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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
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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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Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

MLyshon's picture

I think creating meaningfulness is a must. Students often do not have the background or interest to be able to find what you are teaching meaningful. I really like your idea of setting the "awe" tone in the beginning of the unit to catch the interest and keep it.

Michelle's picture

I find it challenging to get students to that "awe" moment. It does seem to work better when doing a hands on activity or inquiry-based activity. It tends to help some students when given an activity that has real-world connections.

Ms.Kopp's picture
6th grade Scienee & Literacy teacher from Iowa

Creating meaningfulness is something I am determine to master as a teacher. I want my students to realize that they have a voice for everything and one person can make a difference. I think that connection they feel between themselves and the topic can enhance their learning and help them to become more active learners. Great post.. can't wait to use some of the helpful tips in class!

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I've been extremely fortunate in having worked with hundreds of high school students over the years who were passionate about human rights. They were members of Amnesty International student chapters, and those students were some of the best advocates. They wrote letters, contacted government officials, and held rallies and protests. All the while, they learned about geography, political science, economics, sociology, world history, even a bit of world languages.

And best of all is when they succeeded. When a prisoner of conscience was released due in no small part to the efforts of these high school students. How's that for meaningful purpose? For awe? To attend a conference and hear the person you helped free from prison speak.

Jason Markey's picture
Jason Markey
Principal, East Leyden High School

At East Leyden High School, we lay out a very simple vision for our students - to be kind, find your passion, and commit to excellence. In focusing on finding their passion we believe purpose often comes through. For instance, we just had a sophomore student who was asked to solve a problem in Science class to explore the scientific method. The problem he identified was bullying. He went on to organize a creative writing/open mic event where students responded to prompts that he chose, wrote short pieces of poetry, and then shared them. There were over 50 students who attended this event and it was remarkable to see it come to life knowing it has grown from one student's idea in Science class.

There is not doubting the power of purpose, especially when combined with passion.

@creativityassoc's picture
Director, Education Division, Creativity & Associates

Daniel Pink, in his book A Whole New Mind, talks about the research on the differences between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Awe is a great way to tap into the intrinsic motivation that keeps all of us engaged in activities more deeply. I find that using process drama is also a great way to motivate students intrinsically, especially when they can determine their individual paths.

Intrinsic motivation works on creating the desire and curiosity in students needed to work through complex critical thinking. Pretending to be someone else who has the skills already is a great way to do that. If your students are studying water, the class could all become scientists and research/present their ideas on how to solve the problem. The teacher provides the information and the students find the path that they think will work best by pretending they are already scientists.

Here's a link to the Kennedy Center's ARTSEDGE website on process drama for more information:

I am Bullyproof -Lessia Bonn's picture

Samer.. WOW.

As a mom, I have witnessed "awe" move mountains.
My youngest son was that boy who knew everything. He thought in black and white. It worried me-- but I could never get through. Then, one day, he was just standing on the beach looking out at the vast ocean, and he says he "got it." All of a sudden, Mr. "I don't budge" transformed into "Mr. I want to work for a non profit and help change the world!" He is currently down in Chile teaching poor children. He majored in international studies.His empathy for others is astounding.

My oldest attended Berkeley, and cruised through academics while half asleep. He walks everywhere and just smells the roses. He's not an "A" personality at all. But when Occupy began?

He lives in New York. After work, he'd go down to the park, and quietly just "be there." My quiet and conservative natured son called me and said "Mom, it's really something." He was very moved by the fact that so many were truly trying to make a stand. He would call me and say "You should see how many people there are!" I could hear it in his voice -- the change.

In this world of plastic surgery and Snooky, it's more and more up to teachers to head kids back in the direction of what life is all about. I really love what you've shared here. It's awesome :-)

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

I don't want to take us too far off topic, but this is something I used to say all the time, to both high school students and adults alike:

You've got to find what resonates for you. It doesn't matter what, but find something that you care about and then find a way to make it a part of your life. Make a difference around that one thing, no matter how small.

To bring us back on topic, I can see how awe can be one way to help students find the thing that resonates for them.

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