The case for purpose-driven education

Purpose-driven education aims to equip students with the skills, values, and mindsets needed to navigate life’s challenges and contribute positively to the world around them.

By Professor Mushtak Al-Atabi

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Published: Mon 13 May 2024, 10:19 AM

Last updated: Mon 13 May 2024, 10:24 AM

As part of my work as an educator, professor, and provost, I regularly speak to rooms filled with parents and young students exploring their post high school university options. When I ask them “Who is not sure what to do with their future and what course of study to choose?” most of the students raise their hands, often to the dismay of their parents.

Not being sure what to do with one’s life is not unique to the young. Speaking to business leaders, they often refer to the lack of motivation, commitment, and loyalty among their employees as being linked to a scarcity of connection to the sense of meaning and purpose, both individual and organisational.

We believe that the antidote to this is the adoption of purpose-driven education. What is that? A pedagogical philosophy that emphasises the integration of three core elements — the pursuit of academic excellence, the cultivation of character and personal effectiveness, and the enhancement of resilience and wellbeing. This approach is underpinned by a robust commitment to purpose, guiding students not only towards success and impact in their personal and professional lives but also towards a state of holistic flourishing. This philosophy suggests that education is not merely about the acquisition of knowledge but is a transformative process that shapes individuals to become well-rounded, resilient, and impactful members of society. By focusing on these interconnected elements, purpose-driven education aims to equip students with the skills, values, and mindsets needed to navigate life’s challenges and contribute positively to the world around them.

The Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous (VUCA) world we live in and the nature of the challenges we face today require that we all bring the best versions of ourselves to the world. Addressing the existential challenges of our time requires independent and critical thinking, creativity, kindness, authenticity, and acceptance of each other. This means that our driving force needs to be a true purpose, lest a false purpose fills the void. Having a clear and precisely articulated sense of true purpose is increasingly becoming a requirement to live, lead and be successful. It is also, at a more practical level, what will differentiate one job applicant from another.

Professor Mushtak Al-Atabi
Professor Mushtak Al-Atabi

To address this, at Heriot-Watt University we took a strategic decision that all our staff and students would go through a programme to create “Impact Statements.” These statements articulate each individual’s sense of purpose and how they plan to mobilise it into a positive impact on the world.

We are all unique. Our uniqueness stems from the fact that we are all different in our genetic make-up, life experiences, and mindsets. This diversity needs to be harnessed and leveraged to create value and address the challenges we face. The impact statement process is designed to elucidate this diversity and it usually results in statements that are anchored in the individual’s strengths, values, and sense of meaning.

I personally have facilitated impact statements discovery sessions for thousands of people, as young as 14 and as old as 65. Many of them were students, but some were CEOs and world champions in their fields.

Below are the questions I am frequently asked:

1. Am I too young/old to articulate my purpose?

A: It is never too early or too late to start discovering and articulating your true purpose. Now, more than ever, this is becoming a necessity.

2. Will articulating a well-defined purpose prevent me from exploring other things in life?

A: At the contrary, true purpose is an enabler, not a limiter. Formulating and declaring your purpose will also send a signal to those of similar interest to join you and collaborate with you.

3. Should purpose be heroic or larger than life?

A: No. Your true purpose can be as large or as limited as it suits you.

4. Will my purpose change as I go through life?

A: While true purpose has a stability to it, the way you articulate your purpose will evolve over time as your self-knowledge improves.

5. Can my purpose be framed in an aspirational way?

A: Of course, aspirational true purpose can encourage us to live up to its higher standards.

6. Will I one day just discover my true purpose spontaneously? Or is intentional work necessary?

A: It is necessary to intentionally work on discovering and articulating your true purpose. A structured impact statement workshop, under the tutelage of an experienced impact coach, is a very effective way to achieve that.

In the age of Artificial Intelligence, rising populism, climate emergency, and growing inequality, we all — parents, educators, and leaders — need to recognise the importance of developing purpose-driven individuals and communities. By doing so, we will deliver the best chance yet of delivering a sustainable, equitable, and enjoyable world for all.

Professor Mushtak Al Atabi is Provost and CEO at Heriot-Watt University Malaysia.

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