Meaningful and purposeful learning

I was recently reading a blog post from Grant Lichtman (you can find that post here). If you don’t recognize that name, he’s been working with school teams to help transform K-12 education. He’s the author of 4 books, lots of articles, and blog posts, and has supported thousands of schools to work on their own transformations.

If you’ve read my blog very much or worked with me, you probably know that the transformation of education is something that I also spend a lot of time thinking about. I’ve talked in the past about the design of the public school system – much of it was built to prepare students for a knowable future, often related to factory model working conditions. I’ve talked about whether or not the system we still have serves the need of our students for their future. Since the development of the factory model of education, work has changed. According to a Gallup poll from late in 2021, about 45% of Americans are able to work from home either part or all of the time. And while we can all agree that some of that change has been driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies are realizing that their employees are just as productive, if not more so, when working from home. Many plan to keep work-from-home options for their employees even once we are back to a more “normal” time.

Lichtman uses the term VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) to describe the speed at which our world is changing. Many employers today are looking for people who are about to work collaboratively, engage in research-driven inquiry, and build skills to locate and solve the problems of the world around us.

But think about what most are concerned about for our students: grades, stronger curriculum, higher test scores, higher graduation rates. Just turn on your local or national news and wait for a segment about public education. Most likely you’ll hear people saying that schools do not have strong enough of an academic focus, or that teachers should focus more on their “curriculum” and less on developing well-rounded students.

The misalignment of what employers say they are seeking and what parents and/or politicians are saying students need is hard to miss.

So as educators, what are we to do?

I would argue, and many others seem to agree, that helping students find a purpose will help to take our students much further than just good grades and strong test scores. And as a powerful addition, people who have a sense of purpose in their lives “are physically and mentally healthier, live longer, are happier, have more and richer social connections, and are more well-liked and admired by their peers” (Lichtman).

Now, don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we need to ignore academic success. Instead, I think we need to find a balance. If we have high school graduates who leave to go to college or into the workforce but have no understanding of their own purpose, they will flounder. They might end up in coursework or a career path that they later regret.

Over the course of the 2020-2021 school year, a team of teachers, with input from our stakeholders, developed a value proposition for the school site where I lead. A value proposition is a statement to our stakeholders that helps define what we see as the way we add value to our community. We know that ours is an aspirational statement, and most likely a long-term goal, but this is what it looks like:

As we continue to work towards becoming a school that meets this proposition, I feel confident to say that we will help our students to become more aware of their purpose, as well as their own ability to have an impact on our community and world. As Lichtman says, “The realities of VUCA that are driving the human condition require that education helps prepare our students with finding and understanding meaning and purpose.”

The role of educators is such an important one. I believe that thinking in transformational ways about how we support our students will help them to better understand their purpose. They’ll continue to learn to read and write, to solve math problems, to carry out experiments, to know and understand history, but they will also learn that those skills will help them to carry out their purpose. To find meaning in why they are here. To be able to change the world in a way that has positive impacts for us all.

I’d love to know your thoughts. Did your K-12 education help you find your purpose and meaning? If it didn’t, what did? Let us know what you think in the comments below!

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