Friday, 09 September 2011 21:50

Establishing a Sense of Purpose (Part 1 of NEW Blog Series)

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Introduction to This Blog Series

Establishing a sense of purpose is one of the most important responsibilities teachers face at the beginning of each new school year. Over the next several weeks I will share a variety of ideas that I have used to help students better understand why it is important to come to school every day, work hard, and learn as much as possible.

Establishing a Sense of Purpose in the Classroom (Part 1 of the Series)

At the age of seven, I began my Little League baseball career as a member of the Yankees.  (Our green shirts had no pinstripes and our payroll was considerably less than $200 million, but they called us the Yankees nonetheless.)  My teammates and I practiced one afternoon a week to prepare for the Saturday morning games.  We spent our practice time working on the skills that would help us play better in the games.  We ran around the bases, hit balls off the batting tee, and caught pop flies.  Even though we were young, my teammates and I quickly grasped the purpose and importance of every practice activity.  A clear connection existed between what we did in practice and what we would need to do in a game.  The coach didn’t have to take much time explaining these connections because we could figure them out for ourselves.  

Think about other organized activities in which children participate.  At band practice, for example, musicians understand why they need to rehearse.  They know that rehearsing is important because at a later date the group will perform its songs to a live audience.  Again, the connection between today’s preparation and tomorrow’s performance is straightforward.  Young actors in a drama club are also aware of this relationship.       

Curiously, the organized activity that occupies more of a child’s waking hours than any other, school, is the one where the purposes of attending each day are the least well understood by its participants.  What are the purposes of attending school?  Most students answer that they come to school to learn.  But when pressed further, they are often unable to articulate compelling reasons why learning is important.  Some students mention that they need to learn “to get a good job” or “to get into a good college.”  Rarely, though, does a child express that learning adds quality to our lives, that it enables us to contribute to the lives of others, that it maximizes our options later in life, and that the development of the mind is a joy and benefit in and of itself.  

The larger purposes of education are not as obvious as those of Little League, band, or drama club.  As a result, children have greater difficulty discovering on their own what these purposes are.

As teachers, it is our responsibility to establish a sense of purpose with our students so they know why it is important to come to school every day and so they understand how learning can benefit them now and in the future.  Raising this issue helps children connect what they learn in the classroom to their own lives.  When educators neglect to discuss the worthwhile purposes of attending school, students frequently fail to see meaning in their work and lack the motivation to persevere when challenged.  There is no more important, no more fundamental question a teacher can pose to students than, “Why are we here?”  We can’t assume that they already know.   

Establishing a sense of purpose is a process that requires an investment of time and energy.  The process must start during the first few days of a new school year because what occurs in our classrooms at this time sets the tone for the months ahead.  Taking the time to establish purpose promotes the creation of a productive work environment, a necessary precondition of quality learning.  But students can only work with a sense of purpose when their teachers have established a sense of purpose.

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