Thursday, September 3, 2009

Students who understand, set, and follow goals are empowered for life

by Richard L. Weaver II

In the letter my sister wrote to me after finishing And Then Some - Book I, she said, “I never had any goals and never had any great urge to get further than I was at the time.” That surprised me, but I didn’t blame my sister for this. I blame our educational system — especially those who teach the elementary grades. For some reason, I learned about goals, set them for myself, and followed them. To be honest, I have been amazingly successful in attaining them as well. The point of this essay, however, has nothing to do with my success.

One of the primary characteristics of highly effective individuals is their ability to take the initiative and responsibility for their own lives. But this characteristic does not arrive naturally or spontaneously. It was always my assumption that the students I taught at the college level instinctively had this ability and desire. Whether it occurred as a result of a genetic trait, happened because of the family environment in which they were raised, or came about because of their education never mattered. I just could not believe that students would be enrolled in college without it.

My sister’s letter shocked me. In a way, it brought me to my senses. It made me realize two things. First, one of the reasons many students drop out of college is they don’t see the potential role education could play in their lives — especially when they have no goals. Second, students enrolled in a basic speech-communication course (where it affected me directly as the director of such a course), may have little or no interest in this skill set — no matter how enthusiastic or motivational instructors might be — if they don’t see it making a contribution to their lives. If they have no goals, becoming more effective communicators makes no difference..

My contention is that students should be introduced to goals before they even enter the formal educational system. Parents can help children set short-term goals: obtaining rewards for good behavior, getting a pat on the back or a big smile when they say please and thank you, having a desert when all the small portions of food on their plate are finished, or getting to use a special toy or going outside when they have finished making their bed, cleaning their room, or picking up after themselves. Long-term goals should depend on the child’s maturity.

It is a child’s personal experiences with goals that they bring to their education, and having knowledge of goals will assist them in learning and achieving on their own. This is how they pursue outcomes that matter to them despite obstacles they encounter. Goals, and the strategies for obtaining them, keep them going and sustain their focus.

Teachers must begin using goal-oriented strategies from the very start, and they must continue using goal-oriented strategies throughout the educational curriculum. In her online essay, “Helping Students Set Goals: A Basic Skill for Life” (sponsored by the National Educational Association, MarthaElin Mountain reported, as a result of her study on goal setting, students rely on a core of four basic skills for setting and meeting their goals: 1) reflecting and making judgments (self-assessment, planning, decision making, and strategizing), 2) focusing (attending to strengths, honoring priorities and time commitments, and using resources effectively), 3) organizing (as with thoughts, time, and resources), 4) identifying and dealing with consequences (as in solving problems, identifying and using appropriate resources, and anticipating potential obstacles).

With this in mind, Mountain states that in her study, it was “teachers’ sincere caring and demonstrated belief in their students [that] was the number one influence on students’ success with their goals.”

There are three ways teachers have for emphasizing and encouraging student goal setting. First, they need to engage in teacher-student interaction by listening to students, thinking out loud with them, demonstrating sincere caring about their successes, modeling personal interest in goal setting, and using positive, optimistic language.

The second way to encourage student goal setting is to incorporate it into their curricular design. This includes integrating the concepts and vocabulary of goal setting, designing lessons, assignments, and projects that allow students to practice the four basic skills, using clearly defined rubrics, benchmarks, and performance standards that guide students to target clear, specific outcomes, and including opportunities for students to make commitments, and then to help them follow through on those commitments.

The third way to encourage student goal setting is within teachers’ routine instruction and classroom procedures. They can do this by giving students opportunities to practice with goal setting, exploring and clarifying individual interests and priorities, building conversations about goals and goal setting, identifying the specific goal-related behaviors students use, and helping them consciously acquire the self-knowledge they need to build their sense of self-efficacy and personal locus of control for building personal success with goals.

In addition to these routine instructional and procedural methods, teachers also can incorporate regular, quiet opportunities for students to reflect, consider, and plan. Teachers can provide clear, immediate, and constructive feedback, practice decision making and problem solving in dealing with setbacks and obstacles, and practice simple planning and time-management skills. Also, teachers can help students see their knowledge and experience as resources, and talk about and focus on the “big idea” or larger goal of the work they are doing. Encouraging risk taking in ideas and strategies, building meaningful connections with potential mentors, celebrating mistakes as learning opportunities, and celebrating their progress are useful strategies as well.

I know that my personal success in life came from my ability to set and achieve realistic, positive goals. There is no doubt that goal setting has been essential to the success of students, statesmen, writers, artists, scientists, professionals, and achievers of all kinds, as Mountain points out in her essay. Students must come to know that their ability to understand, set, and use personal goals will lead to positive benefits for themselves, their families, neighbors, and the larger society. To begin this early in the educational system, will quickly show results as students tackle problems they want to solve, pursue passions burning inside, and invest themselves in purposes they believe in. To help them throughout their educational careers recognize and connect with their aspirations will be one of the greatest gifts teachers can bestow on them because these behaviors empower people for life.


Check out John Barell’s essay “Working Toward Student Self-Direction and Personal Efficacy as Educational Goals,” at the website of the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory - Learning Point Associates. Barell is a professor of education at Monclair State University and former director of the ASCD Network on Teaching Thinking.

Also see “Goal-Setting for Beginners: Teaching Your Child the Basics for Success,” at the website Inspiring Teachers Publishing, Inc.


Copyright September, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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