Goal-setting is a key improvement practice that's equally applicable at every level of education:

  • Individual students benefit from setting goals
  • When teachers set goals, their students can benefit
  • When schools set goals, their students and teacher can benefit
  • When districts and other organizations set goals, schools, staff, and students can benefit
  • When we set national or even international goals, everyone can benefit

We've all been part of goal-setting processes that haven't benefited anyone, but we know the potential exists.

Goal-setting can be powerful…but not if we mess it up—and too often, we do. We write bad district goals, bad school goals, bad staff goals…and our students learn from our example.

To do better, we need to eliminate magical thinking.

Do You Believe In Magic?

There are plenty of people who believe that if you simply visualize something, or talk as if it were already true, you can “manifest” or bring about what you want.

This idea is closely related to goal-setting. Some people believe in manifesting because they know goal-setting works, and vice versa.

But this is where we have to be careful, because there's no magic. If we believe that believing is all we need to achieve results, we're fooling ourselves.

It's such a big problem that we needed a phrase for this mindset: wishful thinking.

I'm convinced that a lot of what we call “goal-setting” is really just wishful thinking with numbers.

If I set a goal that “The percentage of students meeting standard on the end-of-course exam will go from 62% last year to 82% this year,” there's a good chance I'm incorporating some wishful thinking.

Why should that score increase occur? What actions have I taken to bring it about? How do those actions align with what it'll actually take? Do I have evidence that this particular set of actions will, in fact, produce that type of results?

If we don't have answers to these questions, we just have wishful thinking—not the powerful goals we may think we have.

Making Goals Actually Work

What distinguishes a logical goal from a wishful-thinking fantasy?

A theory of action.

If we're going to see a change in results, we need a theory of action—a hypothesized sequence of events that could reasonably produce the change we want to see.

Too often, our theory of action amounts to little more than “bibbidi bobbidi boo!

Sure, we may write our goals in S.M.A.R.T. format, or use a standard template, or otherwise fancy-up the process, but a goal without a clear TOA (theory of action) is simply well-organized wishful thinking.

Theories of Action At All Levels

At the school level, it's likely that our overall goals are accountability targets that will require dozens of mini-TOAs.

For example, let's say your school goal is to increase your graduation rate from 82% to 90% over the next three years. How are you going to accomplish that, exactly? Probably with an array of strategies, each of which might not produce an impact on your graduation rate that you can separate from other factors.

At this large-scale level, it's helpful to use research and the experience of other successful organizations to identify promising strategies. The better your theory of action, the more likely your success.

At the individual staff member level, goals can link directly to instructional strategies and curricular emphases.

And at the student level, goals can link to particular study strategies, behavioral efforts, and other aspects of learning that are under students' control.

I believe that goals at all of these levels work best when we use strategies and terminology that are aligned.

Now, the goals themselves may not need to be aligned—a district may need to focus on areas for improvement that don't show up in student's daily work, and a school goal may not be the biggest growth edge for a particular teacher.

But the process should be similar. We should be using—and modeling—the goal-setting principles and language that we want our students and our staff to use.