Two boys committed suicide recently in my school district.
One was an eighth grade boy and the other, another boy, a sophomore. It shook my community and it shook me. What could be so unbearable in their young lives that ending it was better than living?
The school district and county mental health department put on an event for parents a month later to share information about teen suicide from a panel of experts – representatives from county mental health, physicians, counselors, and social workers. But a friend and I wanted to hear from the students directly. What are the stresses they are experiencing and seeing in their classmates? This could inform the adults in the community in order to avoid a possible trend.
We gathered a focus group of high school students one evening to hear the stresses they are experiencing. These were all good students with supportive families. They wrote a list of the stresses in their lives and in their friends’ lives. The list included: grades, college, sports, peer relationship pressures to fit in, parent expectations, their own expectations, not being known in feeling stressed, lack of school support. When asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1-10 with 10 being the most stressed, most of the students said, “between 7-9.” We were very concerned about this unhealthy level of continual high stress for these adolescents.
What makes this worse is that they are not talking about it. They are not sharing with their teachers because they don’t have trusting relationships with them. They are not sharing it with their parents because when they do share a concern, their parents become anxious and that adds to the stress they are already feeling. So they are silently suffering. As one of them said later, “I just want to end the pain.” For that evening of sharing, it was a relief for them to talk about how they are feeling and be heard by caring adults.
The next night I attended Angela Duckworth’s talk about her new book, Grit The Power of Passion and Perseverance. In the Q & A, I asked her thoughts on how educators may be using “Grittiness” as in, “Let’s work on your grit,” another experience of students feeling inadequate. She clarified that grit is not just perseverance, but is sourced from the energy of one’s passions and of having a purpose, larger than oneself. Her research discovered that people who know what they want and are motivated more by altruism than personal pleasure score higher on grit scales.
I then wondered whether that should be one of the outcomes that high schools have for their students: to nurture students’ passions to contribute to a greater good. At most schools, this is not the desired student outcome. Instead, students receive explicit and implicit messages from their school environments proclaiming that getting good grades to get into a top-notch college to get a good job is the most important goal of their high school career. Anything less and you’re a loser.
In response to Duckworth’s book, David Brooks in his op-ed in the New York Times criticized the focus on GPAs as contributing to compliance instead of innovation, joylessness instead of spirited engagement. He shared a basic premise of James K. A. Smith’s book You Are What You Love, that “human beings are primarily defined by what we desire, not what we know. Our wants are at the core of our identity, the wellspring whence our actions flow.” Brooks goes on to say, “I don’t know about you, but I’m really bad at being self-disciplined about things I don’t care about. For me, and I suspect for many, hard work and resilience can only happen when there is a strong desire. Grit is thus downstream from longing. People need a powerful why if they are going to be able to endure any how.”
I wonder if the two boys who ended their young lives had the opportunity to pursue their passion and a purpose worth pursuing, that got their creative juices flowing and fed their souls for a bigger dream of themselves; would they have chosen differently?
Everywhere I turn there seems to be another creative effort to “reimagine schools,” e.g., Lauren Powell Jobs’ XQ Super School, Alt Schools, and Khan Lab School to name a few. Recently, I read of a public school district in Iowa reimagining education with a “think outside the box” alternative high school program called Iowa BIG that focuses on student passion, authentic projects, and community partnerships. Trace Pickering, assistant superintendent, says “Our students earn core academic credit, in the four core areas, by engaging in projects they care about with our community. The role of the teacher changes dramatically, from delivering content to understanding where these projects will go and what the student needs to know next to get there … We don’t have a curriculum because there’s no curriculum in life. You build it as you go.” In other words, this is truly student-centered learning, driven by the students’ passions.
While students in Iowa BIG are on par with traditional students academically, the Iowa BIG students score dramatically higher on wellbeing, sense of efficacy, and ownership of learning. Dr. Pickering also said the students “understand what their passions are, they understand how to advocate for themselves, they have a sense of efficacy over, ‘Hey, I can control my own learning and I can create a future for myself.’ For me, those measures far exceed, ‘Oh, I got 80 percent on this math test.’” Students are in control of their learning.
Project Wayfinder is a collaborative effort at the d.school of Stanford’s Institute of Design to create a new kind of high school in response to Palo Alto’s two clusters of suicides – the first in 2009-2010 with six suicides, and, six years later, with another four. One of the quotes on the Project Wayfinder website describes the problem of schools today:
“The biggest problem growing up today is not actually stress; it’s meaninglessness.”— Dr. William Damon, The Path to Purpose
With this in mind, Project Wayfinder poses the following questions to design a new kind of high school:
- How do we teach and fundamentally integrate purpose?
- What if every aspect of high school was designed with the intent of teaching young people how to seek and develop a sense of individual purpose, not absorb a standard body of knowledge?
- How do we design, and let students pursue, purpose-provoking experiences?
Here are two examples of educational efforts to “reimagine education” by intentionally organizing school culture and curricula to nurture a sense of purpose and meaning in students. It is greatly needed.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in the 15 to 34 age-group and third leading cause among the 10-14 age group, an increase of 100% of the latter since 2001.
In light of these statistics, I ask that educators put passion and purpose front and center in their list of student outcomes. Reshaping school curriculum for passion and purpose, not only nurtures more grit in students, but also promotes social emotional skills like resiliency, self-efficacy, and intrinsic motivation to learn. This will still lead students to successful acquisition of skills while lessening their stress and anxiety, and, perhaps, prevent more young people from taking their lives.