“Why are we learning this?” 

This question has been directed toward teachers and parents for generations, and a recent survey shows that students have good reason to be asking it. 

In a system of standardized tests and grade-level benchmarks, it’s natural for students to question the real-world relevance of school—especially when they don’t necessarily want to pursue a traditional four-year college pathway. So while it’s necessary to emphasize academic rigor, schools also need to illustrate the eventual payoff of academics after school. It is through this action that schools can best fulfill their responsibility of building the talent pipeline to advance industries and communities. 

It’s difficult for learners to persevere if schools don’t regularly take a beat to zoom out and show them the bigger picture. A Gates Foundation study found that 47% of high school dropouts attributed their disengagement to an inability to see connections between academic learning and their lives. 

89% of high school graduates said they would be more motivated if they understood how their courses connected to careers, personal interests, or college acceptance.

Personal aspirations—like career outcomes and academic opportunities—are a useful way to help students tap into their drive to succeed in school. Once students see the purpose in what they’re learning, they get a reason to care. A proprietary survey revealed results aligned with this insight, with a staggering 89% of high school graduates reporting that tying coursework and class content to life outside the classroom helps boost motivation.

It makes sense. Renowned author Daniel Pink wrote that autonomy, mastery, and purpose are the three key drivers behind intrinsic motivation. Mike Kaechele, educator and consultant, has used this framework to explore how a sense of purpose can help enhance student engagement—particularly through project-based learning, which shows students how class content can be applied beyond the four walls of the classroom.

73% said they’d be more likely to take advantage of internships or job shadows 

58% said they’d be more active in their community

The survey findings also point to the impact that increased motivation can have on students’ behavior—not just in their own stories, but those of their community. Once motivated by the “why” behind their schoolwork, survey respondents overwhelmingly identified further positive behaviors they would engage in—from capitalizing on job shadowing and internship opportunities to volunteering in the community. Such behaviors result in a stronger talent pipeline across local industries and more civically engaged populations.

Helping students understand why they are learning specific material is a win-win for learners, communities, and economies at large. 

Overall, these results underline the emerging importance of career-connected learning. Bringing life after school into the broader dialogue about school creates a steady stream of confident graduates—ready to shape the future of their community.

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