The Rise of Purpose Education: A Recipe for Fulfillment or Snowflakes?

It's only now that a full-fledged education movement has emerged to push schools and parents to teach students how to discover a purpose early — often through counterintuitive approaches.

Why you should care

Because education is evolving in unexpected ways.

At the School for Tourism and Hospitality in a low-income Bronx neighborhood, high school sophomore Isaiah was constantly distracted and unmotivated in class. Then something changed. Within a single year, he became engaged and excited, in school and at home. His teacher says the transformational change came about through a new curriculum. The program, called Project Wayfinder, encouraged Isaiah to talk about his background and his personal struggles with peers. To his surprise, he found empathy and support. 

Called “purpose education,” this school of thought incorporates ideas from the mindfulness movement and social-emotional learning, and goes further. It aims not only to help young people figure out which college to attend or what kind of career to pursue but also helps them understand that they have control over their choices, how to ask for help and how to figure out what’s important to them. Then, it helps them develop tools to get there. While at first blush, purpose education sounds crunchy and easy to dismiss in favor of the traditional fundamentals of education like math, science and English, it’s rapidly catching on. 

Since 2013, at least six education organizations have emerged across the U.S., in public, charter and private schools, to design curricula for such programs. The interactive curricula include games — like one Project Wayfinder activity in which the only way to win is to ask for help. But these initiatives are also dividing the education fraternity along the lines of those who believe they’re essential and those who see them as distracting from efforts to better prepare students for jobs.  

Wayfinder

Pages from Project Wayfinder’s curriculum.

The emergence of these programs for kids comes when their immediate seniors appear to be struggling to focus on their jobs. A 2016 Gallup Poll found that 21 percent of American millennials say they’ve changed jobs within the past year. That’s more than three times the number of non-millennials who report the same. Gallup estimates that this costs the U.S. economy $30.5 billion each year. It’s not surprising, then, that purpose education programs are expanding fast.

The QUESTion Project, based in New York City, launched four years ago. Today, it works with low-income high school students in nine schools — seven in the Bronx and two in Los Angeles — with 1,000 students participating. At home, many of these students see frequent domestic disputes and parents who struggle with drug addiction. Noble Impact in Little Rock, Arkansas, asks students to identify their core values and share personal stories that connect to those principles. The process builds trust in the classroom and helps the teacher understand each student’s motivation. Since the organization was founded in 2013, it has spread to seven school districts throughout Arkansas.

It has trained me to find strength in vulnerability.

Britney, a QUESTion Project student

San Francisco–based Project Wayfinder is now working with 4,000 students at 55 high schools and colleges on the West and East coasts and throughout the Midwest, as well as in 12 countries, including Australia, Canada, China, Ireland and Japan, among others — just two years since its launch. Like that of Noble Impact, its curriculum instructs students to find their core values through exercises like, “List the strengths people have observed most in you,” and asks, “How can you use your core values to serve the world?” Project Wayfinder also changes the relationship between the student and the teacher, says founder and co-director Patrick Cook-Deegan, by asking teachers to share their own real-world experiences with students. One teacher shared the stigma she felt as a child when she was put in a special education class for having a learning disability.

“It humanizes the teacher,” Cook-Deegan says of his program. “On a systemwide level, we are changing the culture of schools.”

 

Purpose education shares practices with other methods that have been around for decades. As the Waldorf approach, started in Germany, aims to educate the whole child, “head, heart and hands,” and balance academics with practical activities, purpose education too encourages enriching the whole student. But it’s only now that a full-fledged education movement has emerged to push schools and parents to teach students how to discover a purpose early — often through counterintuitive approaches. 

In a Project Wayfinder activity called “Escape the Room,” blindfolded students must find the exit to the classroom. As students fumble and feel their way around desks and chairs, the teacher offers assistance, periodically calling out, “Raise your hand if you need help!” Assuming they’ll fail the task by seeking assistance, students often hesitate to put their hand up. But in fact, asking for help is necessary to achieve the goal — as is often the case in life.  

“It’s helped my son realize that he can benefit from reaching out to others more,” says Anna Spaeth, who teaches Project Wayfinder’s curriculum to her 14-year-old son, David, and five other students in a home-school program in Evergreen, Colorado. Spaeth says David has long dreamed of becoming a professional gamer but he now talks to his music teachers about their journeys and is considering a possible music career. “It’s been challenging for him to think outside the box,” says Spaeth, “[but] I do think David [is] contemplating his purpose more.”

At Metropolitan Arts Institute in Phoenix, co-founder Matt Baker says the Project Wayfinder curriculum has helped create a “greater sense of community, compassion and tolerance” among students by combating the feelings of pointlessness that can distract them. 

It sounds obvious — as kids find meaning in life, they’re more engaged in school — but it’s not something you’ll typically find in high school teacher trainings. Mostly trained to teach a single subject, high school teachers are sometimes taught not to be vulnerable in front of students. One Project Wayfinder teacher says she was advised never to smile at a new class until Thanksgiving break.

Noble Impact was founded at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock. They ask both teachers and students to share personal stories related to their values, and encourage students to think about the kind of people they want to become. It’s working. Arkansas schools that use Noble Impact’s curriculum have “seen classroom behavior issues cut in half,” says CEO Eric Wilson.

By asking students to share personal experiences in class, the QUESTion Project opens them up to vulnerability but also gives them a sense of freedom as they see their peers relate. “The class has helped me shift my destructive thinking patterns into thoughts that take into account different viewpoints,” says Britney, a student who has struggled with mental health concerns and anxiety. “It has trained me to find strength in vulnerability.” Like Noble Impact, the QUESTion Project model involves “training teachers to open the door to authentic conversations,” says founder Gerard Senehi. “We need to rethink education.”

That’s easier said than done. Industry too needs to evolve, says Wilson, who finds the dominant emphasis on skills needed for today’s jobs frustrating. “We have to shift policy away from the skills gap,” he says.

But not all educators are gung-ho about purpose education. Two teachers from the same school once challenged Senehi’s credentials on the first day of a QUESTion Project training session. The school decided against using the program. Changing the classroom dynamic can be risky too. “When you introduce haphazard reforms, it’s easy to tear that bond between teacher and student,” says Rick Hess, an educator and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. He adds that “interventions to develop character” in a school setting can feel alienating to parents, as character building is commonly thought to be learned at home. 

While Cook-Deegan is certainly focused on scaling up, he insists he’s not doing it haphazardly — he and his team are building relationships with teacher training institutes, for instance. In the next 20 to 30 years, he believes purpose education will become the norm. “It won’t happen overnight,” he says. “But the current system will fall away.” 

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