The Why Question

Teachers can instill a sense of purpose

ednext_20093_84_img1A crusty high school English teacher once gave me some stern words of advice. An indifferent student at the time, I had just handed the teacher a sloppy, half-completed assignment that revealed little more than my own laziness. I offered the excuse (which, incredibly, I must have considered legitimate) that I had guessed that the assignment did not count much because it was just a weekly essay. The teacher fixed me in his fiercest gaze and said, “Mr. Damon, everything you do in this world counts.” I stood there, properly abashed.

It’s not that these words immediately struck me as a profound revelation or that they turned my life around that same day. But the idea that the things I do actually matter, even the small routine things, did sink in. I became motivated to “apply myself,” in the phrase that my teachers were beseeching me with at the time. In the term that I now use in my research and writings, I gradually became more purposeful about my efforts, and my schoolwork did start to improve. What my teacher had said made a difference to my way of thinking about what I was doing in school and beyond. And it has stuck around as a kind of touchstone, decades later.

If you ask any teacher to list the top problems in schools today, “student motivation” will surely be among them. Yet our national priorities for education mostly ignore this concern. Indeed, with our sometimes single-minded focus on test scores, we may well be subverting the message that my English teacher offered me long ago: that it is best to be purposeful about whatever we do.

This is not to dispute the value of serious testing, which I support, but testing must be presented to students as a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It should never become the primary focus of classroom instruction. Not only does such a narrow focus restrict teachers’ judgments about how and what students should learn, it crowds out teachers’ time for discussing with students broader questions, such as what a person can and should do with academic knowledge in the world beyond school, the all-important question, What is the purpose of learning?

Schools must address the “why” question with students about all that they do. Why do people study math and science? Why is it important to read and write? To spell words correctly? Why have I (the teacher) chosen teaching as my occupation? Addressing this question in front of students, which unaccountably teachers rarely do, not only helps students better understand the purpose of schooling but also exposes them to a respected adult’s own quest for purpose. Why do we have rules against cheating? This is a good opportunity to convey moral standards such as honesty, fairness, and integrity and is a missed opportunity in most schools, even those with strong character-education agendas. Why are you, and your fellow students, here at all?

Every part of the curriculum should be taught with the “why” question squarely in the foreground. Some believe that the humanities are especially suited for this. I have found that instruction in the sciences offers a vivid context for raising the questions why and why not. Some years ago I was given a chance to try out this idea during a summer school program for gifted students. We discussed recent research in microbiology in the context of ethical questions such as the social desirability of cloning. Students tore into their difficult scientific lessons, motivated at least in part by their appreciation of the enormous moral issues at stake.

Schools can introduce students to an equally rich array of purposeful pursuits through art, music, sports, language, theater, and other activities that have unfortunately become targets for elimination in many schools. We must be careful not to allow an intense concern with testing or any single educational objective, well-intentioned as it may be, to crowd out the activities that may best kindle the flames of learning and purpose in our students.

William Damon is professor of education at Stanford University and director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence. This essay was adapted from The Path to Purpose (The Free Press, 2008).

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