Student Well-Being Opinion

Building Purpose-Seeking Skills in High School

By Contributing Blogger — August 20, 2018 10 min read
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This post is an interview by Tyler Thigpen, Partner at Transcend, with Yutaka Tamura, Executive Director of nXu. nXu and Transcend have forged an R&D partnership through which Transcend is providing strategic, organizational, and programmatic guidance to nXu during this critical stage of its establishment.

What would happen if you brought together a maximally diverse group of high schoolers from across your city--of different races, school backgrounds, religions, and economic differences--to support one another in articulating and pursuing their purpose in life? And what if that program launched a broader movement around purpose development that supported students both in and out of school?

nXuis doing just that. They currently offer purpose-development programming in New York City and San Antonio on an out-of-school basis in the form of a fellowship program and also are building capacity to provide programming within a school context.

Here’s what their high schoolers say about the nXu experience:

“Contagious energy.”

“I feel more comfortable talking to a larger diversity of people. I know how to connect, and find family.”

“My purpose in life is to make scientific contributions to the world.”

“Now, we’re taking a life of purpose and creating a project and--as a 14-year old--doing something big.”

“A lot of times as kids you’re told, ‘Oh, that’s a really great idea. You should probably pursue that when you’re older.’ There’s not really another place to go and say, ‘Look, I’m really interested in this.’ It’s like you get to do it now. And I think now is a really important time, especially for our generation.”

Just as a river has an outlet through which fresh water can flow and bring abundant life to its surroundings, nXu provides high schoolers with an outlet through which to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose while also applying their learning and changing the world. Building a learning outlet with such depth for students wasn’t haphazard; it resulted from intentional design choices made by the nXu team.

Earlier in this blog, we described Eight Great Leaps learning environments need to make to prepare children to thrive in and transform our world. Within those Leaps, we see at least four ways nXu is breaking the mold of traditional high school:

Leap #1, the Focus of School--nXu is playing a role in expanding the focus of schools from preparing students narrowly around academics to more holistic preparation from global competencies to career exposure and knowledge.

Leap #3, the Learner’s Role--nXu is helping to redefine the role of the learner by allowing each participant to pursue his or her own interests and sense of purpose.

Leap #5, the Adult’s Role--nXu is helping define how adults can serve as a coach supporting young people’s learning journey in a more comprehensive manner.

Leap #7, School Community--nXu’s focus on creating intentionally diverse cohorts of participants and on fostering a deep sense of connection is helping schools expand the ways in which they build their communities.

Tyler Thigpen of Transcend sat down with nXu’s Executive Director Yutaka Tamura to talk through their deeper learning design. Here’s their conversation.

What is nXu, and how did nXu come about?

nXu is a youth purpose incubator--the brainchild of educational leaders from some of the country’s most celebrated public and private high schools. With collective experience in starting, leading, and growing 250+ high-quality K-12 schools and education initiatives nationwide, our team noticed a critical gap in American high school education: even the most academically prepared students enter college at a disadvantage when they lack a clear sense of personal purpose.

Research has demonstrated that socio-emotional skills greatly impact students’ academic performance, persistence, and broader life success with several studies showing that socio-emotional skills have as much or more impact on positive life outcomes than academic skills. We at nXu believe that socio-emotional learning--the development of an understanding of one’s self and others--is the backbone of purpose development, a fundamental human motive that is at the root of major markers of success throughout one’s life. Youth with a strong sense of purpose experience greater life satisfaction and physical, mental and emotional well-being, perform better in school, and have higher rates of college retention as well as longer-term success after college. Currently, many high schools struggle to provide socio-emotional and purpose-focused programming because they must fulfill other priorities within limited time. nXu is developing and will disseminate an integrated socio-emotional and purpose-focused program and curriculum to address this need.

What is the goal of nXu and why is it important - for you personally, for young people, and for society?

When we describe nXu to adults, the majority of them say, “I myself could use that.” Many adults are still seeking a clear sense of purpose because they were never given the chance to explore their purpose in a structured way during their youth. And too many kids lose momentum in school because they don’t know where they are headed beyond college. Our mission is to catalyze a diverse community of youth to explore, articulate, and pursue their purpose because we believe that a sense of purpose acts as an inner compass that--when combined with skills training and community support--allows young people to live in alignment with their highest potential.

How does learning happen at nXu? What are the key aspects of the model?

Our out-of-school program model is based on four core components:

  • Experiential and immersive: nXu believes that first-hand experience is life’s best teacher, so the program offers experiential, immersive learning opportunities and rites of passage that integrate social and emotional learning.
  • Diverse and communal: nXu believes that purpose development best occurs in a community of supportive and connected peers and adults from wide-ranging backgrounds.
  • City-based and integrated: nXu believes that one’s city can serve as a foundational resource for purpose cultivation and that nXu can play a key role in integrating often siloed organizations in the educational, nonprofit, private, and public sectors.
  • Reflective and supported: nXu believes that cultivating a sense of purpose requires meaningful and regular reflection as well as coaching and guidance from adults.

Our in-school programming will incorporate the most relevant components that can be applied in a school setting.

Can you tell us a few stories of specific young people’s experiences in nXu? What did they do and build?

As part of nXu, each participant drafts a life purpose statement. S/he then identifies a problem in the world that resonates with them and then proposes a solution. One of our participants, Jason, noticed that his grandfather did not know how to use modern day technology and that his peers could use more guidance. So, he developed a vision for a program in which teenagers teach the elderly basic technology skills while the elderly share life skills and advice. Another participant, Noah, was interested in both the potential benefits and dangers of artificial intelligence. He also has a passion for music production. So, he proposed a plan to educate people about AI via music.

Core to our programming is the cultivation of socio-emotional skills. One of our students, Ashley, gained greater confidence and comfort being more assertive and speaking up at school through one of our sessions focused on the cultivation of self-confidence.

All of our nXu participants have experienced key breakthroughs like the ones above, stories where they discovered more about who they want to be, what they want to do with their life, and how they can better help others.

What have been some of the most powerful moments for you?

It’s been powerful to see how students have engaged so deeply in self-reflection and discovery and purpose exploration. Like adults, kids are deeply interested in considering their purpose in life and will engage if given the time and space to do so. Much of the purpose research has revealed the importance of connecting your purpose to something greater than yourself. Witnessing one student, who is deeply interested in architecture, realize he could use his passion for building and design to help others and address homelessness in his city was a particularly moving moment.

And at a time when our country seems deeply divided, authentic opportunities for our students, who come from very diverse backgrounds, to connect across lines of difference in meaningful ways are powerful reminders of what’s possible and necessary. One activity we do with students requires them to construct and share their personal narrative with the group. Witnessing students listen to the unique life journeys of the peers with empathy and respect, and for the first time for many, appreciating how both different and similar their lived experiences can be were powerful moments.

What roles do students, adults, and families play at nXu and how are they liking those roles?

Each group of nXu participants is assigned a “compass coach” who serves as a mentor and who provides feedback and guidance. The coaches have been really engaged in their role because it allows them to interact more holistically with kids than many adults are able to in a school or purely academic setting. And the coaches participate in the programming themselves so, by default, they themselves cultivate their own sense of purpose.

When students initially begin their nXu journey, they navigate a somewhat structured program. We also work hard to foster a sense of community given the students don’t know each other. As students progress through the program, however, they are given more and more autonomy. For example, each student proposes a solution to a problem that personally resonates. And over time, we plan to have nXu students in upper-grade levels play an increasingly proactive role in shaping their own learning experience while also contributing to the nXu community whether by serving as peer coaches or providing operational support.

We think it’s important for families to buy into our program, and so we work hard to inform families about our programming at the outset. And we’ve found ways to involve them in the program; for example, all family members are invited to a “pitch day” when our students present their solutions to the problem they are interested in solving.

What is the culture and community at nXu like, and how have you and your team built those elements?

We’ve found that it’s very important to create a safe emotional space for kids to explore their sense of purpose because purpose exploration requires vulnerability and self-reflection. We’ve been able to cultivate such a space in a number of ways. A typical session will include deep and powerful moments of silence to offer students the space to self-reflect and explore inwardly, vibrant discussions where students passionately share their stories and life experiences, frenzied collaboration where students work together to solve real-world problems, and laughter, song, and dance, as students celebrate what makes them happy and unique. All of these components foster a strong sense of belonging, tolerance, respect, authenticity, and honesty, which are all necessary for effective purpose work.

What’s most exciting about what you’re seeing happen at nXu? What are the biggest challenges?

We’re excited about the progress we’ve made and the impact we’ve had on the students we’ve served so far. For example, 95 percent of nXu participants from last school year reported that they gained skills that will be valuable to their academic and professional future. Their parents also provided extremely positive feedback; 100 percent of parents agreed with the following statement: “I would recommend the nXu program to other parents with high school-aged kids.”

One challenge is figuring out how best to measure the success of our program in a way that is informative to us and that is also resonant with external constituents including funders. Purpose development is something that unfolds over the years, so we won’t know the most “accurate” outcomes until years from now. That said, we are working in very close collaboration with both Transcend and with Summit Public Schools to develop short and mid-term metrics.

Our positive momentum and program impact are translating into growing interest among schools. This coming school year, we expect to build relationships with as many as 50 schools and plan to expand the number of students we serve. We’ve also established a strategic learning partnership with Summit Public Schools, given they are also piloting analogous programming in their schools, and we look forward to learning from and with them.

The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.