Student Well-Being

Students Thrive When They See Purpose in Their Learning

By Evie Blad — January 17, 2018 4 min read
Matthew Cook, left, Darshan Patel, and Abby Simmons, all 8th graders in Armorel, Ark., display their different model attempts with a 3D printer to create a prosthetic leg for a one-legged duck.

Three Arkansas middle school students committed to an unusual class project last year: creating an artificial limb for a duck that was hobbling around on one foot.

Their efforts—and hard-won success—illustrate a link between a sense of purpose and meaning in classroom work and student engagement.

It took the 8th graders from the rural community of Armorel 36 prototypes to design and 3D print a prosthetic that fit Peg the duck and allowed him to walk unencumbered. Each attempt presented new challenges. The students had only learned about 3D printing the year before, teaching themselves with YouTube tutorials and experimentation. They worked with a particularly challenging plastic material, and they had to learn to adjust proportions, to adapt their designs to address shortfalls, and to measure in metric units.

But they were willing to persist, motivated by the belief that Peg was dependent on their work, said Alicia Bell, who teaches the students in a project-based-learning class. The woman who found Peg as a duckling suspected a turtle had chewed off his foot, and the remaining part of his leg was scabbed from grazing the ground.

Peg the duck walks for the first time using the final model of the prosthetic foot created by the students.

“He’s a living thing, and we got to see his challenges,” Bell said, explaining why students were so drawn to the project. “He had adapted, but he wasn’t living a full life.” Plus, helping Peg meant helping his owner, who’d been searching for a solution to his lopsided gait for months.

Relevance and Meaning

The Arkansas students’ work is a demonstration of a concept that researchers have increasingly explored as they search for ways to more thoroughly incorporate students’ emotions and development into education. Grounding classroom work in a greater sense of purpose and meaning can help engage students in learning new concepts and motivate them to persist through challenges, they say.

The Mindset Scholars Network—a collaborative of researchers who study how students’ beliefs about learning affect their engagement and academic success—call it a mindset of purpose and relevance. That mindset can be engaged by helping students understand how classroom content applies “in the real world,” by allowing them to select assignments that tap into their natural sense of altruism, or by connecting classroom work to student’s long-term or professional goals, researchers say.

A screen shot of the 3D foot model students designed, using Meshmixer software.

“What we find is that meaning is really important to students and, without it, a lot of students will look like they aren’t motivated,” said Chris Hulleman, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia who studies student motivation.

Rather than “blaming students,” Hulleman and his colleagues are exploring how schools can change the ways they approach content to make it more relevant. For example, one of Hulleman’s research projects found that students who said they didn’t expect to do well in science class performed better overall when they wrote essays throughout the semester, explaining how the content was relevant in their own lives.

A separate study—by researchers from the University of Texas, Stanford University, and the University of Pennsylvania—found that students persisted longer at boring tasks if they had listed a “self-transcendent purpose for learning” as a reason for attending college. For example, a student may want to use a nursing degree to help treat low-income children.

Community Projects

Some schools have worked to build that sense of relevance and meaning by asking students to reflect on their goals, by bringing professionals into the classroom to explain how lessons connect to their work, and by finding opportunities for service learning with outside organizations.

In Eufaula, Ala., career-technology students partnered with a nonprofit to design and build classrooms for Honduran schools using shipping containers that would later be installed in rural areas throughout the Central American country.

“It opens their eyes to what they could do in their hometown,” Michelle Eller, director of secondary education for the Eufaula City Schools, told the Dothan Eagle.

Bell, the Arkansas teacher, partners with local businesses and community members to find technology heavy projects for her students, like designing logos and producing promotional videos.

The class is called Environmental and Spatial Technology, or EAST lab. The EAST Initiative, founded in Arkansas, provides support and training for schools to offer real-world, technological learning experiences for students. And the practical applications help the rural students, many of whom have little previous exposure to technology, to master new concepts, she said.

“I just ask the questions,” Bell said. “They know they have to fix it. You can’t turn in a paper and, OK, you have a C, and that’s it. It’s either it works or it doesn’t.”

To make a foot for Peg, an Indian runner duck, students had to learn about the specific way that breed stands straight up, rather than squatting with knees always bent like other breeds. That meant their original prototype, an actual peg, wouldn’t work because Peg needed to bend his knee when necessary and the strength to stand with his leg fully extended when walking.

They also had to find a fitting to accommodate his back toe and an appropriate shape and size to help him maintain his balance without encumbering his gait.

After refining three final prototypes, the students found one that worked. At the final fitting, Peg took off running.

“They come across a problem, and sometimes it takes a day, or sometimes it takes a month,” Bell said, “but we don’t stop until we figure it out.”

Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from the NoVo Foundation. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Students Thrive When They See Purpose in Their Learning

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Where Does Social-Emotional Learning Go Next?
Teachers, students, and parents all want more social-emotional and service learning in schools. The pandemic has only heightened that need.
John M. Bridgeland & Francie Richards
4 min read
Friendly group of people stand and support each other.
IULIIA/iStock/Getty Images Plus
Student Well-Being What the Research Says Masks, Tracking, Desk Shields: How Much Do School Measures Reduce Families' COVID-19 Risk?
A new study pinpoints the most effective mitigation measures and suggests that the more of them schools use, the better.
5 min read
Jennifer Becker, right, Science Teacher at the Sinaloa Middle School, talks to one of her students in Novato, Calif. on March 2, 2021.
Jennifer Becker, right, a teacher at Sinaloa Middle School, wears a mask to stem the spread of coronavirus as she talks with a student earlier this year in Novato, Calif.
Haven Daily/AP
Student Well-Being Opinion The One Thing Teachers Do That Hurts Student Motivation
When adults take over on a challenging task, kids are more likely to quit sooner on the next one. Here’s what to do instead.
Julia Leonard
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Getty
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Whitepaper
The Complete Guide to SEL
This guide illustrates why SEL is more important now and what you should look for when implementing a social-emotional curriculum.
Content provided by Navigate360