Helping Teens Find Purpose: A Tool For Educators To Support Students’ Discovery

By Katrina Schwartz  SEPTEMBER 25, 2017

Classroom educators know better than anyone else how much of learning is built on the strength of relationships in the room. When students like and trust their teacher, they learn better. That’s why large class sizes and a focus on standardized test scores — to the exclusion of other things — frustrate many veteran teachers. They know those factors often hinder teachers’ ability to form relationships. But a slow shift may be coming as some school leaders are starting to recognize that the health and happiness of teachers, students and staff depend on making space in school for relationship-building.

Advisory programs are a popular way school leaders are trying to shift school culture toward relationships. Advisory programs set aside time in the week for a smaller group of students to meet with an adult mentor in a casual setting and with the intent of building relationships. While that sounds like a good idea, too often advisories are glorified study halls; that time isn’t used well because content teachers aren’t always comfortable in the role of adviser. Leading a productive advisory takes thought and training, just like teaching, and strong relationships don’t magically form without work.

‘It was born out of a question about how you get students to develop a sense of purpose in their lives, which for the most part high school doesn’t really do.’ Patrick Cook-Deegan, co-director Project Wayfinder

“There’s not a lot of resources for advisers that work well,” said Patrick Cook-Deegan, co-director and lead program designer of Project Wayfinder. Advisers are usually teachers with many other demands on their time, so some advisory support goes a long way to gain their buy-in. On the flip side, prepackaged curricula can feel canned and inauthentic, the worst possible combination when asking students to be vulnerable about their life, worries and dreams. Cook-Deegan and his co-director, Kelly Schmutte, think about their Project Wayfinder tools as a supportive structure for open-ended conversations. The focus is on helping adolescents find purpose.

“Project Wayfinder was born out of trying to make advisory more meaningful,” Cook-Deegan said. “And it was born out of a question about how you get students to develop a sense of purpose in their lives, which for the most part high school doesn’t really do.” Cook-Deegan believes purpose is a critical component of adolescent development that is utterly lacking from traditional high schools. His theory is based largely on the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who says a sense of purpose is “the long-term, number one motivator in life.”

“For you to have a sense of purpose you need two things: One, you need to know what’s important to you and what you care about,” Cook-Deegan said. “And two, you need to know how your work is going to have consequence in the world.” Many high school students go through four years of school doing exactly what they are told to do. The work often feels divorced from the real world — a prescriptive set of “shoulds” that adults say will lead to a happy life. But for many students, the end goal of all that work — college or a career — is a hazy future, not a tangible one.

Example of a Wayfinding activity. (Project Wayfinder)

At a Project Wayfinder summer program, students expressed similar sentiments. Many of them had joined the one-week camp at Stanford because their parents encouraged them to, and most thought it was a camp about design thinking, but they were glad it turned out to be more than that.

“I want to do something meaningful in life, that’s going to have an impact on everyone,” said DeShun Smith, a senior at San Lorenzo High School. “It’s just going deeper in myself and finding out what my life is about.” Smith said he’s been thinking about what he wants to do with his life for the past five years, but the way has never seemed clear. He was excited about a Wayfinder activity he’d just completed in which he listed his skills and passions, as well as needs that he saw in the world. Then he thought about all the ways he could combine those things. He’s thinking about writing a book about his life.

A student’s “backpack” of Wayfinding qualities filled with traits the student finds valuable, as well as ones that are valued externally by the world, to help the student determine who they want to be. (Patrick Beaudouin/Project Wayfinder)

“I think it’s kind of cool to slow down and think and reflect about what you do,” said Maya Holton, a senior at Los Gatos High School who said many of the experiences connected to Wayfinding were new to her. As a senior she feels a lot of pressure to pick a college and a career – and it feels like whatever she decides will determine the rest of her life. But through conversations with mentors over the week she’s realized her path might be more of a zigzag than a straight line, and that’s helped relieve some of the pressure.

“My school is very traditional,” Holton said. “We just go to math and then English and they don’t teach us these new broader ideas about social awareness within the classes, which I think is very important.” During the camp she thought a lot about her passion for helping people with special needs, something she’s dabbled in, but never put a lot of time into. “You never really think about what you’re good at, or what you love to do,” she said. She’s trying to design a project to help kids with special needs learn life skills in silly and fun ways.

Cook-Deegan, who’s helping to run the weeklong retreat, is encouraging students to broadly outline a project they might pursue with their insights after they leave the retreat. He thinks project-based learning could be powerful avenue for educators to help students discover purpose, if they allow enough time and structure for students to think through what holds meaning for them.

Several Wayfinder activities happen outside. Students at the retreat said hiking and chatting with mentors was some of the most productive relationship-building time during the week. (Patrick Beaudouin/Project Wayfinder)


The Blue Valley Schools in Kansas are high-performing and generally serve a fairly affluent community. The graduation rate is 97 percent and most of those students go to four-year colleges. But administrators there know these impressive numbers aren’t enough. They were concerned that while the district was winning the traditional accountability game, it wasn’t helping students to think about who they are, where they want to go, and how they’ll successfully meet their goals. So in 2009 they started the Center for Advanced Professional Studies (CAPS) to help connect students to real-world experiences in careers they might be interested in pursuing.

“If we’re really going to make a huge difference in terms of preparing students not just for college or career, but for life, we need to tap into something that feels like a calling for them and not just a job,” said Cory Mohn, executive director of CAPS.

The CAPS program partners with local industry to identify strands like bioscience, human services, engineering and health care, where there are rich community resources. Mentors work with students to identify their personal interests and connect them to real-world challenges that local businesses put forward. About 30 percent of Blue Valley graduates end up doing a semester with CAPS, where they spend half the school day immersed in a passion-driven project with mentors at the center or with community partners. When students aren’t at CAPS, they return to their home high school where they take more traditional classes.

Despite being a well-resourced, innovative program, CAPS mentors still struggle to help students identify their passions. Often the question “what do you want to be when you grow up?” is too broad and open-ended for students. Students end up gravitating toward fields where they’ve received external validation. But the CAPS mentors want students to find their own purpose, and they’ve partnered with Project Wayfinder to help students think through their goals.

‘I think there’s also a fear with students that they think if they miss one of those hoops then they’re done, they’ve crashed and burned.’ Erin Hayes, CAPS teacher

“The teachers appreciate the ability to have those guiding conversations with students,” said Scott Kreshel, director of program development for CAPS. “We want this to be an exciting path,” not just another hoop to jump through. The Wayfinder toolkit has helped students think not just about the most lucrative careers or even about their own strengths, but to look at the intersection of need, passion and strengths to find something that might be more fulfilling.

“A lot of times they don’t know where to begin,” said Erin Hayes, a foundations of medicine instructor for CAPS. “Sometimes it’s hard for those high-achieving students to do that piece because they’re looking for the check boxes.” She tries to weave Wayfinding activities throughout her curriculum when she thinks students need a moment to reflect or a tool to help them gain clarity.

Hayes also uses the tools to help individual students. One student came to Hayes with a dilemma: She thought she’d found her passion and was excited to pursue it, but knew her parents thought she should become a doctor. She felt weighed down by their expectations, as well as anxious that they might be right. Hayes gave her the “Islands and Buoys” exercise.

The activity asks the student to think about all buoys in life — the “should dos.” Then the student brainstorms the islands, the things she would love to do. Sometimes the buoys can help a person reach their island, so the activity leads the student through a reflection process about which buoys might help them reach their goal and which ones may be in contention with the goal.

“For her I think it was so helpful to lay it all out on the table,” Hayes said. Her ultimate goal was to affect change on a global scale and she felt tension with the “should” of becoming a doctor. But the activity helped her see the idea of becoming a doctor differently, as a potential route to global change.

“What I liked about it was, even as the instructor, I was looking at what’s the end goal here,” Hayes said. It wasn’t prescriptive. There are lots of potential solutions to the student’s problem, but it offered a structured way to deal with the tensions she was feeling. “It was a tool you might reflect on and then you might come back to it,” she said.

Hayes has found the activities personally helpful as well. There are 10 Wayfinding traits, many of which are in direct tension with others. Students think about “packing their backpack” with the traits that they find valuable, as well as ones that are valued externally by the world. It’s really asking students who they want to be, a question Hayes has also asked herself. She used to be a biomedical cancer researcher at Kansas University before realizing that bench work wasn’t her passion. That’s when she switched to teaching. Her roundabout life path has helped her empathize with the stress students feel.

“I think there’s also a fear with students that they think if they miss one of those hoops then they’re done, they’ve crashed and burned.” Hayes said. “I don’t think that’s true at all. You just have to twist and turn a little.” Life is rarely exactly as one expects, even if the goal remains the same. Helping students to see the twists and turns as normal also helps them be more resilient when they hit bumps.

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