Associate Professor Mary Anne Heng believes that beyond a single-minded focus on performance outcomes, schools should guide students in addressing important life questions to find purpose in school and life. She shares findings from her study on Singapore youths’ sense of meaning and purpose to open up discussions about what makes high quality and meaningful school experiences for students’ growth and socialization into whole persons.
Hearing from Our Youths
In one of the first studies in Singapore to tackle the question of purpose and uncover what is personally relevant and meaningful to Singapore youths, Mary Anne Heng observed that the views of students are often given short shrift in curriculum policy decisions. Hence, students’ school and learning experiences may not be consistent with education policy aims about developing passion, curiosity and creativity in learning (Ng, 2004).
Purpose, a long-term, stable and high-level intention to influence the world in ways both meaningful to oneself and others (Damon, 2008), is tremendously empowering with potential to shape the value systems of youths. Youth purpose has been linked to higher levels of life satisfaction and school achievement (Bronk, Hill, Lapsley, Talib & Finch, 2009).
“During our one-on-one interviews with secondary school students, many were willing to share broadly and deeply about meaning and purpose in school and life,” Mary Anne shares. Students were mostly very keen to talk about their school experiences. They had important things to say with some profound insights.
Mary Anne feels there is a need to look more carefully into students’ learning and lives in the design of meaningful educational experiences.
“It is important that schools make time to ask students more fundamental questions about what they make of school and life,” she says. “In the classroom, what typically happens is that teachers teach the subject to help students do well in the exams. If schooling is to be an experience that speaks to students as human beings, we need to change our approach so that we are also teaching, engaging and learning with the student.”
“In the classroom, what typically happens is that teachers teach the subject to help students do well in the exams. If schooling is to be an experience that speaks to students as human beings, we need to change our approach so that we are also teaching, engaging and learning with the student.”
– Mary Anne Heng, Office of Graduate Studies and Professional Learning and the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group at NIE
Opening up the Conversation
To do this, the school curriculum should provide spaces for students to make meaningful connections in both the formal- and co-curriculum.
“Schools should encourage students to reflect and make sense of things in relation to their own experiences, hopes and challenges for the future. It is through a deep, personal connection that learning comes alive and becomes deeply stimulating, meaningful and impactful,” she adds.
Teachers can facilitate this by focusing on the significance of the content of what they teach. For example, in a traditional lesson on persuasive writing, besides teaching students the form and
structure of an argument, teachers could encourage students to reflect on critical questions such as: Why is the issue important to me and my community? How does the issue confront and challenge my assumptions? Such questions develop students’ critical thinking skills and awareness of significant and even critical ideas that are relevant and valuable to their own lives.
A purpose-focused education thus helps students connect more deeply with the school curriculum and find meaning in what they learn. Reflecting on what Professor of Education from the Lynch
School of Education at Boston College, Dennis Shirley, said in a recent interview, there is a need for schools to go beyond the nurture of the intellect and towards the human experience of schooling in Singapore, unleashing a more purposeful idealism in our youth towards reimagining tomorrow.
Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose. New York, NY: Free Press.
Bronk, K. C., Hill, P. L., Lapsley, D. K., Talib, T. L., & Finch, H. (2009). Purpose, hope, and life satisfaction in three age groups. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 4(6), 500–510.
Ng, P. T. (2004). Students’ perception of change in the Singapore education system. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 3(1), 77–92.