Reading, Writing, and Purpose: Why We Should Teach Kids Meaning at School

“Teaching children their purpose, getting them engaged in these bigger questions, can actually bolster and support their academic learning.”

Scott Barry Kaufman is a cognitive psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, the scientific director of The Imagination Institute, and the author of Ungifted and Wired to Create. He recently joined Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, for a Heleo Conversation on the ways we can build meaning in schools.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. 

Scott: You’ve just written this wonderful book on meaning, and I’m deeply interested in how to make education better. What would happen if we developed those four pillars of meaning [that you talk about] in schoolchildren?

Emily: The four pillars are the building blocks of meaningful life. They are a sense of belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. The two that seem most relevant for school-age children are purpose and belonging.

With belonging, you want kids to develop humane relationships with one another to learn how to put other people first. With the bullying that we see on campuses and schools, there’s so many kids who feel like their sense of belonging isn’t being satisfied, or they’re satisfying it negative ways by ganging up on others.

Teaching children that belonging is about intrinsically valuing one another for who we are, not who we’re friends with, would go a long way to building a sounder and more healthy culture in schools.

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Purpose is also extremely important in youth, because that’s a question of what’s motivating you. What is the child’s goal? Are they being motivated by popularity? Do they want to be successful? Angela Duckworth talks about purpose in those young adult years as a ‘beyond the self’ goal. There’s research showing that when high school and college students think about how they want to contribute to the world, they end up being more motivated and engaged academically. They do better in school. They’re less likely to get distracted by computer games. Stanford’s William Damon has found that a large proportion of young people are struggling to figure out what their purpose is. I see school as a place where kids can be guided through thinking more deeply about that.

Scott: What about teachers who say, “All the time helping them with their purpose is taking time away from their standardized test prep?”

“Teaching children their purpose, getting them engaged in these bigger questions, can actually bolster and support their academic learning, not hinder it.”

Emily: I sympathize with that. It’s important to teach kids reading and math—and the other subjects. But one study found that a really quick intervention, just asking the kids to think about the contribution they wanted to make to the world and write about that for a few minutes, led them to later on performing better in their math classes and being less likely to be distracted by technology. Teaching children their purpose, getting them engaged in these bigger questions, can actually bolster and support their academic learning, not hinder it.

It doesn’t take very much time. If you don’t want to take up class time, send them home to write for a few minutes about “How can math help you achieve your bigger goals?” Or “How can it help you contribute in a bigger way to society?”

You talk a lot at schools and educational institutions. Do you find that there’s receptivity to the idea of teaching kids this other skill set: creativity, purpose, meaning, well-being, mindfulness?

Scott: I do, but it’s interesting: people are almost more receptive to creativity than meaning. If we peer beneath the surface, we have a really big bias in our society, particularly in the education system, for ‘do-ers’ as opposed ‘be-ers’. Or ‘doing’ versus ‘being’.

Even though I frame creativity as very much a “being” thing, people are like “That means greater productivity! That means students will be producing more.” That’s not what I mean when I talk about why we need to value creativity more in schools, but that’s why it’s more embraced than meaning. Meaning seems to be very individualized and personal, and won’t necessarily yield big societal dividends. But as an education system, we need to move away from this obsessive need for everything we do to somehow pay off in a publicly recognized way, and look more at what a deeper development of a person would look like and why that matters as an end in itself.

Emily: One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is, “What is success, what is failure?” We think about success in terms of achieving our goals, or if you’re an educator, getting that standardized test score among your students. It’s this ‘do-er’ mentality.

But I was thinking about the psychologist Erik Erikson and his idea of life as a process of development: at different stages of your life, you’re responsible for doing different things in order to become a mature person. Youth is about figuring out what your purpose is. Mid-life is about being a generative person or contributing to others. It would be great if we redefined success in terms of meeting those milestones for developing into a wise, mature person, as opposed to more achievement-oriented milestones that can create this instrumentalisation of the things that we’re talking about.

Creativity and meaning are valuable, both in themselves and because they help a person develop into a deeper, wiser person. Whereas, some people think that they’re valuable because they lead to more productivity, better achievement, etc. It’s rethinking our idea of what success is.

Scott: I wonder, is there a time and place for everything, though, in our lives? Can’t children get to some of those higher stages of Erikson’s [development] too soon? Can it be deeply troubling to the child to be so out of sync with the other kids?

There’s also a dark side of human nature that’s linked to transcendence. Like suicide bombers and people who too quickly go for transcendence without understanding themselves, that can be dangerous.

Emily: When you asked me initially about the pillars in schools, I focused on belonging and purpose because, [given] the stage of development that a child or a teenager is in, those make the most sense for them to be mastering and for schools to be teaching them. I’m not sure it’s necessarily the role of the school, unless it’s a religious school, to inculcate a sense of transcendence, for example.

Yes, I think at different stages of your life you’re ready for different types of meaning, and that purpose is important to develop in your young adult years and even younger. Maybe later is when you should be thinking more about transcendence and what that means for you.

To your point about suicide bombers, I think about that as representing a crisis of meaning. Maybe a person who didn’t have meaning in their young adult years is searching for it and looking in the wrong places. I think that’s why we see a lot of Western secular people joining ISIS, because they want something bigger to feel connected to and ISIS is filling that void.

It’s important for kids to find meaning in more positive ways at home and at school [because] we can inoculate them against those dangers; we can provide healthy alternatives. Help them think about “How do you want to contribute to the world in a positive, generative way?” Help frame that discussion of meaning so that it’s not being framed by these other groups.

Scott: I wonder if what’s going on, with young people who are recruited into fundamentalist organizations, is that the people doing the recruiting are really manipulative and good at preying on the unmet basic needs that a lot of these young people have. What they’re preying on is the worst of the person, as opposed to bringing out the best.

“What positive cultures of meaning share in common is intrinsically valuing each individual.”

I would make an analogy to making students feel pressure that they have to do well on standardized tests. We the teachers are forcing students to have meaning by preying on their unmet needs for approval, awards, and competition. That doesn’t bring the best out of people. But there are ways to bring the best out of people through meaning.

Emily: That’s why we talk about how we can create a culture of meaning in schools, to resist the cultures of meaning that places like ISIS, gangs, or cults provide.

How can we provide a positive culture of meaning as opposed to these negative ones? What positive cultures of meaning share in common is intrinsically valuing each individual. With a group like ISIS, or a gang, you’re affirmed and accepted as part of that group only because you believe certain things or are willing to do certain things. If you don’t do that, then you are out. Your value is contingent, in other words—and that’s not true belonging. Schools could provide true belonging, affirming kids for who they are, and also pushing them to be better. If their behavior is bad, of course there’s room to correct that. But there shouldn’t be this contingent valuing of “You’re only part of this if you do well on standardized tests.” Or, “We only like you if you’re a good math student.”

Scott: Can we talk about these two other pillars and why they matter?

Emily: I dismissed storytelling as a pillar that matters to young people, but I want to take that back. It does matter.

What do we do in English classes? What do we do in History? We’re learning stories. But one of the things that’s lacking is understanding how those stories are ways we can learn about how we can lead meaningful lives.

If you read something like The Great Gatsby, it’s not just learning, “This was written by F. Scott Fitzgerald in this year and it represents American society.” No, this is saying something deep and profound about how we can lead our lives. What are we learning about how to live? How do we feel about these characters? Do they represent the kind of life that we want to lead? Getting discussions to go there and students to engage with the idea that they can be learning about how to live by reading these books would be really valuable to them.

When I write about storytelling, I’m writing about the story that you tell yourself about your own life. For young people, though, they haven’t lived a lot. Most of their life is still ahead of them, so they’re thinking about the story that they want to tell about their future self, the vision that they have for their life. We can help them shape that in a more meaningful way. They can learn from these stories, lessons that help them shape their own future story. That’s one way that teachers can help teach the students about these works as a way that may be personal.

Scott: That’s brilliant, a strategy that is sure to increase the internal versus external locus of control. To make kids feel as though they’re the authors of their life story. Most students in America do not feel great autonomy. They feel that their choices are not sure to contribute to the narrative of themselves, that other people are writing the narrative for them. So that’s really important.

Emily: Do you think there’s this cultural script about what being a good student is?

“When we think of creativity, we think of creating art, or some gizmo that’s going to change the world. But our lives are a creative expression.”

Scott: Yeah, even what being a good person means. I tend to be a really non-judgmental person, maybe to a fault—I value authenticity over societal scripts. There can be pressure for everything people to do to help others in a stereotypical or superficial way. Like, “Why do you want to learn how to sew your own dresses when that isn’t doing good for the world?” Some pressure that students can [feel], the archetype of what it means to be a good person as opposed to what it means to just be a person.

Emily: I feel like young people, if they’re college-age, still want to have a meaningful career. You’re absolutely right that there’s this idea that your career or life can only be meaningful if you’re working for a nonprofit or humanitarian organization, and that’s not the case.

How do you get kids to think independently about their lives so they’re not being influenced by these cultural scripts? And how do they get the courage to act on that? For me, I decided to be a writer but for a long time I was afraid to do that because it seemed like such a risky path. I think that creativity is part of this, because creativity is all about shaking up your mental models, the way you understand the world. I wonder if teaching that, giving them some creativity [exercise], to shake up the way they think about the world, could then help them think more clearly about what they want to do.

Scott: Some positive psychology interventions seem relevant there: the future selves intervention and best self intervention. Maybe some of E. Paul Torrance’s exercises about imagining a future self-image.

He created these exercises where kids were prompted to fall in love with a future image of themselves. That was really predictive of personally meaningful creativity. He was revolutionary, to not just measure publicly recognized creativity, but also personally meaningful hobbies. Hobbies are underrated.

Emily: You’re right. When we think of creativity, we think of creating art, or some gizmo that’s going to change the world. But our lives are a creative expression. We’re constantly creating our lives and the things that we do. Even making a meal or having a hobby are ways that we express ourselves creatively. But our lives themselves are also creative masterpieces, too.

Scott: Absolutely. You and I are expressing ourselves creatively by having a spontaneous conversation. There’s creativity everywhere and we don’t realize it, because we have these very narrow definitions of what creativity would look like and what it ‘should’ look like. Shoulds are anathema to creativity.