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A Sense of Purpose: How Teens are being Taught to Ask Those bigger Questions

In high school, kids are taught the so-called essentials. Students focus on reading, writing, mathematics, sciences and so on. The mastering of these subjects is expected to prepare students for the world and, hopefully, lead them to a fulfilling career. The hope being that young people will “click” with one or more of those subjects and start charting a path for the future.

But how many teenagers have you met that actually know what they want to do with their life or who they want to be? In other words, how many can articulate a sense of purpose?

According to a 2009 study, 17 percent of high school freshman felt they had a purpose. By the time they reached their senior year that percentage had gone up to 23 percent. When students entered college, however, that number grew exponentially – with more than 40 percent of college students saying they have a sense of purpose.

So what’s going on?

The QUESTion Project wanted to find an answer to this. The Project is a three year old program that works to give young people a space to wrestle life’s bigger questions. The semester-long elective offers adolescents a space to learn who they are, where they’re headed and what matters most to them.

The QUESTion Project is currently offered in six public schools on the east and west coast (five in New York City and one in Los Angeles). The organizers say they are part of a broader movement that’s been growing for a decade or so. It’s one where more and more schools have begun carving out spaces in their curricula for social and emotional learning. One example of this would be the University of Pennsylvania’s Angela Duckworth and her research surrounding the importance of developing a stick-to-it quality called grit.

The momentum behind the research of “purpose” and its place in adolescent education comes from a perceived need. Although the QUESTion Project admits it’s hard to quantify outcome data with something as elusive as “purpose,” they have noticed lower levels of depression, binge drinking and drug abuse with adolescents who are a part of the program. They also found that the students were adopting more healthy habits and committing more considerable time to their schoolwork.

One 2011 study found that just 45 minutes of penetrating questions about personal motivation, direction and desire can help foster a greater sense of purpose compared to a control group. The finding suggests that merely allowing for space where young people can explore and discuss ideas about their own life makes all the difference.

It is organizations like QUESTion Project that work to provide students with that opportunity.

In an interview with The Hechinger Report, psychologist Heather Malin, says this is an emerging field. Malin is the director of research at Stanford’s Center on Adolescence. She and others in her field are developing new ways to measure “purpose.” And schools seem to be taking note.

“One of the things that I’ve been seeing in some schools…is they are saying enough is enough,” Malin says. “We need to prioritize our students knowing what their value is in the world. I’ve been hearing the word ‘humanity’ over and over again. People have hit the limit with the rigidity and rigor.”

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