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The Things We Don't Teach
on July 23, 2009
There are many things we teach in school. We teach students about the world at large, how to remember useful facts, how to think. But one thing we often miss is the importance of teaching kids to find and cultivate a purpose. Helping students to find their goal in life, their reason for doing the things they do, and their "end in itself" is just as important. The main thesis of this well-written and -argued book is that kids who have a purpose generally tend to do a whole lot better in a whole lot of areas than kids who are "drifters" or "dabblers," who may have short-term goals but lack a long-term unifying goal.
The Path to Purpose is based on some studies that Damon and his students have done about kids and purposes. What they found is alarming: "In our interviews and surveys, only about one in five young people in the 12-22-year age range express a clear vision of where they want to go,what they want to accomplish in life, and why." (kindle location 234) Some are "drifters" who don't have much direction to their lives, while most are "dabblers" who have toyed around with a few ideas as to what they want to do and why, but haven't found any clear direction yet.
The first part of the book focuses on the problem and why it matters. Why a purpose? Because cultivating a sense of purpose gives kids (and adults) a reason to try hard, a passion about which to learn, and a reason to endure both good and bad. Just like working a meaningful job versus a meaningless one, students tend to excel when they are working towards a goal and feel that goal to have meaning.
The second part will be the most interest to those already convinced that a problem exists. Here, Damon gives advice on how parents and teachers (with focus on parents) can help kids find purpose. Some answers are obvious: be there for your kids, listen when they talk, expose them to ideas, support them even when you may not agree with their chosen purpose (within reason, of course). Other answers are less obvious: tell your kids why you do what you do, expose them to outside influences, talk ideas through with them Socratically rather than solving problems for them, let them know the importance of persistence.
The one thing I will deduct a star for, however, is that Damon doesn't focus nearly as much as he should have on the data showing that having a purpose tends to lead to success in most areas (academic, social, etc.) He tells us this repeatedly and there is no reason to doubt him, but I was curious as to what the data show: how much more successful are those with purpose versus those without?
Also, I really wish Damon would have addressed a question many of us (especially teachers) have about how we can talk about purpose in a way value-neutral enough to be appropriate and not preachy. How can we guide kids towards purposeful lives without imposing certain values on them (when a child, say, chooses a purpose we may feel is maladaptive)? This would have been a helpful discussion to have and his book suffers for lack of it.
But all in all, this is a very important book to read for teachers and parents. As a teacher, I would like its message to inform my future teaching, and to take time whenever possible to allow kids to reflect on what their purpose is or what they'd like it to be.