Seven Ways to Help High Schoolers Find Purpose

Seven Ways to Help High Schoolers Find Purpose

Many students go through high school bored and unengaged. Patrick Cook-Deegan explains what a purpose-driven curriculum would look like.

Over the past decade, I have had the chance to ask thousands of teenagers what they think about school. I’ve found that the vast majority of them generally feel one of two ways: disengaged or incredibly pressured.

One thing nearly all teens agree on is that most of what high school teaches them is irrelevant to their lives outside of school or their future careers. One study found that the most common feelings among high school students are fatigue and boredom. Another study concluded that 65 percent of the jobs that today’s high school graduates will have in their lifetime do not even exist yet. But we are still teaching them in the same way that we trained industrial workers a century ago.

Prioritize internal motivation over external achievement

In today’s schools, students compete against one another for grades and attention from teachers and colleges. The ranking system at most high schools sends the message to students that their worth is based entirely on their grade point average. This reinforces the notion that external achievement is the means to success and the way to get rewarded.

Foster collaboration

Consider how different high school would feel if students were working in collaboration with their peers instead of competing against them all the time? What if high school grading was based on how well you worked with other people and how well you mentored and advised your peers? This would much more accurately mimic most workplaces, where teamwork and collaboration are some of the main skills desired by today’s employers.

See teachers as mentors and coaches

What adult influenced you the most in high school? If you’re like most people, you’ll remember one of your mentors, coaches, or teachers who took a real interest in your well-being. People rarely mention someone who helped them cram things into their brain the most or taught them things they were not interested in.

Take students out into the world

According to Bronk, students often start to develop a sense of purpose during “purpose seeking” opportunities—opportunities to push their comfort zones and explore. These opportunities have at least one of three active ingredients: an important life event, serving others in a meaningful way, or changes in life circumstances.

Learning from failure

Our current model of high school rewards perfection and discourages risk taking. Students who are aiming for elite schools take the most number of classes where they can get the best grades and boost their GPAs. At some high schools, getting a single B can take them out of the running for prestigious colleges or awards at their school. Less academic students are shamed by getting bad grades. In other words, students are either rewarded for being perfectionists or shamed for failing.