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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Put the Awe Back in "Awesome" -- Helping Students Develop Purpose

Vicki Zakrzewski

Education Director at UC Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center

Imagine being Ryan Hreljac's first grade teacher. After telling your class of six- and seven-year-olds that children in Africa are dying because of lack of clean water, one of your students is so moved that he has to do something. What starts as Ryan taking on extra vacuuming at home to earn money for wells eventually turns into Ryan's Well Foundation, a non-profit that, to date, has brought safe water and sanitation services to over 789,900 people.

As Ryan's teacher, you helped him start on the path to a life purpose, which, according to research, may be one of the greatest services you ever render to your students.

Seeking Meaningfulness

William Damon, leading expert in human development and author of The Path to Purpose, states that students today may be high achievers but they have no idea what for. He believes that this sense of meaninglessness is one of the main contributors to the skyrocketing suicide and depression rates among our youth. One sample statistic: the American College Health Association reported in 2011 that 30 percent of undergraduates were so depressed they could hardly function.

To combat this meaninglessness, Damon argues that students need to find a purpose in life -- something meaningful to themselves that also serves the greater good. In a series of studies of over 1,200 youth ages 12 to 26, Damon found that those who were actively pursuing a clear purpose reaped tremendous benefits that were both immediate and that could also last a lifetime.

More immediate benefits included extra positive energy that not only kept students motivated, but also helped them acquire the necessary skills and knowledge to pursue their purpose, making them very strong learners. Youth with a strong sense of purpose also benefited from positive emotions such as gratitude, self-confidence, optimism and a deep sense of fulfillment -- all of which scientists have found help prevent depression and anxiety.

Students who carry this sense of purpose into adulthood may also benefit in the long run. Research shows that adults who feel their lives have meaning and purpose are happier, more successful at work, and maintain stronger relationships.

Pivotal Moments

So what does this mean for educators? In-depth interviews of 12 purpose-driven youth from Damon's studies revealed that all of them came to their purpose through people outside their immediate families -- people that included their teachers.

In his book, Damon suggests several ways that teachers can help their students discover a sense of purpose, such as asking about what's most important to those students and talking about their own sense of purpose as a teacher.

But new research suggests another way: awe.

While the research on awe is still fairly new, several studies conducted by the Greater Good Science Center's Dacher Keltner have shown that the experience of awe has the potential to turn students' lives in a new direction.

Here's how awe works: when we experience an inspiring work of art or a grand vista in nature, or when we learn a new mind-expanding theory, we often feel a sense of vastness that gives us a new perspective on the world and our place in it. These two steps make up the emotion of awe.

Keltner has found that awe makes us feel connected to something larger than ourselves -- a crucial and necessary aspect of purpose. According to Damon, without this larger connection, students are less likely to maintain their inspiration, motivation and resilience in the face of challenges.

Imagine how life-changing this emotion could be for students who are struggling to find meaning in their lives and schoolwork! An awe experience has the potential to open their minds to new ways of thinking, including what their place in the world might be.

For teachers who would like to use awe in the classroom to help students find purpose, here is one research-based suggestion that might spark even more creative suggestions from readers.

Introduce an Awe-Inspiring Unit of Study

When planning your next unit, think about how you might open the topic in a way that places it in the "grander scheme of things," and about how students might relate to both the topic and this grander scheme.

For example, the video below was used in Keltner’s research lab to induce awe. Teachers could use it at the beginning of units on astronomy, geometry, perspective or measurement:

This next video was also used to induce awe in the lab and could be used for units on sustainability, nature photo/videography, geology, zoology or ecosystems:

After showing the video, help students process what they just saw. Awe involves changing our mental models to incorporate the experience. Thus, to help students understand and process the experience at a deeper level, have them first write about what they felt or thought while watching the video. Then discuss with them how both the video content and the topic they're about to study relates to them personally and to the world in general.

Setting the Stage

It's important to note that your efforts to induce awe in students will fall on some deaf ears. Keltner found that not everyone is prone to awe -- particularly those who are not comfortable changing their outlook on the world. But that shouldn't keep teachers from trying to induce awe in students. UC Berkeley social psychologist Paul Piff speculates, "There's good reason to think that students who don't experience awe could benefit from those who do. For example, through the contagious effects of positive emotion, increased solidarity and cooperation, social facilitation, and benefiting from others' egalitarianism." And even if none of the students experience awe, the follow-up discussion still has the potential to generate a rich exploration about purpose.

Helping students find a path to purpose is one of the noblest aspects of teaching. As Damon writes, "This is how all young people should feel about life when they are starting out. Idealism, high hopes, enthusiasm, and a sense of awe and wonder in exploring the world around them."

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