If there is one tune we play more often than all the others in NOVA Lab, it begins with the two questions that drive everything we do both in and out of the classroom. (See image at right.)
This song’s refrain is composed of the final two lines of Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day.” I am, after all, co-creator of “a space for inspiration, aspiration, respiration, and creation.
Aside from all being questions, these phrasings have one other thing in common. They all are existential in nature. They ask us to consider things beyond our own immediate desires…to reach beyond mere material satisfactions and search for meaning and purpose. Make no mistake, I believe education is a public good and it needs to help students focus on such questions in deeper and more sustained ways if we are to even consider reaching the 22nd century.
Which is why when I first read about Purpose-Based Learning in the fall of 2017, and, in particular, the work of Patrick Cook-Deegan and his team at Project Wayfinder, I knew I had to bring it into our classroom. What the Wayfinder team has developed is one of the most inherently “good” curricula I have seen in 28 years in the classroom.
Wayfinder’s High School curriculum is a series of lessons that probe four key aspects of learners’ socio-emotional growth–”My Self,” “My Community,” “My Concerns,” and “My Actions.” In essence, to borrow from the work of Christian Talbot and Annie Maekela, Wayfinder engages students in the pursuit of answers to four eternal questions: “Who am I?, Who are we? What matters to me? What am I going to do about it?”
But it is not this focus on existential question that makes Wayfinder such a good learning experience. It is the fact that they are founded upon helping students develop purposeful work. In doing so, Wayfinder teaches students to design their lives with purpose and with the realization that there is more to education–and life–than achieving the highest GPA and attending the “best” college.
“In the act of making us free, it [a liberal education] also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves…Liberal education nurtures human freedom in the service of human community.”
I have shaped my life as a teacher around Prof. Cronon’s words. Nothing I’ve read before or since better encapsulates the potential “goodness” of public education’s mission. Few curricula I’ve encountered in my 28 years of teaching come close to embodying Cronon’s belief. Project Wayfinder is one of the few that does.