Some years ago, I was given a chance to try out this idea during a summer school program for gifted students. We discussed recent research in microbiology in the context of ethical questions such as the desirability of cloning.
Students tore into difficult scientific lessons with zest, motivated, at least in part, by their enhanced appreciation of the enormous contested moral issues at stake. Beyond the curriculum, schools can introduce students to a rich array of options for purposeful pursuits through programs in art, music, sports, language, theater, and all the other extracurricular activities that schools at their best have offered students.
I found my own passion for research and writing not in the classroom, but while working for my secondary-school newspaper. It was only then that I became motivated to pay attention to my English teacher in order to learn how to write well. Yet extracurricular programs have become targets for elimination in many of our schools. Our single-minded focus on test scores has crowded out the exact activities that may best kindle the flames of learning in many students.
Students need schools that are more than test-prep training grounds. They need schools that stir their imaginations and give them a chance to discover their deepest and most enduring interests. During their crucial formative years, students need schools that help them decide what kind of person they wish to become. Moreover, if schools are to live up to their essential role in preparing students to be full citizens in our society, they must encourage them to engage in their communities in constructive ways.
American schools have done a good job over the past decade in offering students opportunities for community service. But there is much more that we must do on the civic engagement front. Most young people have little admiration for civic and political leaders and see no role for themselves in governing our society. At 1 year old, Aiden had watched the entire movie from start to finish. Now, at age 3, he owns enough Cars merchandise to fill two entire bedrooms.
The Path to Purpose | Book by William Damon | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster
The boy is obsessed. Neither my wife nor I pushed any of this on our son, but the moment he saw the cars race across the screen, he lit up. Was there something innate in Aiden, maybe even God-given, that made him love that movie? I'm not sure. What I do know is that his attraction to a cartoon says something to me about my son: He has a personality that is all his own.
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My wife and I can influence him, and his friends can rub off on him. His genes may even dictate the extent of some of his abilities, but that's not where his future ends; it's where it begins. My job as his dad is to guide him into the plan God has for him, based on his uniqueness as a child of God. Over the past several years, I've been studying skill acquisition. How do people become great at what they do? Can great musicians, athletes and leaders be made, or are they born that way?
It's the classic "nature versus nurture" debate, and as a parent, it fascinates me even more.
What we are now learning from science is that although humans are capable of more than anybody thought a hundred years ago, there are some abilities no amount of practice can overcome. It's not just the existence of opportunities that create success; it's that there seem to be some things we were made to do.
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The questions my research couldn't answer yet are: How do we find these things? What makes some little boys and girls want to be artists instead of carpenters? Or what makes a little boy like one movie over another? We can learn a lot from case studies of athletes and musicians and deepen our understanding through research of skill acquisition, but what we still don't know is what makes a person want to practice in the first place.
Where does motivation come from? You see someone you want to become.
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