High School student Emily Green and her teacher Anne Krolicki would remind us not to underestimate student voice and choice in helping shape learning outcomes. And not all communities have the same opportunities; these will be as diverse as the students and educators who make up each school and local community.

As Summit Public Schools’ Co-Founder and CEO Diane Tavenner can attest to, allowing students to contribute ideas that are relevant and that matter to their lives can be a transformative ingredient in building student motivation to learn:

“Everyone can do really amazing things when they’re motivated. When they’re not motivated, not a lot gets done. So at the heart of achieving in school or learning or developing or growing is what motivates us. A Sense of Purpose, of ‘the why,’
is what’s going to drive that.”

Diane Tavenner, CEO, Summit Public Schools

Want to learn more about purpose and the other 15 Habits of Success that students develop through the Summit Learning approach? Download our white paper, The Science of Summit, or the condensed guide, for a deeper dive. 

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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.