Diversity and Purpose-Driven Education

By the TWW Staff


In her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, Heather Malin, director of research at the Stanford University Center on Adolescence, encourages schools to help students find purpose in their lives. Her argument goes beyond mission statements and platitudes. She wants us to focus on both creating purpose-specific programs and developing ongoing classroom practices that support student engagement with the world around them.

While most educators support this general idea, we tend to have a laissez-faire attitude toward students finding purpose in their lives. We tend, in other words, to teach our subjects as well as we can and hope students find engagement, find value, find a purpose that will propel them into meaningful lives.

The central point of Teaching for Purpose is Malin’s argument that we should to be far more deliberate in our efforts. For us at Teaching While White, we certainly appreciate and support her argument. It was also heartening to discover that Malin connects purpose-driven education to racial and cultural diversity — and highlights important research that supports this work in schools.

She notes, for instance, research by Lisa Kiang and Andrew Fulgni, from Wake Forest University and the University of California, Los Angeles, respectively, on the importance of students developing a sense of “life meaning” as an essential element of well-being. Kiang and Fulgni also conducted targeted research on the difference in approaches to pro-social engagement among white, black, Asian American, and Latino students. Doing similar research, Margaret Beale Spencer and her colleagues at the University of Chicago found that “for African-American boys, but not African-American girls, religion and cultural pride are important resources for developing a healthy sense of self.”

For all educators, but especially white educators, this information is important. The findings of these and other related studies, Malin writes, “suggest that openly exploring student purpose in the classroom would offer teachers a valuable window into the lives of their students when they do not share an ethnic, cultural, community, or social class background with their students.”

By getting to know students’ values and what gives them a sense of purpose, educators can also get to know the students’ families and communities better. This sort of supportive connection between school and home, researchers tell us, are central to student engagement and success in school.

What we also like about Teaching for Purpose is the way Malin offers suggestions for engaging students in the classroom around a focus on purpose and community — the how-to part of the work.

We encourage educators to engage in conversations on purpose-driven schools. For now, we mostly want to underscore the school climate research that supports this work. Malin points out that, in schools that provide a positive, purpose-driven environment:

  • People in the school feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe.
  • Instruction is high quality, connected to real life, engaging, acknowledges student diversity, and is evaluated for continuous improvement.
  • Relationships are positive, cooperative, and respectful of diversity.

Do you have conversations about purpose in school? Do you encourage your students to think about their personal and collective purpose? Do classroom activities invite students to contribute their own ideas? Do classroom discussions encourage students to engage with the content in ways that connect with what matters to them?