Saturday, November 2, 2013

Updating Goal Writing in Standards-Based World

There was a time in the not-at-all-too-distant-past when the only way students (or teachers for that matter) could define a learning outcome was by telling when the last day of school was.
My teachers covered/went over whatever material was next (There were a few who probably did, but I’m doubting many of them had lesson plans or curriculum maps), but there was no effort to contextualize, personalize, reflect, collaborate, process, or engage with multi-media in any way.  The Commodore 64s down the hall didn’t even have their own floppy drives (the real ones) yet, and our floors’ wax still held the desks in their rows through most of the year.  The only goal I had was get out of high school.  I graduated with good grades, but 85% of it was meaningless to me.  Except for a few instances, my school experience from grades 7-12 was all about going through motions.  

By the time my first “career” (musician) crumbled, and I went back to graduate school in the 90s, things had changed a bit in schools, including the addition of reflection and goal writing for students.  The expectations from my teacher ed professors - and then from some of my early administrators - was that my students were writing goals in their notebooks.  They would also come to student-led conferences and talk to their parents about these goals.  They would tell me about themselves as a reader, writer, thinker, overall student and person.  We had “goal sheets” and “personal inventories” of all sorts, each one of which had its own column in our grade books.  We also had the curriculum and our lesson plans.  

The issue was, though, that throughout my student teaching, graduate courses and time with mentor teachers, I never saw any examples of - or organically knew how to do this myself - teachers using these goals and inventories for anything.  We forgot about them.  Our (mine for sure) students forgot about them.  I even went into an evaluation meeting with a principal; neither of us had any idea what my goals were.  Ouch.  Was there learning going on?  Sure, but not nearly at the level we now expect and know can happen or with the urgency we now know it needs to happen.

Yes, we’re better at writing goals these days (SMART or otherwise), but I’m left unsatisfied, so I’m going to suggest an upgrade here, especially since we are all quickly moving into the standards-based education world that a good amount of states, districts, schools and/or individual teachers have been brave/insightful/innovative/concerned/reflective enough to already put into place.  Let me lay out a few “knowns” that are going to bring us forward.

- Students learn better when they’re REFLECTIVE.  We must have students thinking about where they’ve been, what they’re currently doing, and where they’re going.  They also need to do more than just name these pieces.  We know that thinking skills in the upper levels of DOK scales and Bloom’s charts are what the places where learning happens, so let’s prompt them to do things like evaluate their work and create a way to track their progress.  Knowing that social learning also helps, can they work these tasks for their classmates’ progress as well?

- Students learn better when they’re AWARE of the outcome(s) they’re working towards. This is the standards-based learning piece.  As an administrator, I like nothing less than talking to students who tell me they did “chapter 3” in class or when they either can’t remember what they learned last or don’t know what’s coming next.  In a standards-based world, the learning outcomes, the context, and the trajectory of the learning will be clear.  Modern educators must be aware that any of these scenarios aren’t the way to promote the highest level of learning possible.  Learning should purposefully spiral throughout a course, building on the context from yesterday, towards a transparent end.  Mysteries, tricks, and guesses are for game shows.  Our work is urgent.  

- Students learn better when they’re given AGENCY over aspects of their learning.  We all know that we can’t force the horse to drink, but we rarely help the proverbial man figure out how to fish for himself in our classes.  I used to love asking my students to tell me if their work was good before they handed it in.  Before too long, they knew that if they said “I don’t know,” that I would ask them if they’ve read it / looked it over and send them back home to do so (no late points).  Our students have to be positioned in a way that has them thinking about the desired end to their learning, understanding what makes that end desirable and assessing it against wherever they currently are.  On top of it, they need to make choices and work to clearly explain how they see themselves bridging the gap between the two.  

Ultimately, then, I’m suggesting that we scrap “goal setting.”  It’s just not - in my opinion - a clear enough ask for what we actually want and our students actually need.  What’ll come in to take their place…”What’s next statements.”  Why is this an important upgrade?

In order to understand What’s next, a student would have to :
- Be able to explain what (s)he is supposed to learning in the big and small picture.  What’s the full unit about?  What’s the connection between today’s lesson(s) and that big picture?
- Be able to express an awareness of where his/her skills and knowledge are with regards to the standards.  What is he doing well on?  Where is she struggling?  What questions does he have?  What pieces can she help teach to classmates?
-  Be able to plan out a course of learning (with and without assistance and scaffolding) and means of expressing his/her eventually proficiency or mastery with the standards.  


  1. Beautiful. I have incorporated some reflection in my classes, but really like how you laid your points out here. I also like the What's Next statement. Contextualizing knowledge and making it personal is so crucial. Thanks for this post!

  2. Josh - Thanks for reading and joining in the conversation. Personally, I'm thinking about all the things that could've gone differently for me if I had been invited into my k12 education. Yes, there were a few bright spots - as there always are - but I'm sure your students are going to sit back and be thankful for the opportunities you'll bring to them.

  3. I totally agree, David. We do need to make sure that kids follow up on their reflection. This year I'm trying something new... something that encourages students to track feedback and reflection and then specifically address their challenges in their next writing. I used to try to maintain this stuff myself and it was always a disaster. I'm hoping that the kids will really get a lot out of it.
    This was a great idea for a post and so on point. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Like anything, Starr, tracking progress is more worthwhile when it's done by the person involved. It's a lot of work to teach students how to own this process. It's work, though, that will pay dividends throughout their schooling and beyond. Thanks for joining the conversation.