The Pedagogy of Purpose

Learning should have purpose and meaning. This isn’t a controversial statement. Given the enormous resources of money, time, and energy we invest in formal and informal education, we should be clear on the purpose of our learning and how it will meaningfully serve society.

Unfortunately, that’s not how most learning spaces are built. We create sterile learning environments that separate the student from the subject, and the subject from the real world. We assume the core task in learning is for students to retain specific information. Most student learning is inside classrooms. Our primary sources are books and media. Curriculum is often siloed by subject, separating math from science from history from language arts. The result is learning and teaching that is so far removed from the dynamic reality of the real world that it’s meaningless. It’s no wonder students believe the purpose of school is not learning but achievement to earn admission to an “elite” position in society.

In a world that faces real challenges that would benefit from citizens and professionals with dynamic learning capacities, this fundamental failure of pedagogy is a serious problem.

Principle of Learning and Teaching #1:

Learning and teaching require intentionality, humility, and critical reflection on the world and ourselves.

Regardless of the age group of the learner or the subject of study, learning should have clear purpose. That purpose must be rooted in a symbiotic exploration of the world, our core beliefs, and our understanding of our place within the world. And, this process requires humility among learners and teachers to let go of the desire to declare definitive understanding and remain open to new insights and perspectives.

Maria Montessori understood this. One of the fundamental principles of the Montessori method is that learning starts in the concrete before it moves to the abstract. In math, students work with materials like bead strings and cubes that allow them to explore numbers, units, and place value in a medium they can touch and manipulate. Students progress through a series of materials and tasks designed to help them develop a real world understanding of numbers. Once they have mastered these tasks in the concrete, they are introduced to pen and paper math as the abstract representation of what they now understand in the real world. Why does this matter? Montessori math results in true numeracy rather than memorized tables and calculator dependency. It means students aren’t simply trying to solve puzzles comprised of numbers and symbols on paper. They know what those numbers and symbols represent in real terms.

What’s embedded in this approach is a specific focus on helping students explore, understand, and master the world around them in substantive and immediately functional terms. We communicate, negotiate, and plan using numbers constantly — how many more bites before we can get up from the table, or how long will I have to save my allowance to buy that? True numeracy allows kids to address an immediate need and master a skill that gives them more power in their own lives as they interpret the world, negotiate with adults, and make decisions.

Identifying clear purpose is crucial at every age. If high school students don’t know why they are studying world history and can’t directly relate its lessons to their lives, they won’t engage. My first year as a classroom teacher, I taught history backward. I was assigned to teach 9th graders world history from 1800 to the present. That didn’t make a lot of sense to me, because I knew I wouldn’t have a great answer for my students if they asked how learning about the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand had anything to do with their lives.

Instead of starting in 1800, we started with the headlines from the newspaper on that first day of school. It was the Fall of 2004, so we talked about the Iraq War, 9/11, and the US presidential election. With each story, we asked why these issues mattered to us and how they came to be. In most cases, the former was easy to answer. My students had family members in the military, they were old enough to have been shaped by the trauma of 9/11, and their electoral curiosity was peaked by the video I showed them of an African American first term Senator who spoke at the Democratic National Convention just months before. Trying to understand the events of the day gave us pathways into the politics, conflicts, and change movements that preceded the current moment. We didn’t just march backward through time. We pulled on strands of history that mattered most today.

Our inquiry was rooted in themes that were immediately relevant to the students related to the role that race, class, and gender have played in oppressing people and communities. We role played the various constituencies in post-colonial transitions to experience how tragedies like the Rwandan genocide take shape. We incorporated scholarly pieces suggesting African American men were facing a genocide in America to explore the dynamic reality of the students’ community. We inquired about the people, processes, and movements that created positive change. This exploration resulted in students that remembered historical dates and names because they were central to their understanding of why their home community faced challenges and how they might help create a more just and equitable world. Thus, history became a study of the world as the students experience it, their beliefs about how it should be, and ways they can live and contribute to society according to those beliefs.

As we look across the curriculum in K-12 and higher education, there are unending ways to utilize this pedagogical principle to reshape our learning spaces. High school physiology and language arts courses could explore neurology and how it shapes the human experience reflected in literature. They can look at themes of love, personal growth, and sense of self to connect neuroscience to their daily experiences of emotion and growth. Following my friend Erin Lynn Raab, Ph.D.’s work, schools can be restructured to allow shared governance for students, engaging them in opportunities to learn about budget and finance, education policy, and leadership through authentic and meaningful work in their school community. Once the vision becomes clear, the opportunities are exciting and endless.

Unfortunately, most traditional schools present significant barriers to enacting this pedagogical principle. Teaching in this way requires significant planning and collaboration among faculty, for which many school systems don’t provide the time and resources. It requires constant innovation to ensure standards are met and learning is properly assessed. This pedagogical principle positions teachers as artists more than practitioners, who require a supportive community that celebrates creativity and risk taking.

If we believe in this pedagogical principle, we must create educational institutions and learning spaces where it can be enacted. When it happens, the process of engaging critically with the world and ourselves as learners and educators is deeply humanizing to all involved.

Further Inquiry:

While I believe in the Principles for Learning and Teaching, I don’t have definitive answers as to how to actualize them in our learning spaces. Here are some of the questions guiding my inquiry. Please share yours in the comments section, below!

  • How do we create assessment tools that capture both standards met and a sense of purpose and ownership of the learning process?
  • To what degree do students need to shape the content and inquiry process to ensure they find purpose and meaning in it?
  • What skills and capacities (emotional, intellectual, social) do students need to successfully engage in dynamic, cross curricular learning?
  • Can this type of learning start at any time, or are habits of mind too firmly set by a specific age?