Hansen: Transforming Our Schools So They Engage Students and Empower Them With a Sense of Purpose

Education Reimagined

As I navigate my mid-40s, I notice friends and colleagues of similar ages making significant life changes — switching careers, re-evaluating relationships and finding life coaches. We live in a society that regards the idea of a midlife crisis as a given, inviting a burgeoning industry of courses, retreats and coaches who preach they can support a process of self-discovery and ensure adults live the second half of their lives grounded in meaning and purpose.

Research indicates that having a sense of purpose is positively correlated to one’s mental and emotional well-being. It generates the feeling that individuals can contribute to something larger than themselves by integrating their gifts, passions and values into whatever they choose to pursue.

Developmentally, the period from late childhood through early adolescence is when humans are primed to develop strong bonds with their community, gain a sense of identity and uncover a desire to discover their purpose. Yet our education system, including public district, public charter, private and independent schools, is designed in a way that neglects to meet this deeply human need. Instead, it is structured around a belief that academic knowledge and skills provide the foundation for our children’s lifelong success. The journey to self-discovery — getting to know themselves — can wait.

This notion is exactly backward. Next to our most basic needs, a firm sense of purpose and meaning is what truly allows us to thrive.

So why don’t we transform the focus of education? At Education Reimagined, we engage with young people around the country about the learning experiences they truly need to be successful — and they tell us that they are tired of waiting to feel fulfilled. They are tired of being told to buckle down and learn things they don’t care about at all. Students are more engaged in extracurricular activities that align with their passions and interests than they are in our formal education system, where rates of disengagement continue to climb. And they are impatient with an education system that is tied to old notions of what it means to be successful: a four-year college education that feeds into a lucrative, professional career. Young people are now more likely to choose a job based on how it enables them to contribute to something larger than themselves. Why shouldn’t it be the same for their education?

Learner-centered environments have been emerging in pockets across the country to fulfill this need, empowering young people to find, and realize, their sense of purpose. These programs are shifting away from the traditional approach of transmitting the same body of knowledge to, and cultivating the same set of skills in, all students. Instead, they are designed intentionally around what we know about human development and the science of learning and neurodiversity. When we ask the educators and leaders of these schools about their goals, they begin with the aim of helping students gain what they will need to thrive in life. These include core academic competencies — but their work is grounded first and foremost in helping students develop a strong sense of identity and purpose. This approach to education is designed to foster a deep sense of belonging and to provide young people with opportunities to explicitly learn about their talents, interests and passions.

At The Met School in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, teenagers spend half of their week in community-based internships where they can discover their interests and passions before spending a penny on a college education. Kalei Delovio, a young woman now engaged in her professional journey, has shared with us how medical and home-care internships helped her discover that the work that lit her up inside was not teaching — which is what she originally thought when entering The Met — but rather nursing. She shaped her final years in high school around her resulting ambition to become a nurse, using these internships as a springboard to become a certified nursing assistant and begin a career at a local hospital group.

Another example: When Aidyn Grice began fifth grade a few years ago at Norris Academy in Mukwonago, Wisconsin, he spent a month completing a “Who am I?” profile. He thought deeply about what excites him, the problems he cares about and the challenges he wrestles with. By sharing and gaining feedback on his profile from peers and educators, he identified learning experiences that motivated him to excel in the classroom and community.

For Kalei, Aidyn and so many other young people, learner-centered environments allow them to trust that they will be seen, known and accepted for who they are; not constrained by externally defined notions of who they should be.

Contrast this to the current approaches the field is taking to improve public education. Yes, schools and districts have recognized that academic instruction is insufficient in supporting the success of today’s students. Many have placed a focus on social-emotional learning, ensuring our youth can express empathy, regulate their emotions, build positive relationships and make smart decisions. Others have structured supports and resources that seek to address the growing level of trauma our children are bringing to the classroom — or are tailored to reflect the increasing array of cultural experiences and heritages represented in our schools. However, these adjustments to classroom practice are simply bolted onto an out-of-date core academic model focused on closing test score gaps and increasing academic rigor. We should reimagine education as an individual endeavor that enables young people to develop a sense of purpose and connection to the communities they live in.

What always strikes me when I interact with young people from learner-centered environments is how grateful they are to have had the chance to get to know themselves deeply. They talk about how it provides them with an empowering frame for everything else they do, including navigating the inevitable ups and downs of their lives.

Overall, they exhibit a maturity that most of us don’t associate with young people. I can’t help but wonder how different the world would be if everyone had the chance to discover their purpose during childhood. How much more could we do, solve and create if young people lived out their full and unique selves, rather than waiting until the second half of their lives? And how long can we afford to continue not knowing?

Ulcca Joshi Hansen is vice president of partnerships and research for Education Reimagined and previously served as vice president of the Public Education and Business Coalition. She began her career in the classroom as an elementary teacher in Newark Public Schools.

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