There is much debate about how best to prepare students for an unpredictable job market when most of the curricula and practices in use today were developed for mass training young people to work in factory-style jobs. There are no easy answers, but the pandemic has shown us that now more than ever, we have to make courageous decisions to change the course of our education systems.
According to the World Economic Forum: “Building future-ready (and pandemic-proof) systems requires designing curricula fit for the 21st century, coupled with the delivery of an accessible, basic educational foundation for everyone that prepares them for a lifetime of adapting and developing new abilities. In addition, specialized education should focus particularly on in-demand skills and address the disconnect between employer needs and existing instruction.”
In this article, I would like to expand on the idea of preparing students: “for a lifetime of adapting and developing new abilities” and illustrate how helping them find their purpose liberates and empowers them to do precisely that.
I start with the premise that when young people understand their purpose, they engage more deeply, becoming eager and motivated to learn. Inevitably, they discover that in order to pursue their ‘why,’ they will need not only academic qualifications but also a host of other, less tangible behaviors and competencies. For example, they will need to be focused and resilient because achieving life goals takes time and is never straightforward. They will need to think creatively and communicate convincingly because securing support requires ingenuity. And they will need to hone their leadership and teamwork abilities because no man is an island.
So how do you go about incorporating this kind of self-exploratory development work into curriculum time and making it tangible?
Fortunately, a lot of work has been done in this area, and so we have excellent studies and thinking to draw from. Models such as Costa and Kallick’s 16 Habits of Mind and Sean Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful Teens provide practical frameworks for young people, helping them to understand what kind of capabilities and dispositions they need to navigate life successfully. These are just two of many models that are available to support us as we nurture and develop our students. It is frustrating that such valuable materials are readily at hand and yet apparently rarely embraced within formal curricula. I conclude it’s because they focus on so-called soft skills rather than on preparation for summative assessments in traditional core subjects, which most education systems still view as the ultimate purpose of school.
I fervently believe we need to rethink curriculum priorities, putting the development of soft skills on an equal footing with academic learning so that young people leave school with more than a set of examination results. Having just delivered a curricular unit using Sean Covey’s model, along with the Japanese concept of Ikigai, I can attest that the impact can be exceptional – even life-changing for some.
Ikigai is something I discovered only recently. The idea roughly translates to having a purpose in life and is beautifully simple. You find your purpose in the core of the overlapping circles:
What you love to do,
What you are good at,
What the world needs, and what you can get paid for.
Using the Ikigai philosophy, I tasked students with pinpointing their purpose. I then introduced activities that highlighted Covey’s Seven Habits and used coaching techniques to ensure these were thoroughly understood.
The process took some time and was not linear. My role was as a facilitator. I asked questions, encouraged students to dig deeper, be more aspirational. We made lists of strengths and preferred activities, and ultimately, each student was able to develop a personal mission statement. Some reflected short-term goals, and others captured a longer-term vocational ambition. The impact was significant. For most students, I observed a new sense of self-worth that translated into enhanced levels of engagement and commitment.
One student, in particular, said she had never thought about what she likes or loves doing and that the question of how to plan for the future had never been put to her. The schools she has attended had not given her the space to think about these kinds of things. As she began to become conscious of what she loved and was good at and what she could make a career of based on what the world needed, a transformation started to happen. She displayed signs of confidence and clarity, and excitement about what opportunities life could hold for her. Almost immediately, she understood what competencies would help her become better equipped to pursue her purpose. These included acquiring entrepreneurial skills and improving her financial understanding. She had a clearer vision of what she needed to succeed. She could think much more clearly about potential internships to help her decide her career path and help her think about the likely universities to attend. But personally, for me, the most transformative moment was when she thought about the impact she can have in society, and she became keener in service learning.
To summarize, students finding their purpose should be at the core of education, and we as educators need to find ways within our curriculum to facilitate that for our students. If we have more students with a purpose, it will not be far-fetched to say that we will have better, happier, and more equitable societies. So, I will encourage my dear fellow educators to try something different today, whether you do it in one class or at a district level. Let us disrupt to create a better tomorrow!
About Sandra Ospina
Sandra Ospina is Assistant Principal Data and Analysis at Misk Schools in Riyadh. With a background in science education, she is currently doing a Master’s in International Education Policy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Sandra has over a decade of experience teaching from nursery to college freshman. Technology has always been an essential tool in her teaching. She is an early adopter of technologies at any organization she works with. Sandra’s top interests in education include: Global education, STEAM, lifelong learning, neuroscience of learning, data, and the personalization of learning. For the last seven years, she has been working in the Middle East and is inspired by the rapid and positive changes she has seen in the educational sector in the region. She is excited to be part of that change as a leader and educator.