By Sam Piha
Heather Malin, Ph.D., is the director of research at the Center on Adolescence at Stanford University. Her new book, Teaching for Purpose: Preparing Students for Lives of Meaning, caught our attention. We believe that afterschool programs serving older youth are well positioned to nurture youth and their sense of purpose. Below we share some of Dr. Malin’s responses to our interview questions.
Q: What drove you to author this book on "purpose"?
A: I’ve been doing research on how young people develop purpose in life for over a decade, conducting interviews and surveys with adolescents to understand what matters to them and why, what goals they set for their lives and how they act on those goals, and what social conditions support them as they create purpose in their lives.
I knew that there were people out there creating programs based on our research, so this book was an opportunity to connect with those people and share their work with others who are looking for ways to support students to develop purpose.
Q: Can you briefly describe what you mean by "purpose"?
A: In our research lab, we specifically define purpose as “a generalized and stable intention to accomplish something that is meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self” (as defined in Damon, Menon, & Bronk, 2003). This is a mouthful, but it basically means that we see purpose as a driving and enduring goal to contribute to something larger than the self. It’s understanding your own strengths and values and connecting them with something that the world needs. It doesn’t require changing the world. Purpose can be found in helping a family member just as easily as it can be found in working to end global poverty.
Q: How does one teach "purpose"?
A: That’s a big question. From what I’ve seen, I think we create our own purpose, and conditions around us can make that easier or more difficult. That doesn’t mean more affluent and well-resourced people have better access to purpose. In fact, we find that challenging life conditions and negative experiences can lead some people to develop purpose as a response. So, how do we provide the conditions that will enable more young people to create or develop their purpose? I think it requires starting with an environment of compassion and encouragement, with adults who act as mentors and role models of prosocial activity and who prioritize an authentic relationship with their students. In that environment, students can openly explore their values, strengths, and the things that are meaningful to them.
Next, they need to translate those values and meaningful things into aspirations for their life and learn how to plan and take small steps toward accomplishing those big goals. Then, they need opportunities to act on their goals, to see that they’re capable of taking action and doing things that can have a positive impact in the world. That’s a nutshell version, but there is more detail in the book.
Q: How is this applicable to those who "teach" young people in community and school based afterschool programs?
A: This book was specifically aimed at educators who work in schools, with hopes of contributing to the ongoing movement to re-invent schools. However, the fundamental ideas can be applied by anyone working with young people, including those working in community settings. In fact, practitioners in out-of-school programs are at an advantage for supporting youth purpose. There is more opportunity to mentor young people in activities that are meaningful to them, provide them with real-world responsibilities that matter, and create a sense of community and belonging that might be harder to come by at school.
We’ve found that structured youth programs are wonderful for supporting purpose development when they provide an integrated web of purpose support. That web is made up of a social network that offers encouragement, access to information and knowledge needed to develop an interest and reflect on how their values relate to real-world issues, and opportunities to take authentic action in response to an interest or concern.
Q: Is the notion of "purpose" applicable to adults who work with young people or only the young people themselves?
A: Absolutely. One of the most important social resources for young people to develop purpose seems to be adults who model purpose in their own lives. An educator’s purpose doesn’t have to be teaching, but if it’s something they can share with their students, that is a gift they can offer that will make it more likely their students will develop purpose.
Youth organization leaders are likely to be very purpose-driven people, but even those with a strong sense of purpose can lose sight of it over time. I believe, and other youth purpose researchers agree, that helping youth practitioners reflect on and be more aware of their own purpose is key to supporting young people to develop purpose. Aside from that, practitioners who show up with a stronger sense of their own purpose for being there are probably going to create the compassionate environment that will enable young people to express and explore their purpose. This is why the book begins by asking readers to explore their own purpose – so they understand what I mean by purpose and so they can bring that sense of purpose to their work with young people.
Q: In your work, did you notice any important distinctions regarding different audiences of youth?
A: The most important finding in this area is that there is very little difference in the level or amount of purpose experienced by young people from different backgrounds or with different identities. We don’t have thorough data available on this, but findings are fairly consistent that purpose scores don’t vary much by ethnicity, socioeconomic status (SES), or gender. There are small differences that practitioners might pay attention to. For example, girls usually report a greater sense of purpose than boys, and girls are more likely to have beyond-the-self goals for their lives, but be less likely than boys to act on those goals to have what we consider engaged purpose.
In analyses of ethnicity and SES, the effect sizes of these differences are so small that I’m hesitant to say it has implications for practice. I think that there can be qualitative differences in purpose that are worth paying attention to: we can have the same level of purpose but in very different areas of life, or experienced in very different ways. The content of our purpose is shaped by our context, family, upbringing, and other social factors that are related to our ethnicity and social class.
The takeaway for practitioners, I think, is that exploring purpose with young people is an opportunity to get to know them better, and to connect better with them, their families, and communities.
Q: The concept of "purpose" joins other new concepts that have entered the afterschool conversation including "SEL", "agency", "civic engagement", "growth mindsets", etc. How do you see "purpose" aligning with these?
A: I see purpose as strongly interconnected with SEL, civic engagement, and “agency”. I advocate for purpose as a framework for SEL that integrates some of the goal pursuit strengths (self-regulation, agency) with moral strengths (empathy, compassion, social awareness).
Teaching for purpose ideally means providing young people with opportunities for values reflection that strengthens compassion and social awareness along with opportunities to develop important goals and take action. These efforts can help youth exercise self-regulation and agency. Civic engagement is an important way for young people to act on beyond-the-self goals that really matter to them.
Sam Piha is the founder and principal of Temescal Associates, a consulting group dedicated to building the capacity of leaders and organizations in education and youth development.