Why We Need to Tap Purpose to Drive Learning

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Small children often have a favorite question. It consists of just one word: “Why?” As adults, listening to and responding to incessant questions about why everything in the world exists and the purpose served by each thing can become tiresome. Yet, it is their understanding of the roles and purposes of what they observe and experience that drives their learning. Without an understanding of and appreciation for purpose, children would have little incentive to learn the difficult and complex skills, such as walking, they learn early and that serve them for a lifetime.

The connection between purpose and learning seems obvious in the context of everyday skill development. Yet, too often, this important relationship is ignored or barely addressed when it comes to school and academic learning. Most school curricula spend little time addressing the value and purpose of what students are asked to learn. Consequently, students are left to find their own purposes for learning, or default to asking adults, “Why do we have to learn this?” The consequence for too many students is learning that enjoys little commitment and minimal effort, if learning happens at all.

The truth is that for many students, the question about why they have to learn the content and skills with which they are presented is an admission that they cannot see a connection. In many cases the question is a tactful way of saying that the student has already concluded that what is being asked has no relevant purpose and they want us to know, but do not want to be seen as inappropriate or insubordinate.

This situation is made even worse when the response students receive is: “You need to learn it for the test.” Even if an upcoming exam carries enough weight to lead the student to learn what is asked, once the test is over, our response invites the student to forget what is learned. Once the purpose for learning has been accomplished, the brain sees no purpose in retaining what was learned and it is released.

While focused on a longer-term value, responses such as: “You will need to know this in middle school/high school/college” are so vague that they carry hardly any weight to drive learning. It is difficult for young minds to grasp how something that seems so far off could be worth a high level of effort today.

We know that internally driven purpose is the most powerful driver of learning available to us. Yet, too often we give away this power and attempt to stimulate learning by substituting it with approval, threats, or promises of other external rewards, such as grades.

Certainly, not everything that we ask students to learn has an immediate and important purpose from the perspective of students. Yet, there are several steps we can take to increase the presence and power of purpose in learning:

  • We can be clear about the value and purpose of what we are asking students to learn. If we do not grasp its value, it will be difficult to convince students to invest their attention and effort.
  • We can share with students examples, applications, uses, and reasons for learning what they are asked. Even when we are not completely successful, we will have conveyed to students that we have given thought to the task and we see its value. In many cases, this information and our relationship with students will carry adequate weight to convince them to invest.
  • We can engage students in discussion, exploration, and examination of the value and purpose for their learning a skill or body of content. When students make the connection for themselves, they are more likely to commit to learning.
  • We can support students to set goals for learning. When students have committed to specific learning goals, they are more likely to see alignment and value in learning that moves them closer to something they already are committed to.

You might add additional strategies to this list from your experience. We just need to remember that leaving the purpose of learning to chance means leaving a powerful and compelling stimulator for learning untapped and on the sidelines.

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