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By Dr. Chip Kimball

Superintendent

Singapore American School

This article first appeared in the fall issue of Journeys magazine, published by Singapore American School.

This is a pivot year for Singapore American School. After spending over three years researching, visioning, planning, and putting infrastructure in place to create a personalized education for each student, we have begun to pivot from conception to implementation.

Many of the pivots we are making—from standardization to learning standards for kids; from a system of mass production to personalization; from frenetic to focused; and from content coverage to deep work—will continue to put Singapore American School on the path to realizing our vision of being a world leader in education, cultivating exceptional thinkers, prepared for the future. Yet there is one more pivot perhaps more personally meaningful in our students’ lives, and that is the pivot from passion to purpose.

Research on millennials bears out the need to find purpose. The business world is finding that youth are looking for significance early in their careers and choosing employers that share their personal values. And anecdotally, I hear more and more stories about young professionals who aren’t finding meaning in their work and leave their jobs to pursue their passion by traveling the world, writing, or spending time doing something they are interested in. Yet so often, after a year of discovery, they find that it isn’t actually passion that they’ve been looking for, it is purpose.

Student Brianna E walked across the nation to raise money for Cambodian wells

A sixth grade social studies service project inspired Singapore American School student Brianna E to join with friends to plan a cross-country walk to raise money to build wells in Cambodia.

This might come as a surprise, because we hear so much about, and I’ve personally talked about creating opportunities for our students to explore their interests and pursue their passions. There is certainly a place for that, and I deeply believe learning is far more engaging and meaningful when students are able to study and learn through an interest. Exploring interests and pursuing passions will unquestionably continue to be a pillar of creating a culture of possibilities at SAS. But it doesn’t end there.

Student in front of his film

Thanks
 to an inspiring middle school film teacher, Alex Fortmann picked up a camera for the first time at age 13 and discovered a passion for filmmaking. Eventually, he used his skills to write the script, create the score, and shoot the footage for “Flight.”

As humans, our deepest satisfaction comes from feeling that our lives are filled with purpose. Passion, while interesting and worthwhile for sure, can be a self-centered pursuit. Purpose, on the other hand, is others-centered, often expressed as believing that we have a role in this world that is bigger than ourselves.

Ultimately, we aim to prepare students to think beyond themselves to how they can contribute to their community and the world at large. Passions can and should evolve to shape students’ purpose.

SAS Students at Coastal Cleanup

Students at SAS identify a need and dig in to make a difference. Whether students want to preserve coastal wetlands, develop eco-friendly mosquito abatement solutions, or study tropical ecology, they can pursue their passions and excel at SAS.

For me, purpose was found in part by a belief that relationships and even single interactions can change the trajectory of a person’s life. I do this work because I believe that every conversation I have, every relationship I build, and every strategy we develop has the potential to have an impact on kids.

I can think of hundreds of small moments that inspired me, motivated me, and opened me to new possibilities. It was ultimately a sense of purpose that led me to SAS. And there is nothing I want more than to help kids find their purpose and reach their potential.

Instead of simply asking what students are interested in, we can also ask what would give them meaning and purpose, and what impact they would like to make on others. Knowing what they want
in life and not just what others expect is a start. 
So how do we do that?

Stanford University’s d.school, a model for some of the learning we have introduced at SAS, created
the graphic above as a way to guide students toward finding purpose. It asks students to identify what a student is good at, what they love to do, and what the world needs. The intersection of those three points is a great starting point to finding purpose.

Finding purpose inspired by Stanford d.school

Charting purpose, as inspired by the Stanford d.school

Our recently launched Quest program for seniors had students discover their purpose by synthesizing what they love, what they are good at, what they could be paid for, and what the world needs. This purpose was then used to guide discussions about senior projects. What a great way to begin a year
of immersive, personalized project-based learning!

I am not suggesting that our students need to know what they will do with their lives or what their purpose is by the time they graduate high school. That often doesn’t happen until our twenties or beyond.

Instead they can start by asking themselves what they should do with their time. All the while, they can continue to explore opportunities, learn about themselves, and change course. But the best way to begin is to begin: thinking of others, spending a few hours on a solution or a cause, and then devoting more time as they find the significance of what they are doing. I’ve heard from countless graduates that our clubs provided a great foundation for finding work that was both meaningful for self, and consequential to the world.

Finding a student’s passions, and ultimately purpose, might require trial and error, but it could be the difference between finding a career and finding a calling. Understanding one’s personal vision for the world and how their work could contribute to realizing that vision—or finding what is worthy to devote their lives to—could make the difference that allows our kids to live up to their full potential.

Student led TED talk event

Senior Kaelan Cuozzo delivers a TED talk at the first student led TEDxYouth@SAS event, which she helped organize.

Our students already demonstrate a deep care for others and uphold values that will make our world a better place. Our school is increasingly creating opportunities for students to learn through their interests and find meaning through the impact they have on others. I’m proud that our students are indeed our future leaders—they give me great hope every day.