Opinion | Learning Strategies

MIA in School: Instilling a Sense of Purpose in Students

By Joseph South     Oct 27, 2017

MIA in School: Instilling a Sense of Purpose in Students

“Dad, I want a narwhal cake for my birthday.”

“A narwhal cake?”

“Yes, a narwhal cake.”

I have a ten year old who knows exactly what he wants.

“So you want a cake with a picture of a narwhal on it? The whale with the unicorn horn?”

“First of all, there is no evidence that unicorns exist. Second, it’s not a horn; it’s a tooth. Third, I don’t want a cake with a picture of a narwhal on it, I want a narwhal cake. A cake in the shape of a narwhal.”

I don’t know where his sense of purpose comes from. But it permeates everything he does. He knows what clothing combinations he wants to wear to school. He knows he wants to decorate his Valentine’s box with wolves. He knows that he wants to spend his Saturday morning creating an alpine landscape out of papier-mâché. He knows he wants to read Moby Dick over fall break. Yes, Moby Dick. We couldn’t talk him out of it. He is on page 108.

I should be grateful that I have a child who seems to know what he wants in life, knows what he wants to learn about, and moves confidently towards the future. This is actually quite rare. A recent MindShift blog, by Linda Flanagan highlights the work of Dr. William Damon who studies this issue. Flanagan writes:

“Having a sense of purpose is ‘the long-term, number one motivator in life,’ said William Damon, author of “The Path to Purpose.”To have purpose is to be engaged in something larger than the self, he said; it’s often sparked by the observation that something’s missing in the world that you might provide. It’s also a mindset that many teenagers appear to lack, according to research Damon carried out at the Stanford Center on Adolescence: About 20 percent of high school kids report being purposeful and dedicated to something besides themselves. The majority [of high schoolers] are either adrift, frenetic with work but purposeless, or full of big dreams but lacking a deliberate plan.”

School, for the most part, doesn’t help students find purpose. And the consequences are enormous.

Researchers found that 70 percent of students who didn’t finish high school said they were unmotivated. In college, the stakes are even higher. Recent studies show that most students do not graduate on time and over 40% of them do not graduate at all within six years of their start date. While there are many factors that play into this dismal outcome, according to the 2015 ACT College Choice Report, research has shown that one issue is the alignment (or lack of alignment) between a student’s core interests and their chosen major. This alignment, called interest-major fit, is positively related to persistence in a major or college. Other research demonstrates that this also correlates with a higher college GPA. When it is missing, students battle to complete their education.

Students who struggle with a sense of purpose include some very high achievers. They appear “successful” by traditional measures of achievement but don’t always know what or why they are achieving. This can have serious consequences later on. I spoke with one former college student who had taken all of the AP classes he could at his high school, earned a high GPA, and was accepted into multiple universities. After a year of college, he dropped out.

“I didn’t know why I was there,” he told me. “I had just done everything that everyone said to do for so many years. I was pushed along. But I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go.”

We adults may be part of the problem. In many ways, we have designed what students may want and care about out of the structure of school experience. This can create a situation where students feel little personal ownership in their success. We unwittingly teach them that their interests and desires are subordinate to those of the textbook, the schedule, and our collective vision of their future.

We sort them by age, not aptitude; govern learning by bells, not mastery; teach to the test, not to their interests.

We are not creating leaders this way; we are creating followers. We are not creating innovators; we are creating consumers. How do we expect the next generation to design the future if they can’t design their own lives?


In my previous role as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and in my present role as ISTE Chief Learning Officer, I am struck by how often we find that students, and even some teachers, feel disengaged with school. Nearly half of middle and high students in a 2016 Gallup poll reported being either not engaged or actively disengaged in school. And yet as I travel the country, I encounter examples of schools where nearly every student is fully engaged and excited to be there.

What’s different?

Where student and teacher agency is respected, supported, and rewarded, engagement skyrockets.

When students are given voice and choice in their learning, when teachers are given flexibility to respond to these needs and interests, the school setting becomes more meaningful for both of them. This flexibility opens the door for teachers to better align school experiences with the students own sense of purpose.

In light of this, we at the Department worked to support more active, learner-driven approaches to educational technology. Whether it was updating guidelines for early learners to encourage active co-viewing of media with adults, or advocating for personalized learning systems to be more attuned to the interests of the students they were designed to serve, we encouraged leaders and educators to put the learner at the center of the active use of digital tools. And in my present role, we focus our ISTE standards for students on helping educators foster empowered learners who are knowledge constructors, innovative designers, and creative communicators.


This is exactly what drew me to participate in a design residency with IDEO’s Design for Learning team earlier this year: their ethos of re-envisioning learning systems to be deeply human-centered and their fierce advocacy for the students and teachers in those systems.

IDEO’s Purpose Project embodies this very human-centered approach.The Purpose Project provides an app paired with a set of collaborative, small group activities that high school and early college students can use to start discovering and building intention and purpose into their lives. It empowers students to design exploratory experiences that relate directly to their interests. Through this process, students become more reflective and intentional about their own interests and motivations both inside and outside of the classroom. And by approaching learning and life through the lens of what matters the most to them, they are able to bridge their learning in school with their lives outside of school.

IDEO isn’t the only one working to open up pathways for purpose. The Future Project places “Dream Directors” in schools to “unlock the limitless potential” of students by coaching them through a journey of self-discovery that leads to student-led, purpose-driven action that positively impacts the student’s school and community. GripTape Learning Challenge provides youth with an adult “champion” and a small budget to support them in intensively learning about something they are passionate about outside of school. RoadTrip Nation provides learners with thousands of career stories that “illuminate diverse pathways and careers” and an interactive tool to help them explore their own unique combination of interests and relate those to career possibilities.

Developing a strong sense of self, an understanding of personal strengths and acting on what a person finds most meaningful is not going to be listed on a high school transcript (at least not yet!). But those skills and experiences may be better at determining whether or not a student graduates at all.

Of course, many of us don’t know exactly what we want to do in life, and even if we think we do, we find our notions changing with time. That’s okay. But it is frustrating to lack the tools to help us get from where we are to where we might want to be. While high school counselors can help students with this process, a national average of 491 students to one counselor makes it extremely challenging to reach every student. By allowing students to lead their own learning and exploration, we are teaching them to be intentional. This helps them develop long-term capacity to shape their environment to better align to their needs and goals.

Whether that leads students to a college major that fits their interests or to a professional trade that they find fascinating or to satisfying explorations and experiences unrelated to their work life, they are much more likely to be invested in something that will ultimately help them feel happy and fulfilled. Something that will make their life more meaningful, more purposeful.

Purpose is not something we can give students, but it is something we can help them find.

Joseph South (@southjoseph) is the Chief Learning Officer at the International Society for Technology in Education and the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He is presently a Design Resident at IDEO.

Opinion | Learning Strategies

MIA in School: Instilling a Sense of Purpose in Students

By Joseph South     Oct 27, 2017

MIA in School: Instilling a Sense of Purpose in Students

“Dad, I want a narwhal cake for my birthday.”

“A narwhal cake?”

“Yes, a narwhal cake.”

I have a ten year old who knows exactly what he wants.

“So you want a cake with a picture of a narwhal on it? The whale with the unicorn horn?”

“First of all, there is no evidence that unicorns exist. Second, it’s not a horn; it’s a tooth. Third, I don’t want a cake with a picture of a narwhal on it, I want a narwhal cake. A cake in the shape of a narwhal.”

I don’t know where his sense of purpose comes from. But it permeates everything he does. He knows what clothing combinations he wants to wear to school. He knows he wants to decorate his Valentine’s box with wolves. He knows that he wants to spend his Saturday morning creating an alpine landscape out of papier-mâché. He knows he wants to read Moby Dick over fall break. Yes, Moby Dick. We couldn’t talk him out of it. He is on page 108.

I should be grateful that I have a child who seems to know what he wants in life, knows what he wants to learn about, and moves confidently towards the future. This is actually quite rare. A recent MindShift blog, by Linda Flanagan highlights the work of Dr. William Damon who studies this issue. Flanagan writes:

“Having a sense of purpose is ‘the long-term, number one motivator in life,’ said William Damon, author of “The Path to Purpose.”To have purpose is to be engaged in something larger than the self, he said; it’s often sparked by the observation that something’s missing in the world that you might provide. It’s also a mindset that many teenagers appear to lack, according to research Damon carried out at the Stanford Center on Adolescence: About 20 percent of high school kids report being purposeful and dedicated to something besides themselves. The majority [of high schoolers] are either adrift, frenetic with work but purposeless, or full of big dreams but lacking a deliberate plan.”

School, for the most part, doesn’t help students find purpose. And the consequences are enormous.

Researchers found that 70 percent of students who didn’t finish high school said they were unmotivated. In college, the stakes are even higher. Recent studies show that most students do not graduate on time and over 40% of them do not graduate at all within six years of their start date. While there are many factors that play into this dismal outcome, according to the 2015 ACT College Choice Report, research has shown that one issue is the alignment (or lack of alignment) between a student’s core interests and their chosen major. This alignment, called interest-major fit, is positively related to persistence in a major or college. Other research demonstrates that this also correlates with a higher college GPA. When it is missing, students battle to complete their education.

Students who struggle with a sense of purpose include some very high achievers. They appear “successful” by traditional measures of achievement but don’t always know what or why they are achieving. This can have serious consequences later on. I spoke with one former college student who had taken all of the AP classes he could at his high school, earned a high GPA, and was accepted into multiple universities. After a year of college, he dropped out.

“I didn’t know why I was there,” he told me. “I had just done everything that everyone said to do for so many years. I was pushed along. But I didn’t know what direction I wanted to go.”

We adults may be part of the problem. In many ways, we have designed what students may want and care about out of the structure of school experience. This can create a situation where students feel little personal ownership in their success. We unwittingly teach them that their interests and desires are subordinate to those of the textbook, the schedule, and our collective vision of their future.

We sort them by age, not aptitude; govern learning by bells, not mastery; teach to the test, not to their interests.

We are not creating leaders this way; we are creating followers. We are not creating innovators; we are creating consumers. How do we expect the next generation to design the future if they can’t design their own lives?


In my previous role as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education and in my present role as ISTE Chief Learning Officer, I am struck by how often we find that students, and even some teachers, feel disengaged with school. Nearly half of middle and high students in a 2016 Gallup poll reported being either not engaged or actively disengaged in school. And yet as I travel the country, I encounter examples of schools where nearly every student is fully engaged and excited to be there.

What’s different?

Where student and teacher agency is respected, supported, and rewarded, engagement skyrockets.

When students are given voice and choice in their learning, when teachers are given flexibility to respond to these needs and interests, the school setting becomes more meaningful for both of them. This flexibility opens the door for teachers to better align school experiences with the students own sense of purpose.

In light of this, we at the Department worked to support more active, learner-driven approaches to educational technology. Whether it was updating guidelines for early learners to encourage active co-viewing of media with adults, or advocating for personalized learning systems to be more attuned to the interests of the students they were designed to serve, we encouraged leaders and educators to put the learner at the center of the active use of digital tools. And in my present role, we focus our ISTE standards for students on helping educators foster empowered learners who are knowledge constructors, innovative designers, and creative communicators.


This is exactly what drew me to participate in a design residency with IDEO’s Design for Learning team earlier this year: their ethos of re-envisioning learning systems to be deeply human-centered and their fierce advocacy for the students and teachers in those systems.

IDEO’s Purpose Project embodies this very human-centered approach.The Purpose Project provides an app paired with a set of collaborative, small group activities that high school and early college students can use to start discovering and building intention and purpose into their lives. It empowers students to design exploratory experiences that relate directly to their interests. Through this process, students become more reflective and intentional about their own interests and motivations both inside and outside of the classroom. And by approaching learning and life through the lens of what matters the most to them, they are able to bridge their learning in school with their lives outside of school.

IDEO isn’t the only one working to open up pathways for purpose. The Future Project places “Dream Directors” in schools to “unlock the limitless potential” of students by coaching them through a journey of self-discovery that leads to student-led, purpose-driven action that positively impacts the student’s school and community. GripTape Learning Challenge provides youth with an adult “champion” and a small budget to support them in intensively learning about something they are passionate about outside of school. RoadTrip Nation provides learners with thousands of career stories that “illuminate diverse pathways and careers” and an interactive tool to help them explore their own unique combination of interests and relate those to career possibilities.

Developing a strong sense of self, an understanding of personal strengths and acting on what a person finds most meaningful is not going to be listed on a high school transcript (at least not yet!). But those skills and experiences may be better at determining whether or not a student graduates at all.

Of course, many of us don’t know exactly what we want to do in life, and even if we think we do, we find our notions changing with time. That’s okay. But it is frustrating to lack the tools to help us get from where we are to where we might want to be. While high school counselors can help students with this process, a national average of 491 students to one counselor makes it extremely challenging to reach every student. By allowing students to lead their own learning and exploration, we are teaching them to be intentional. This helps them develop long-term capacity to shape their environment to better align to their needs and goals.

Whether that leads students to a college major that fits their interests or to a professional trade that they find fascinating or to satisfying explorations and experiences unrelated to their work life, they are much more likely to be invested in something that will ultimately help them feel happy and fulfilled. Something that will make their life more meaningful, more purposeful.

Purpose is not something we can give students, but it is something we can help them find.

Joseph South (@southjoseph) is the Chief Learning Officer at the International Society for Technology in Education and the former Director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. He is presently a Design Resident at IDEO.

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