Best Practice-Based Research Award Nominee 2: 'In search for Significance'


In an address to the UN Security Council Ministerial Debate on "The role of youth in countering violent extremism and promoting peace" (April 23, 2015), the anthropologist Scott Atran condensed his message into recommendations for decision-makers and public opinion leaders aimed at counteracting the drawing power of violent extremism:

• offer youth something that makes them dream, of a life of significance through struggle and sacrifice in comradeship.

• offer youth a positive personal dream, with a concrete chance of realization.

• offer youth the chance to create their own local initiatives.

But how can a life of significance be fostered among youth? In our project, we put the adolescents in the position of agents actually redesigning their activities. This means authorizing the adolescents' perspectives by inviting them to become authors of their lives.

Our research project aimed to identify and test ways adolescents can find and cultivate significance in their lives, understood as perspectives and actions that connect their personal interests with activities and projects for a just and equitable world. The project draws on cultural-historical activity theory and significantly expands Phelan's model of adolescents' different worlds.


(Engeström et al., 2022)

Our study uses the Change Laboratory (CL) intervention method to enhance adolescents' search for significance in a school setting. We invited eighth-grade students from two schools in Finland to work on projects with the support of researchers over two school years. The CL sessions were conducted within regular school hours but the 11 projects' topics, contents, and means were selected, designed, and implemented by the students.


Our findings show that adolescents live in many interconnected worlds. Challenges related to these worlds and their interconnections in adolescents' search for significance may often be ignored. The school is the most important source and host of manifestations of contradictions. These tensions should be considered drivers and resources of joint elaboration and expansive learning.


(Engeström et al., 2022)

Adolescents have much more potential than may not commonly be noticed at school. The school can initiate and support activities that bring this potential to the fore. Allowing students to create their own projects has essential potential for developing school and students' opportunities to influence issues they find significant. CL promoted a sustained search for significance among adolescents in the school context. In an age of widespread alienation, models such as this are of utmost importance.

Link to the Documentary film project

Link to the project's webpage


Atran, S. (2015). Address to UN Security Council, Ministerial Debate on “The role of youth in countering violent extremism and promoting peace.”

Cook-Sather, A. (2002). Authorizing students’ perspectives: Toward trust, dialogue, and change in education. Educational Researcher, 31(4), 3–14.

Engeström, Y., Rantavuori, P., Ruutu, P., & Tapola-Haapala, M. (2022). The hybridisation of adolescents’ worlds as a source of developmental tensions: A study of discursive manifestations of contradictions. Educational Review, 1-22.

Phelan, P., Davidson, A. L., & Yu, H. C. (1998). Adolescents' worlds: Negotiating family, peers, and school. New York: Teachers College Press

Sannino, A., Engeström, Y., & Lemos, M. (2016). Formative interventions for expansive learning and transformative agency. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 599-633.