On Purpose

I received several emails in response to my last month’s blog about “school principals.”  My plan for this month was to write a follow-up blog focusing on the question that concluded the January blog: “Is my school a better school because I lead it?”

My plan changed after seeing three movies: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” “1917,” and “Little Women.”  Based on the experience of each of the main characters, I was reminded of an important character strength and virtue—purpose. 

The importance of and need for developing a sense purpose in children and youth is new to me, as it may be for you.  I used The Journal of Character Education (V15-N2, 2019) to help me get a sense of what it is about, and what to share with you in this blog.

Let’s start with the question, what does purpose mean?

The Journal editors write: “We are aware that motivation is central to the foundation of character, and particularly moral character.  Purpose lies at the heart of such motivation [and] is central to the heart by being a core of the motivational impetus to be good.”

Several articles in the Journal addressed the meaning of purpose.  A few examples:

  • Purpose has been associated with increased hope and life satisfaction, positive affect, academic achievement, and with life transitions from early adolescence through emerging adulthood.” 
  • Purpose is a character strength, or virtue, that is vital to individual well-being and healthy communities.”
  • “Defining purpose as a beyond the self-life goal suggests that purposeful people are aware of the perspective of others, have some well-developed other-oriented values, such as compassion, justice, equality, and have a sense of social responsibility.” 
  • “The potential for purpose emerges with the development of moral emotions and reasoning, future-mindedness, and the capacity to act on higher-order goals.”
  • “A definition of purpose includes three keys dimensions:

(1) purpose as a sense of direction, 

(2) purpose that is personally meaningful, and 

(3) purpose as a desire to make a difference on the broader world.” 

Kendall C. Bronk’s (associate professor of developmental psychology at Claremont Graduate University): ”Review of the purpose literature concluded that the majority of definitions consists of three irrefutable components: commitment, goal-directedness, and personal meaningfulness.” 

I want to briefly report on three articles.  One addresses instruction (practices) and two that describe curriculum (programs).

Quinn, Heckes, and Shea write about classroom practices supporting the development of purpose among adolescents.  In summary, the most common teacher-practice was “the identification of a goal or long-term intention in the classroom including encouragement, teacher-set goals, student-set goals, and goals set by both.”  In order to help students find personal meaning, teachers most frequently utilized the following strategies: “making outward connections, attending to students’ interests, establishing a strong teacher-student relationship, and making content interesting…(including) using projects and group work, teaching life skills, making outward connections, and civics education.” 

Stillman and Martinez’s article offers a “practitioner perspective” using a Six Seconds EQ Model (Know/Choose/Give).  The inner circle of the framework included these skills—“know yourself, choose yourself, and give yourself”—and three competencies: enhancing emotional literacy/recognize patterns; consequential thinking/navigate emotions/intrinsic motivation/optimism; increase empathy/pursue noble goals.  The EQ Model asked students to think about three questions: “What am I feeling?  What options do I have?  What do I truly want?”

The MPOWER program (Klein, et.al.) is a school program designed to promote purpose by “helping students connect to supportive people, identify their passion and core values, and discover their strengths.”  The program’s primary thrust is to engage students in “grappling” with three essential questions: “What do they want to achieve? Who do they want to become? How do they lead purposeful lives?”  The 4-Ps of MPOWER are: “people, passion, propensity, and pro-social benefits.” 

Three Final Points

The Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools purpose is “to promote strong character and citizenship among our nation’s youth.  Character education reaches the habits of thought and deed that help people live and work together as families, friends, neighbors, communities, and nations.”

I suggest that you read Heather Malin’s book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, (Harvard Education Press).

“If you are not making someone’s life better, then you are wasting your time.  Your life will become better by making other lives better.”  – Will Smith

Ed DeRoche, Director, Character Education Resource Center, SOLES. USD  February Blog 2020